The Go low-level calling convention on x86-64


Raphael ‘kena’ Poss

July 2018



The latest version of this document can be found online at Alternate formats: Source, PDF.


This article analyzes how the Go compiler generates code for function calls, argument passing and exception handling on x86-64 targets.

This expressely does not analyze how the Go compiler lays out data in memory (other than function arguments and return values), how escape analysis works, what the code generator must do to accommodate the asynchronous garbage collector, and how the handling of goroutines impacts code generation.

All tests below are performed using the freebsd/amd64 target of go 1.10.3. The assembly listing are produced with go tool objdump and use the Go assembler syntax.

Argument and return values, call sequence

Arguments and return value

How does Go pass arguments to function and return results?

Let us look at the simplest function:

func EmptyFunc() { }

This compiles to:

     0x480630              c3                      RET

Now, with a return value:

func FuncConst() int { return 123 }

This compiles to:

  0x480630              48c74424087b000000      MOVQ $0x7b, 0x8(SP)
  0x480639              c3                      RET

So return values are passed via memory, on the stack, not in registers like in most standard x86-64 calling conventions for natively compiled languages.

Compare the output from a C or C++ compiler:

      movl    $123, %eax

This passes the return value in a register.

How do simple arguments get passed in Go?

// Note: substracting z so we know which argument is which.
func FuncAdd(x,y,z int) int { return x + y - z }

This compiles to:

  0x480630              488b442408              MOVQ 0x8(SP), AX  // get arg x
  0x480635              488b4c2410              MOVQ 0x10(SP), CX // get arg y
  0x48063a              4801c8                  ADDQ CX, AX       // %ax <- x + y
  0x48063d              488b4c2418              MOVQ 0x18(SP), CX // get arg z
  0x480642              4801c8                  SUBQ CX, AX       // %ax <- x + y - z
  0x480645              4889442420              MOVQ AX, 0x20(SP) // return x+y-z
  0x48064a              c3                      RET

So arguments are passed via memory, on the stack, not in registers like other languages.

Also we see the arguments are at the top of the stack, and the return value slot underneath that.

Compare the output from a C or C++ compiler:

      leal    (%rdi,%rsi), %eax
      subl    %edx, %eax

This passes the arguments in registers. The exact number depends on the calling convention, but for freebsd/amd64 up to 6 arguments are passed in registers, the rest on the stack.

Note that there is an open proposal to implement register passing in Go at This proposal has not yet been accepted.

Call sequence: how a function gets called

How does a function like FuncAdd above get called?

func DoCallAdd() int { return FuncAdd(1, 2, 3) }

This gives:

0x480650              64488b0c25f8ffffff      MOVQ FS:0xfffffff8, CX
0x480659              483b6110                CMPQ 0x10(CX), SP
0x48065d              7641                    JBE 0x4806a0
0x48065f              4883ec28                SUBQ $0x28, SP
0x480663              48896c2420              MOVQ BP, 0x20(SP)
0x480668              488d6c2420              LEAQ 0x20(SP), BP
0x48066d              48c7042401000000        MOVQ $0x1, 0(SP)
0x480675              48c744240802000000      MOVQ $0x2, 0x8(SP)
0x48067e              48c744241003000000      MOVQ $0x3, 0x10(SP)
0x480687              e8a4ffffff              CALL src.FuncAdd(SB)
0x48068c              488b442418              MOVQ 0x18(SP), AX
0x480691              4889442430              MOVQ AX, 0x30(SP)
0x480696              488b6c2420              MOVQ 0x20(SP), BP
0x48069b              4883c428                ADDQ $0x28, SP
0x48069f              c3                      RET
0x4806a0              e80ba5fcff              CALL runtime.morestack_noctxt(SB)
0x4806a5              eba9                    JMP src.DoCallAdd(SB)

Woah, what is going on?

