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Proposal: Support for pprof profiler labels

Author: Michael Matloob

Last updated: 15 May 2017 (to reflect actual implementation)

Discussion at


This document proposes support for adding labels to pprof profiler records. Labels are a key-value map that is used to distinguish calls of the same function in different contexts when looking at profiles.


Proposal #16093 proposes to generate profiles in the gzipped profile proto format that's now the standard format pprof expects profiles to be in. This format supports adding labels to profile records, but currently the Go profiler does not produce those labels. We propose adding a mechanism for setting profiler labels in Go.

These profiler labels are attached to profile samples, which correspond to a snapshot of a goroutine's stack. Because of this, we need the labels to be associated with a goroutine so that they can be accessible at profile sampling time, which may occur during memory allocation, lock acquisition, or in the handler for SIGPROF, an asynchronous signal.


Profiles contain a limited amount of context for each sample: essentially the call stack at the time each sample was taken. But a user profiling their code may need additional context when debugging a problem: Was there a particular user or RPC or other context-dependent data that accounted for the code being executed? This change allows users to annotate profiles with that information for more fine-grained profiling.

It is natural to use context.Context types to store this information, because their purpose is to hold context-dependent data. So the runtime/pprof package API adds labels to and changes labels on opaque context.Context values.

Supporting profiler labels necessarily changes the runtime package, because that's where profiling is implemented. The runtime package will expose internal hooks to package runtime/pprof which it uses to implement its Context-based API.

One goal of the design is to avoid creating a mechanism that could be used to implement goroutine-local storage. That's why it's possible to set profile labels but not retrieve them.


The following types and functions will be added to the runtime/pprof package.

package pprof

// SetGoroutineLabels sets the current goroutine's labels to match ctx.
// This is a lower-level API than Do, which should be used instead when possible.
func SetGoroutineLabels(ctx context.Context) {
    ctxLabels, _ := ctx.Value(labelContextKey{}).(*labelMap)

// Do calls f with a copy of the parent context with the
// given labels added to the parent's label map.
// Each key/value pair in labels is inserted into the label map in the
// order provided, overriding any previous value for the same key.
// The augmented label map will be set for the duration of the call to f
// and restored once f returns.
func Do(ctx context.Context, labels LabelSet, f func(context.Context)) {
    defer SetGoroutineLabels(ctx)
    ctx = WithLabels(ctx, labels)

// LabelSet is a set of labels.
type LabelSet struct {
    list []label

// Labels takes an even number of strings representing key-value pairs
// and makes a LabelList containing them.
// A label overwrites a prior label with the same key.
func Labels(args ...string) LabelSet {
    if len(args)%2 != 0 {
        panic("uneven number of arguments to pprof.Labels")
    labels := LabelSet{}
    for i := 0; i+1 < len(args); i += 2 {
        labels.list = append(labels.list, label{key: args[i], value: args[i+1]})
    return labels

// Label returns the value of the label with the given key on ctx, and a boolean indicating
// whether that label exists.
func Label(ctx context.Context, key string) (string, bool) {
    ctxLabels := labelValue(ctx)
    v, ok := ctxLabels[key]
    return v, ok

// ForLabels invokes f with each label set on the context.
// The function f should return true to continue iteration or false to stop iteration early.
func ForLabels(ctx context.Context, f func(key, value string) bool) {
    ctxLabels := labelValue(ctx)
    for k, v := range ctxLabels {
        if !f(k, v) {

Context changes

Each Context may have a set of profiler labels associated with it. Do calls f with a new context whose labels map is the the parent context's labels map with the additional label arguments added. Consider the tree of function calls during an execution of the program, treating concurrent and deferred calls like any other. The labels of a function are those installed by the first call to DoWithLabels found by walking up from that function toward the root of the tree. Each profiler sample records the labels of the currently executing function.

Runtime changes

The profiler will annotate all profile samples of each goroutine by the set of labels associated with that goroutine.

Two hooks in the runtime, func runtime_setProfLabel(labels unsafe.Pointer) and func runtime_getProfLabel() unsafe.Pointer are linknamed into runtime/pprof and are used for setting and getting profile labels from the current goroutine. These functions are only accessible from runtime/pprof, which prevents them from being misused to implement a Goroutine-local storage facility. The profile label implementation structure is left opaque to the runtime.

runtime.CPUProfile is deprecated. runtime_pprof_readProfile, another runtime function linknamed into runtime/pprof, is added as a way for runtime/pprof to retrieve the raw label-annotated profile data.

New goroutines inherit the labels set on their creator.


There are no compatibility issues with this change. The compressed binary format emitted by the profiler already records labels (see proposal 16093), but the profiler does not populate them.


context.Context will have an internal label set representation associated with it. This leaves the option open to change the implementation in the future to improve the performance characteristics of using profiler labels.

The initial implementation of the label set is a map[string]string that is copied when new labels are added. However, the specification permits more sophisticated implementations that scale to large numbers of label changes such as persistent set structures or diff arrays. This would allow a set of n labels to be built up in at most O(n log n) time.

This change requires the profile signal handler to interact with pointers, which means it has to interact with the garbage collector. There are two complications to this:

  1. This requires the profile signal handler to save the label set structure in the CPU profile structure, which is allocated off-heap. Addressing this will require either adding the CPU profile structure as a new GC root, or allocating the CPU profile structure in the garbage-collected heap.

  2. Normally, writing the label set structure to the CPU profile structure would require a write barrier, but write barriers are disallowed in a signal handler. This can be addressed by treating the CPU profile structure similar to stacks, which also do not have write barriers. This could mean a STW re-scan of the CPU profile structure, or shading the old label set structure when SetGoroutineLabels replaces it.