Go advanced benchmarking

2019-01-11 - Rob

The story

Sometimes you have to solve a problem that comes in several flavours. Usually complicated problems do not offer a single solution, but there are several solutions that are optimal or terrible depending on which subset of that problem the program will have to solve at runtime.

One example I faced was to analyse some data flowing in some connections that I was proxying.

There are two main ways to extract some information from traffic: you can either record the entire traffic to analyse it as soon as it is done, or you can analyse it while it flows(with a buffer window) at the cost of slowing it down.

Memory is relatively cheap compared to processing power, so my first solution to the problem was the buffered one.

First code: the buffer

Buffering the connection is fairly easy: just copy everything I read into a bytes.Buffer and when the connection is closed analyse what I read. Simplest way to do it is to wrap the connection with something that makes call to Read go through an io.TeeReader.

This was fairly simple to do, and handled pretty well situations with frequent low-traffic, short-lived connections.

type bufferedScanner struct {
	tee    io.Reader
	buffer *bytes.Buffer

func NewBufferedScanner(original net.Conn) net.Conn {
	var buffer bytes.Buffer
	return bufferedScanner {
		Conn: original,
		tee: io.TeeReader(c, &buffer),
		buffer: &buffer,

func (b bufferedScanner) Read(p []byte) (n int, err error) {
	return b.tee.Read(p)

func (b bufferedScanner) Close() error{
	return b.Conn.Close()

After small optimizations to efficiently re-use buffers I was happy with this solution, at least for a while.

Second code: the scanner

It wasn’t long before I realized that long lived connection or bursty ones were handled poorly by this solution, so I wrote some code that would work in a streamed fashion instead of buffering everything.

This solution ended up being more expensive in terms of initial memory (to build scanners and other additional data structures) but it would become more efficient in both memory and computation after some tens of kilobytes sent over the same connection.

A streamed solution turned out to be trickier to implement, but thanks to the bufio package it was manageable. The code is just a wrapper around a scanner with a custom SplitFunc.

The meta-problem

Regardless how good my solutions were, I now had two pieces of code that had pros and cons: for very low-traffic short lived connections the first one was much better, but for more traffic-intensive ones the second was the only one viable.

I had two possibilities: try to optimize the second solution to be viable also for small connections or , based on what I saw at runtime, pick the best implementation.

I went for the second option, which seemed to be the funnier one.

The solution

I created a builder to provision and instance of either implementations. The builder would keep an exponential weighted moving average of the size of the total per-connection-traffic. This is roughly the same algorithm TCP uses for RTT and Inter-Arrival Time variation estimation.

Funnily enough, it takes less characters to implement it than the characters I used to describe it:

ewma := k * n + (1 - k) * ewma

Here n are the total bytes read from a connection on Close. k is just a constant in the code that makes the heuristic react slower or faster to size changes and I went for ½.

The hard part was to choose the threshold to switch implementation: I ran some benchmarks and found the tipping point where the streaming would start performing better better than the buffering, but I soon found out that the value heavily depended on the computer running the code.

The overkill

In most cases running the benchmark on the author’s laptop is enough to decide the constant to use, like Go does for math/big heuristics to choose the right algorithm to perform computation. The problem with this approach is that, according to the contributors to math/big, this can cause an error of more than 100%.

Needless to say, I don’t like that approach, so I started putting together the tools go offered me. I didn’t want to use makefiles or anything external, I didn’t want my users to install or run anything exotic on their machines before being able to use my code, so I reasoned about what was already available to the users compiling my library.

Go is cross platform, so I could take nothing for granted, but on the other hand I needed something to get insights on the computational power I had available.


Benchmarking was relatively easy: go has built-in benchmark standard libraries.

After a couple of minutes dumbly staring at the doc I realized that I could run benchmarks from a non-testing build by calling testing.Benchmark, that returns a nice testing.BenchmarkResult.

So I setup some func(b *testing.B) to closure an input value (e.g. the stub connection size), run a benchmark on both analysers and see which one performed better.

type ConfigurableBenchmarker struct {
	Name string
	GetBench func(input []byte) func(b *testing.B)

An example of ConfigurableBenchmarker and how to use it:

	Name: "Buffered",
	GetBench: func(input []byte) func(b *testing.B) {
		return func(b *testing.B) {
			for i := 0; i < b.N; i++ {
				c := NewBufferedScanner(stubConnection{
				io.Copy(ioutil.Discard, c)

// doBench runs two ConfigurableBenchmarkers and returns whether the
// first one took less to execute.
func doBench(size int, aa, bb ConfigurableBenchmarker) bool {
	aaRes = testing.Benchmark(aa.GetBench(genInput(size)))
	bbRes = testing.Benchmark(bb.GetBench(genInput(size)))
	return aaRes.NsPerOp() < bbRes.NsPerOp()