At the center of the function we see what we wanted to see:

0x48066d              48c7042401000000        MOVQ $0x1, 0(SP)     // set arg x
0x480675              48c744240802000000      MOVQ $0x2, 0x8(SP)   // set arg y
0x48067e              48c744241003000000      MOVQ $0x3, 0x10(SP)  // set arg z
0x480687              e8a4ffffff              CALL src.FuncAdd(SB) // call
0x48068c              488b442418              MOVQ 0x18(SP), AX    // get return value of FuncAdd
0x480691              4889442430              MOVQ AX, 0x30(SP)    // set return value of DoCallAdd

The arguments are pushed into the stack before the call, and after the call the return value is retrieved from the callee frame and copied to the caller frame. So far, so good.

However, now we know that arguments are passed on the stack, this means that any function that calls other functions now must ensure there is some stack space to pass arguments to its callees. This is what we see here:

// Before the call: make space for callee.
0x48065f              4883ec28                SUBQ $0x28, SP
// After the call: restore stack pointer.
0x48069b              4883c428                ADDQ $0x28, SP

Now, what is the remaining stuff?

Because Go has exceptions (“panics”) it must preserve the ability of the runtime system to unwind the stack. So in every activation record it must store the difference between the stack pointer on entry and the stack pointer for callees. This is the “frame pointer” which is stored in this calling convention in the BP register. That is why we see:

// Store the frame pointer of the caller into a known location in
// the current activation record.
0x480663              48896c2420              MOVQ BP, 0x20(SP)
// Store the address of the copy of the parent frame pointer
// into the new frame pointer.
0x480668              488d6c2420              LEAQ 0x20(SP), BP

This maintains the invariant of the calling convention that BP always points to a linked list of frame pointers, where each successive value of BP is 32 bytes beyond the value of the stack pointer in the current frame (SP+0x20). This way the stack can always be successfully unwound.

Finally, what about the last bit of code?

0x480650              64488b0c25f8ffffff      MOVQ FS:0xfffffff8, CX
0x480659              483b6110                CMPQ 0x10(CX), SP
0x48065d              7641                    JBE 0x4806a0
0x4806a0              e80ba5fcff              CALL runtime.morestack_noctxt(SB)
0x4806a5              eba9                    JMP src.DoCallAdd(SB)

The Go runtime implements “tiny stacks” as an optimization: a goroutine always starts with a very small stack so that a running go program can have many “small” goroutines active at the same time. However that means that on the standard tiny stack it is not really possible to call many functions recursively.

Therefore, in Go, every function that needs an activation record on the stack needs first to check whether the current goroutine stack is large enough for this. It does this by comparing the current value of the stack pointer to the low water mark of the current goroutine, stored at offset 16 (0x10) of the goroutine struct, which itself can always be found at address FS:0xfffffff8.

Compare how DoCallAdd works in C or C++:

      movl    $3, %edx
      movl    $2, %esi
      movl    $1, %edi
      jmp     FuncAdd

This passes the arguments in registers, then transfers control to the callee with a jmp — a tail call. This is valid because the return value of FuncAdd becomes the return value of DoCallAdd.

What of the stack pointer? The function DoCallAdd cannot tell us much in C because, in contrast to Go, it does not have any variables on the stack and thus does need an activation record. In general (and that is valid for Go too), if there is no need for an activation record, there is no need to set up / adjust the stack pointer.

So how would a C/C++ compiler handle an activation record? We can force one like this:

void other(int *x);
int DoCallAddX() { int x = 123; other(&x); return x; }

Gives us:

     subq    $24, %rsp       // make space
     leaq    12(%rsp), %rdi  // allocate x at address rsp+12
     movl    $123, 12(%rsp)  // store 123 into x
     call    other           // call other(&x)
     movl    12(%rsp), %eax  // load value from x
     addq    $24, %rsp       // restore stack pointer

So %rsp gets adjusted upon function entry and restored in the epilogue.

No surprise. But is there? What of exception handling?

Aside: exceptions in C/C++

The assembly above was generated with a C/C++ compiler that does support exceptions. In general, the compiler cannot assume that a callee won't throw an exception. Yet we did not see anything about saving the stack pointer and/or setting up a frame pointer in the generated code above. So how does the C/C++ runtime handle stack unwinding?

