How Do They Do It: Timers in Go

How Do They Do It: Timers in Go

This article covers the internal implementation of timers in Go. Note that there are a lot of links to Go repo in this article, I recommend to follow them to understand the material better.


Timers in Go just do something after a period of time. They are located in the standard package time. In particular, timers are time.Timer, time.Ticker, and less obvious timer time.Sleep. It’s not clear from the documentation how timers work exactly. Some people think that each timer spawns its own goroutine which exists until the timer’s deadline is reached because that’s how we’d implement timers in “naive” way in Go. We can check that assumption with the small program:

package main

import (

func main() {
	if len(os.Args) == 1 {
		panic("before timers")
	for i := 0; i < 10000; i++ {
		time.AfterFunc(time.Duration(5*time.Second), func() {
	panic("after timers")

It prints all goroutine traces before timers spawned if run without arguments and after timers spawned if any argument is passed. We need those shady panics because otherwise there is no easy way to see runtime goroutines - they’re excluded from runtime.NumGoroutines and runtime.Stack, so the only way to see them is crash(refer to golang/go#9791 for reasons). Let’s see how many goroutines Go spawns before spawning any timers:

go run afterfunc.go 2>&1 | grep "^goroutine" | wc -l

and after spawning 10k timers:

go run afterfunc.go after 2>&1 | grep "^goroutine" | wc -l

Whoa! It’s only one goroutine, in my case its trace looks like:

goroutine 5 [syscall]:
runtime.notetsleepg(0x5014b8, 0x12a043838, 0x0)
        /home/moroz/go/src/runtime/lock_futex.go:205 +0x42 fp=0xc42002bf40 sp=0xc42002bf10
        /home/moroz/go/src/runtime/time.go:209 +0x2ec fp=0xc42002bfc0 sp=0xc42002bf40
        /home/moroz/go/src/runtime/asm_amd64.s:2160 +0x1 fp=0xc42002bfc8 sp=0xc42002bfc0
created by runtime.addtimerLocked
        /home/moroz/go/src/runtime/time.go:116 +0xed

Let’s take a look at why there’s only one additional goroutine.


All timers are based on the same data structure - runtime.timer. To add new timer, you need to instantiate runtime.timer and pass it to the function runtime.startTimer. Here is example from time package:

func NewTimer(d Duration) *Timer {
    c := make(chan Time, 1)
    t := &Timer{
        C: c,
        r: runtimeTimer{
            when: when(d),
            f:    sendTime,
            arg:  c,
    return t

So, here we’re converting duration to an exact timestamp when timer should call function f with argument c. There are three types of function f used in package time:

So, now we understand what timers look like in the runtime and what they are supposed to do. Now let’s see how the runtime stores timers and calls functions when it’s time to call them.


runtime.timers is just a Heap data structure. Heap is very useful when you want to repeatedly find extremum (minimum or maximum) among some elements. In our case extremum is a timer with closest when to the current time. Very convenient, isn’t it? So, let’s see what algorithmic complexity the operations with timers for the worst case:

  • add new timer - O(log(n))
  • delete timer - O(log(n))
  • spawning timers functions - O(log(n))

So, if you have 1 million timers, the number of operations with heap will usually be less than 1000(log(1kk) ~= 20, but spawning can require multiple minimum deletions, because multiple timers can reach their deadline at about the same time). It’s very fast and all the work is happening in a separate goroutine, so it doesn’t block. The siftupTimer and siftdownTimer functions are used for maintaining heap properties. But data structures don’t work on their own; something should use them. In our case it’s just one goroutine with the function timerproc. It’s spawned on first timer start.


It’s kinda hard to describe what’s going on without source code, so this section will be in the form of commented Go code. Code is a direct copy from the src/runtime/time.go file with added comments.