With this building block I was empowered to do a binary search to see the size of the input at which one solution would start becoming better than the other one:

func FindTipping(aa, bb ConfigurableBenchmarker, lower, upper int) (int,error) {
	lowerCond := doBench(lower, aa, bb)
	upperCond := doBench(upper, aa, bb)
	if lowerCond == upperCond {
		return 0, ErrTippingNotInRange

	// Good old binsearch.
	tip = (lower + upper) / 2
	for tip > lower && tip < upper {
		tipCond := doBench(tip, aa, bb)
		if tipCond == lowerCond {
			lower = tip
		} else {
			upper = tip
		tip = (lower + upper) / 2
	return tip, nil

Here is some output with lower = 1 and upper = 100 and some logging sprinkled here and there:

Calculating initial values...
AnalysingTraffic: [1KB] Buffered 1107 ns/op < 1986 ns/op Streamed
AnalysingTraffic: [100KB] Buffered 87985 ns/op >= 69509 ns/op Streamed
Starting search...
Binsearch: lower: 1, upper: 100
AnalysingTraffic: [50KB] Buffered 43455 ns/op >= 35242 ns/op Streamed
Binsearch: lower: 1, upper: 50
AnalysingTraffic: [25KB] Buffered 22693 ns/op >= 19506 ns/op Streamed
Binsearch: lower: 1, upper: 25
AnalysingTraffic: [13KB] Buffered 11355 ns/op >= 10263 ns/op Streamed
Binsearch: lower: 1, upper: 13
AnalysingTraffic: [7KB] Buffered 4964 ns/op < 5824 ns/op Streamed
Binsearch: lower: 7, upper: 13
AnalysingTraffic: [10KB] Buffered 7415 ns/op < 8140 ns/op Streamed
Binsearch: lower: 10, upper: 13
AnalysingTraffic: [11KB] Buffered 8609 ns/op < 8765 ns/op Streamed
Binsearch: lower: 11, upper: 13
AnalysingTraffic: [12KB] Buffered 9828 ns/op < 10157 ns/op Streamed
Tipping point was found at 12
Most efficient for input of smaller sizes was "Buffered"
Most efficient for input of bigger sizes was "Streamed"

With this I could automatically detect the tipping point for my code on the current machine. Now I needed to run it. I could have put instructions in the README, but where’s the fun in that?

Go generate

The go generate command allows you to parse comments with a particular syntax and run what’s inside them.

The following comment makes go print a salutation when go generate is run.

//go:generate echo "Hello, World!"

So when a user go gets a package they can then go generate some code and go build it or link their source against it.

I wrapped the benchmarking code in a generator.go file, which runs benchmarks and writes the constant in a source file. It just formats a string with the number obtained from the benchmarks and writes it to a local file:

const src = `// Code generated; DO NOT EDIT.

package main

const streamingThreshold = %d

func main() {
	tip := FindTipping(/* params */)
	// Omitted: open file "constants_generated.go" for writing in `f`
	fmt.Fprintf(f, src, tip)

Then I just needed to add a comment to the rest of the sources:

//go:generate go run generator.go

The machines I’m targeting must have go installed in order to compile my code. This means that I am not asking the user to add any external tool or dependency.

This was nice, but had a major issue: you can’t have a package main and a package analyse in the same folder without using external build tools.

This is true unless you (ab)use build tags: you can prevent a file from being considered for the build before the package statement is read.

So I changed my generator code to start with

// +build generate

package main

And the original code’s comment to be

//go:generate go run generate.go -tags generate

Current structure:

├── analyse.go              ← Package analyse, with //go:generate directive
├── analyse_test.go         ← Package analyse, tests
├── constants_generated.go  ← Package analyse, generated
└── generate.go             ← Package main, behind a tag

So I can now go get or git clone my package, go generate it, and have it run optimized for my machine.


Here are the final benchmarks for the three solutions. For the machine I ran this benchmarks on the tipping point was at 12K. Measurements are in ns/op.

Dim |  Buff  | Adapt  | Stream
 1K |  1159  |  1278  |   1965
 2K |  1723  |  1868  |   2574
 4K |  2842  |  3055  |   4450
 8K |  5644 ←|→ 5929  |   7446
16K | 15359  | 13478 ←|→ 13539
32K | 29814  | 25430  |  24980
64K | 58821  | 49078  |  48596

The adaptive solution pays a little price to measure traffic size so it is never as good as the best of the other ones but it is almost optimal. On the other hand, the adaptive solution is always better than the worse option.