There are fundamentally two main ways to implement exception propagation in an ABI (Application Binary Interface):

  • “dynamic registration”, with frame pointers in each activation record, organized as a linked list. This makes stack unwinding fast at the expense of having to set up the frame pointer in each function that calls other functions. This is also simpler to implement.

  • “table-driven”, where the compiler and assembler create data structures alongside the program code to indicate which addresses of code correspond to which sizes of activation records. This is called “Call Frame Information” (CFI) data in e.g. the GNU tool chain. When an exception is generated, the data in this table is loaded to determine how to unwind. This makes exception propagation slower but the general case faster.

In general, a language where exceptions are common and used for control flow will adopt dynamic registration, whereas a language where exceptions are rare will adopt table-driven unwinding to ensure the common case is more efficient. The latter choice is extremely common for C/C++ compilers.

Interestingly, the Go language designers recommend against using exceptions (“panics”) for control flow, so one would expect they expect their language to fall in the second category and ought to also implement table-driven unwinding. Yet the Go compiler still uses dynamic registration. Maybe the table-driven approach was not used because it is more complex to implement?

More reading:

Callee-save registers—or not

Are there callee-save registers in Go? Can the Go compiler expect the callee will avoid using some registers, i.e. they won't be clobbered unless strictly needed?

In other languages, this optimization enables a function that calls another function to keep “important” values in registers and avoid to push its temporary variables to the stack (and thus force the apparition of an activation record on the stack).

Let's try:

func Intermediate() int {
  x := Other()
  x += Other()
  return x

Is there a callee-save register for the Go compiler to store x in?

Let's check:

  0x4806dd              e8ceffffff              CALL src.Other(SB)
  0x4806e2              488b0424                MOVQ 0(SP), AX
  0x4806e6              4889442408              MOVQ AX, 0x8(SP)
  0x4806eb              e8c0ffffff              CALL src.Other(SB)
  0x4806f0              488b442408              MOVQ 0x8(SP), AX
  0x4806f5              48030424                ADDQ 0(SP), AX
  0x4806f9              4889442420              MOVQ AX, 0x20(SP)

So, no. The Go compiler always spills the temporaries to the stack during calls.

What does the C/C++ compiler do for this? Let's see:

      pushq   %rbx          // save %rbx from caller
      xorl    %eax, %eax
      call    other
      movl    %eax, %ebx    // use callee-save for intermediate result
      xorl    %eax, %eax
      call    other
      addl    %ebx, %eax    // use callee-save again
      popq    %rbx          // restore callee-save for caller

Most C/C++ calling convention have a number of callee-save registers for intermediate results. On this platform, this includes at least %rbx.

The cost of pointers and interfaces

Go implements both pointer types (e.g. *int) and interface types with vtables (comparable to classes containing virtual methods in C++).

How are they implemented in the calling convention?

Pointers use just one word

Looking at the following code:

func UsePtr(x *int) int { return *x }

The generated code:

  0x480630              488b442408              MOVQ 0x8(SP), AX  // load x
  0x480635              488b00                  MOVQ 0(AX), AX    // load *x
  0x480638              4889442410              MOVQ AX, 0x10(SP) // return *x
  0x48063d              c3                      RET

So a pointer is the same size as an int and uses just one word slot in the argument struct. Ditto for return values:

var x int
func RetPtr() *int { return &x }
func NilPtr() *int { return nil }

This gives us:

  0x480650              488d0581010c00          LEAQ src.x(SB), AX  // compute &x
  0x480657              4889442408              MOVQ AX, 0x8(SP)    // return &x
  0x48065c              c3                      RET
  0x480660              48c744240800000000      MOVQ $0x0, 0x8(SP)  // return 0
  0x480669              c3                      RET

Interfaces use two words

Considering the following code:

type Foo interface{ foo() }
func InterfaceNil() Foo { return nil }

The compiler generates the following:

  0x4805b0              0f57c0                  XORPS X0, X0
  0x4805b3              0f11442408              MOVUPS X0, 0x8(SP)
  0x4805b8              c3                      RET

So an interface value is bigger. The pseudo-register X0 in the Go pseudo-assembly is really the x86 %xmm0, a full 16-byte (128 bit) register.

