Integrating Go with C: the ZooKeeper binding experience

ZooKeeper is a clever generic coordination server for distributed systems, and is one of the core softwares which facilitate the development of Ensemble (project for automagic IaaS deployments which we push at Canonical), so it was a natural choice to experiment with.

Gozk is a complete binding for ZooKeeper which explores the native features of Go to facilitate the interaction with a ZooKeeper server. To avoid reimplementing the well tested bits of the protocol in an unstable way, Gozk is built on top of the standard C ZooKeeper library.

The experience of integrating ZooKeeper with Go was certainly valuable on itself, and worked as a nice way to learn the details of integrating the Go language with a C library. If you’re interested in learning a bit about Go, ZooKeeper, or other details related to the creation of bindings and asynchronous programming, please fasten the seatbelt now.

Basics of C wrapping in Go

Creating the binding on itself was a pretty interesting experiment already. I have worked on the creation of quite a few bindings and language bridges before, and must say I was pleasantly surprised with the experience of creating the Go binding. With Cgo, the name given to the “foreign function interface” mechanism for C integration, one basically declares a special import statement which causes a pre-processor to look at the comment preceding it. Something similar to this:

// #include <zookeeper.h>
import "C"

The comment doesn’t have to be restricted to a single line, or to #include statements even. The C code contained in the comment will be transparently inserted into a helper C file which is compiled and linked with the final object file, and the given snippet will also be parsed and inclusions processed. In the Go side, that “C” import is simulated as if it were a normal Go package so that the C functions, types, and values are all directly accessible.

As an example, a C function with this prototype:

int zoo_wexists(zhandle_t *zh, const char *path, watcher_fn watcher,
                void *context, struct Stat *stat);

In Go may be used as:

cstat := C.struct_Stat{}
rc, cerr := C.zoo_wexists(zk.handle, cpath, nil, nil, &cstat)

When the C function is used in a context where two result values are requested, as done above, Cgo will save the well known errno variable after the function has finished executing and will return it wrapped into an os.Errno value.

Also, note how the C struct is defined in a way that can be passed straight to the C function. Interestingly, the allocation of the memory backing the structure is going to be performed and tracked by the Go runtime, and will be garbage collected appropriately once no more references exist within the Go runtime. This fact has to be kept in mind since the application will crash if a value allocated normally within Go is saved with a foreign C function and maintained after all the Go references are gone. The alternative in these cases is to call the usual C functions to get hold of memory for the involved values. That memory won’t be touched by the garbage collector, and, of course, must be explicitly freed when no longer necessary. Here is a simple example showing explicit allocation:

cbuffer := (*C.char)(C.malloc(bufferSize))

Note the use of the defer statement above. Even when dealing with foreign functionality, it comes in handy. The above call will ensure that the buffer is deallocated right before the current function returns, for instance, so it’s a nice way to ensure no leaks happen, even if in the future the function suddenly gets a new exit point which didn’t consider the allocation of resources.

In terms of typing, Go is more strict than C, and Cgo-based logic will also ensure that the types returned and passed into the foreign C functions are correctly typed, in the same way done for the native types. Note above, for instance, how the call to the free() function has to explicitly convert the value into an unsafe.Pointer, even though in C no casting would be necessary to pass a pointer into a void * parameter.

The unsafe.Pointer is in fact a very special type within Go. Using it, one can convert any pointer type into any other pointer type in an unsafe way (thus the package name), and also back and forth into a uintptr value with the address of the memory referenced by the pointer. For every other type conversion, Go will ensure at compilation time that doing the conversion at runtime is a safe operation.

With all of these resources, including the ability to use common Go syntax and functionality even when dealing with foreign types, values, and function calls, the integration task turns out to be quite a pleasant experience. That said, some of the things may still require some good thinking to get right, as we’ll see shortly.

Watch callbacks and channels

One of the most interesting (and slightly tricky) aspects of mapping the ZooKeeper concepts into Go was the “watch” functionality. ZooKeeper allows one to attach a “watch” to a node so that the server will report back when changes happen to the given node. In the C library, this functionality is exposed via a callback function which is executed once the monitored node aspect is modified.

It would certainly be possible to offer this functionality in Go using a similar mechanism, but Go channels provide a number of advantages for that kind of asynchronous notification: waiting for multiple events via the select statement, synchronous blocking until the event happens, testing if the event is already available, etc.

The tricky bit, though, isn’t the use of channels. That part is quite simple. The tricky detail is that the C callback function execution happens in a C thread started by the ZooKeeper library, and happens asynchronously, while the Go application is doing its business elsewhere. Right now, there’s no straightforward way to transfer the execution of this asynchronous C function back into the Go land. The solution for this problem was found with some help from the folks at the golang-nuts mailing list, and luckily it’s not that hard to support or understand. That said, this is a good opportunity to get some coffee or your preferred focus-enhancing drink.

The solution works like this: when the ZooKeeper C library gets a watch notification, it executes a C callback function which is inside a Gozk helper file. Rather than transferring control to Go right away, this C function simply appends data about the event onto a queue, and signals a pthread condition variable to notify that an event is available. Then, on the Go side, once the first ZooKeeper connection is initialized, a new goroutine is fired and loops waiting for events to be available. The interesting detail about this loop, is that it blocks within a foreign C function waiting for an event to be available, through the signaling of the shared pthread condition variable. In the Go side, that’s how the call looks like, just to give a more practical feeling:

// This will block until there's a watch available.
data := C.wait_for_watch()

Then, on the C side, here is the function definition:

watch_data *wait_for_watch() {
    watch_data *data = NULL;
    if (first_watch == NULL)
        pthread_cond_wait(&watch_available, &watch_mutex);
    data = first_watch;
    first_watch = first_watch->next;
    return data;

As you can see, not really a big deal. When that kind of blocking occurs inside a foreign C function, the Go runtime will correctly continue the execution of other goroutines within other operating system threads.

The result of this mechanism is a nice to use interface based on channels, which may be explored in different ways depending on the application needs. Here is a simple example blocking on the event synchronously, for instance:

stat, watch, err := zk.ExistsW("/some/path")
if stat == nil && err == nil {
    event := <-watch
    // Use event ...


Those were some of the interesting aspects of implementing the ZooKeeper binding. I would like to speak about some additional details, but this post is rather long already, so I'll keep that for a future opportunity. The code is available under the LGPL, so if you're curious about some other aspect, or would like to use ZooKeeper with Go, please move on and check it out!

This entry was posted in Architecture, Article, C/C++, Go, Project, Snippet. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Integrating Go with C: the ZooKeeper binding experience

  1. Cody Schafer says:

    The code for waiting on the condition variable is incorrect, the condition is not garunteed to be true on return from the pthread_cond_wait function, thus

    if (first_watch == NULL)
    pthread_cond_wait(&watch_available, &watch_mutex);

    should be

    while (first_watch == NULL)
    pthread_cond_wait(&watch_available, &watch_mutex);

    I apologize if someone has already pointed this out or you are otherwise aware of the issue.

  2. Hi Cody,

    I actually thought about this, but decided to implement this way because there’s a single consumer, which means the only way to make a non-empty queue empty again is with this lone thread.

    Since you mentioned it, though, I decided to dig a bit deeper, and found out that the thread can be awaken *without signaling*, which indeed would break this logic. Here is a link if someone else is interested:

    I’ll fix it, thanks.

  3. Patrick says:

    Thanks very much, this will help me get started

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