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context: define behavior for Err before Done is closed

The Context definition to date has not defined what Err returns
before the Done channel is closed. Define that it returns nil,
as most implementations do.

All the standard context implementations (those in package
context and in return Err() == nil
when Done is not yet closed. However, some non-standard
implementations may exist that return Err() != nil in this case,
as permitted by the Context definition before this date.
Call these "errorful implementations".

Because all the standard context implementations ensure that
Err() == nil when Done is not yet closed, clients now exist that
assume Err() != nil implies Done is closed and use calling Err
as a quick short-circuit check instead of first doing a non-blocking
receive from Done and then, if that succeeds, needing to call Err.
This assumption holds for all the standard Context implementations,
so these clients work fine in practice, even though they are making
unwarranted assumptions about the Context implementations.
Call these "technically incorrect clients".

If a technically incorrect client encounters an errorful
implementation, the client misbehaves. Because there are few
errorful implementations, over time we expect that many clients
will end up being technically incorrect without realizing it,
leading to latent, subtle bugs. If we want to eliminate these
latent, subtle bugs, there are two ways to do this:
either make errorful implementations more common
(exposing the client bugs more often) or redefine the Context
interface so that the clients are not buggy after all.

If we make errorful implementations more common, such
as by changing the standard context implementations to
return ErrNotDone instead of nil when Err is called before
Done is closed, this will shake out essentially all of the
technically incorrect clients, forcing people to find and fix
those clients during the transition to Go 1.9.
Technically this is allowed by the compatibility policy,
but we expect there are many pieces of code assuming
that Err() != nil means done, so updating will cause real pain.

If instead we disallow errorful implementations, then they
will need to be fixed as they are discovered, but the fault
will officially lie in the errorful Context implementation,
not in the clients. Technically this is disallowed by the compatibility
policy, because these errorful implementations were "correct"
in earlier versions of Go, except that they didn't work with
common client code. We expect there are hardly any errorful
implementations, so that disallowing them will be less disruptive
and more in the spirit of the compatibility policy.

This CL takes the path of expected least disruption,
narrowing the Context interface semantics and potentially
invalidating existing implementations. A survey of the
go-corpus v0.01 turned up only five Context implementations,
all trivial and none errorful (details in #19856).
We are aware of one early Context implementation inside Google,
from before even existed,
that is errorful. The misbehavior of an open-source library
when passed such a context is what prompted #19856.
That context implementation would be disallowed after this CL
and would need to be corrected. We are aware of no other
affected context implementations. On the other hand, a survey
of the go-corpus v0.01 turned up many instances of client
code assuming that Err() == nil implies not done yet
(details also in #19856). On balance, narrowing Context and
thereby allowing Err() == nil checks should invalidate significantly
less code than a push to flush out all the currently technically
incorrect Err() == nil checks.

If release feedback shows that we're wrong about this balance,
we can roll back this CL and try again in Go 1.10.

Fixes #19856.

Change-Id: Id45d126fac70e1fcc42d73e5a87ca1b66935b831
Run-TryBot: Russ Cox <>
Reviewed-by: Sameer Ajmani <>
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rsc committed Apr 11, 2017
1 parent 8a4087a commit 6e2c4bc012f8cc262db25d3fee414c5231fea03a
Showing with 5 additions and 5 deletions.
  1. +5 −5 src/context/context.go
@@ -96,11 +96,11 @@ type Context interface {
// a Done channel for cancelation.
Done() <-chan struct{}
- // Err returns a non-nil error value after Done is closed. Err returns
- // Canceled if the context was canceled or DeadlineExceeded if the
- // context's deadline passed. No other values for Err are defined.
- // After Done is closed, successive calls to Err return the same value.
- // Err's return value is unspecified before Done is closed.
+ // If Done is not yet closed, Err returns nil.
+ // If Done is closed, Err returns a non-nil error explaining why:
+ // Canceled if the context was canceled
+ // or DeadlineExceeded if the context's deadline passed.
+ // After Err returns a non-nil error, successive calls to Err return the same error.
Err() error
// Value returns the value associated with this context for key, or nil

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