We can confirm that by looking at a function that simply forwards an interface argument as a return value:

func InterfacePass(Foo x) Foo { return x }

This gives us:

  0x4805b0              488b442408              MOVQ 0x8(SP), AX
  0x4805b5              4889442418              MOVQ AX, 0x18(SP)
  0x4805ba              488b442410              MOVQ 0x10(SP), AX
  0x4805bf              4889442420              MOVQ AX, 0x20(SP)
  0x4805c4              c3                      RET

Although there is just 1 argument and return value, the compiler has to copy two words. Interface “values” are really a pointer to a vtable and a value combined together.

Strings and slices use two and three words

Next to pointers (one word) and interface values (two words) the Go compiler also has special layouts for two other things:

  • the special type string is implemented as two words: a word containing the length, and a word to the start of the string. This supports computing len() and slicing in constant time.

  • all slice types ([]T) are implemented using 3 words: a length, a capacity and a pointer to the first element. This supports computing len(), cap() and slicing in constant time.

The reason why string values do not need a capacity is that string is an immutable type in Go.

Constructing interface values

Constructing a non-nil interface value requires storing the vtable pointer alongside the value.

In most real world cases the vtable part is known statically (because the type being cast to the interface type is known statically). We'll ignore the conversions from one interface type to another here.

For the value part, Go has multiple implementation strategies based on the actual type of value.

The most common case, an interface implemented by a pointer type, looks like this:

// Define the interface.
type Foo interface{ foo() }
// Define a struct type implementing the interface by pointer.
type foo struct{ x int }
func (*foo) foo() {}
// Define a global variable so we don't use the heap allocator.
var x foo

// Make an interface value.
func MakeInterface1() Foo { return &x }

This gives us:

    0x4805c0              488d05d9010400          LEAQ go.itab.*,src.Foo(SB), AX
    0x4805c7              4889442408              MOVQ AX, 0x8(SP)
    0x4805cc              488d0505f20b00          LEAQ src.x(SB), AX
    0x4805d3              4889442410              MOVQ AX, 0x10(SP)
    0x4805d8              c3                      RET

Just as predicted: address of vtable in the first word, pointer to the struct in the second word. No surprise.

Things become a bit more expensive if the struct implements the interface by value:

// Define a struct type implementing the interface by value.
type bar struct{ x int }
func (bar) foo() {}
// Define a global variable so we don't use the heap allocator.
var y bar

// Make an interface value.
func MakeInterface2() Foo { return y }

This gives us:

    0x4805c0              64488b0c25f8ffffff      MOVQ FS:0xfffffff8, CX
    0x4805c9              483b6110                CMPQ 0x10(CX), SP
    0x4805cd              7648                    JBE 0x480617
    0x4805cf              4883ec28                SUBQ $0x28, SP
    0x4805d3              48896c2420              MOVQ BP, 0x20(SP)
    0x4805d8              488d6c2420              LEAQ 0x20(SP), BP
    0x4805dd              488d053c020400          LEAQ,src.Foo(SB), AX
    0x4805e4              48890424                MOVQ AX, 0(SP)
    0x4805e8              488d05e9f10b00          LEAQ src.x(SB), AX
    0x4805ef              4889442408              MOVQ AX, 0x8(SP)
    0x4805f4              e8e7b2f8ff              CALL runtime.convT2I64(SB)
    0x4805f9              488b442410              MOVQ 0x10(SP), AX
    0x4805fe              488b4c2418              MOVQ 0x18(SP), CX
    0x480603              4889442430              MOVQ AX, 0x30(SP)
    0x480608              48894c2438              MOVQ CX, 0x38(SP)
    0x48060d              488b6c2420              MOVQ 0x20(SP), BP
    0x480612              4883c428                ADDQ $0x28, SP
    0x480616              c3                      RET
    0x480617              e814a5fcff              CALL runtime.morestack_noctxt(SB)
    0x48061c              eba2                    JMP

Holy Moly. What just went on?