// Add a timer to the heap and start or kick the timerproc if the new timer is
// earlier than any of the others.
func addtimerLocked(t *timer) {
	// when must never be negative; otherwise timerproc will overflow
	// during its delta calculation and never expire other runtime┬Ětimers.
	if t.when < 0 {
		t.when = 1<<63 - 1
	t.i = len(timers.t)
	timers.t = append(timers.t, t)
	// maintain heap invariant
	// new time is on top
	if t.i == 0 {
		// siftup moved to top: new earliest deadline.
		if timers.sleeping {
			// wake up sleeping goroutine, put to sleep with notetsleepg in timerproc()
			timers.sleeping = false
		if timers.rescheduling {
			// run parked goroutine, put to sleep with goparkunlock in timerproc()
			timers.rescheduling = false
			goready(, 0)
	if !timers.created {
		// run timerproc() goroutine only once
		timers.created = true
		go timerproc()

// Timerproc runs the time-driven events.
// It sleeps until the next event in the timers heap.
// If addtimer inserts a new earlier event, addtimerLocked wakes timerproc early.
func timerproc() {
	// set timer goroutine = getg()
	// forever loop
	for {
		// mark goroutine not sleeping
		timers.sleeping = false
		now := nanotime()
		delta := int64(-1)
		// iterate over timers in heap starting from [0]
		for {
			// there are no more timers, exit iterating loop
			if len(timers.t) == 0 {
				delta = -1
			t := timers.t[0]
			delta = t.when - now
			if delta > 0 {
			// t.period means that it's ticker, so change when and move down
			// in heap to execute it again after t.period.
			if t.period > 0 {
				// leave in heap but adjust next time to fire
				t.when += t.period * (1 + -delta/t.period)
			} else {
				// remove from heap
				// this is just removing from heap operation:
				// - swap first(extremum) with last
				// - set last to nil
				// - maintain heap: move first to its true place with siftdownTimer.
				last := len(timers.t) - 1
				if last > 0 {
					timers.t[0] = timers.t[last]
					timers.t[0].i = 0
				timers.t[last] = nil
				timers.t = timers.t[:last]
				if last > 0 {
				// set i to -1, so concurrent deltimer won't do anything to
				// heap.
				t.i = -1 // mark as removed
			f := t.f
			arg := t.arg
			seq := t.seq
			if raceenabled {
			// call timer function without lock
			f(arg, seq)
		// if delta < 0 - timers is empty, set "rescheduling" and park timers
		// goroutine. It will sleep here until "goready" call in addtimerLocked.
		if delta < 0 || faketime > 0 {
			// No timers left - put goroutine to sleep.
			timers.rescheduling = true
			goparkunlock(&timers.lock, "timer goroutine (idle)", traceEvGoBlock, 1)
		// At least one timer pending. Sleep until then.
		// If we have some timers in heap, we're sleeping until it's time to
		// spawn soonest of them. notetsleepg will sleep for `delta` period or
		// until notewakeup in addtimerLocked.
		// notetsleepg fills timers.waitnote structure and put goroutine to sleep for some time.
		// timers.waitnote can be used to wakeup this goroutine with notewakeup.
		timers.sleeping = true
		notetsleepg(&timers.waitnote, delta)

There are two variables which I think deserve explanation: rescheduling and sleeping. They both indicate that the goroutine was put to sleep, but different synchronization mechanisms are used, let’s discuss them.

sleeping is set when all “current” timers are processed, but there are more which we need to spawn in future. It uses OS-based synchronization, so it calls some OS syscalls to put to sleep and wake up the goroutine and syscalls means it spawns OS threads for this. It uses note structure and next functions for synchronization:

  • noteclear - resets note state.
  • notetsleepg - puts goroutine to sleep until notewakeup is called or after some period of time (in case of timers it’s time until next timer). This func fills timers.waitnote with “pointer to timer goroutine”.
  • notewakeup - wakes up goroutine which called notetsleepg.

notewakeup might be called in addtimerLocked if the new timer is “earlier” than the previous “earliest” timer.

rescheduling is set when there are no timers in our heap, so nothing to do. It uses the go scheduler to put the goroutine to sleep with function goparkunlock. Unlike notetsleepg it does not consume any OS resources, but also does not support “wakeup timeout” so it can’t be used instead of notetsleepg in the sleeping branch. The goready function is used for waking up the goroutine when a new timer is added with addTimerLocked.


We learned how Go timers work “under the hood” - the runtime neither uses one goroutine per timer, nor are timers “free” to use. It’s important to understand how things work to avoid premature optimizations. Also, we learned that it’s quite easy to read runtime code and you shouldn’t be afraid to do so. I hope you enjoyed this reading and will share info to your fellow Gophers.

comments powered by Disqus