The function became suddently much larger because it is now making a call to another function runtime.convT2I64.

As per the previous sections, as soon as there is a callee, the caller must set up an activation record, so we see 1) a check the stack is large enough 2) adjusting the stack pointer 3) preserving the frame pointer for stack unwinding during exceptions. This explains the prologue and epilogue, so the “meat” that remains, taking this into account, is this:

0x4805dd              488d053c020400          LEAQ,src.Foo(SB), AX
0x4805e4              48890424                MOVQ AX, 0(SP)
0x4805e8              488d05e9f10b00          LEAQ src.x(SB), AX
0x4805ef              4889442408              MOVQ AX, 0x8(SP)
0x4805f4              e8e7b2f8ff              CALL runtime.convT2I64(SB)
0x4805f9              488b442410              MOVQ 0x10(SP), AX
0x4805fe              488b4c2418              MOVQ 0x18(SP), CX
0x480603              4889442430              MOVQ AX, 0x30(SP)
0x480608              48894c2438              MOVQ CX, 0x38(SP)

What this does is to perform the regular Go call runtime.convT2I64(&bar_foo_vtable, y) and returns its result, which is an interface and thus takes two words.

What does this function do?

func convT2I64(tab *itab, elem unsafe.Pointer) (i iface) {
     t := tab._type
     // [...]
     var x unsafe.Pointer
     // [...]
             x = mallocgc(8, t, false)
             *(*uint64)(x) = *(*uint64)(elem)
     // [...] = tab = x

What this does really is to call the heap allocator and allocate a slot in memory to store a copy of the value provided, and a pointer to that heap-allocated slot is stored in the interface value.

In other words, in general, types that implement interfaces by value will mandate a trip to the heap allocator every time a value of that type is turned into an interface value.

As a special case, if the value provided is the “zero value” for the type implementing the interface, the heap allocation is avoided and a special “address to the zero value” is used instead to construct the interface reference. This is checked by convT2I64 in the code I elided above:

if *(*uint64)(elem) == 0 {
        x = unsafe.Pointer(&zeroVal[0])
} else {
        x = mallocgc(8, t, false)
        *(*uint64)(x) = *(*uint64)(elem)

This is correct because the function convT2I64 is only used for 64-bit types that implement the interface. This is true of the struct that I defined above, which contains just one 64-bit field.

There are many such convT2I functions for various type layouts that may implement the interface, for example:

  • convT2I16, convT2I32, convT2I64 for “small” types;

  • convT2Istring, convT2Islice for string and slice types;

  • convT2Inoptr for structs that do not contain pointers;

  • convT2I for the general case.

All of them except for the general cases convT2Inoptr and convT2I will attempt to avoid the heap allocator if the value is the zero value.

Nevertheless, in all these cases the caller that is constructing an interface value must check its stack size and set up an activation record, because it is making a call.

So, in general, types that implement interfaces by value cause overhead when they are converted into the interface type.

Interfaces for empty structs

There is just one, not-too-exciting super-special case: empty structs. These can implement the interface by value without overhead:

type empty struct{}
func (empty) foo() {}
var x empty
func MakeInterface3() Foo { return x }

This gives us:

  0x4805c0              488d0539020400          LEAQ go.itab.src.empty,src.Foo(SB), AX
  0x4805c7              4889442408              MOVQ AX, 0x8(SP)
  0x4805cc              488d05edf20b00          LEAQ runtime.zerobase(SB), AX
  0x4805d3              4889442410              MOVQ AX, 0x10(SP)
  0x4805d8              c3                      RET

The “value part” of interface values for empty structs is always &runtime.zerobase and can be computed without a call and thus without overhead.

error is an interface type

Compare the following two functions:

func Simple1() int { return 123 }
func Simple2() (int, error) { return 123, nil }

And their generated code:

  0x4805b0              48c74424087b000000      MOVQ $0x7b, 0x8(SP)
  0x4805b9              c3                      RET

  0x4805c0              48c74424087b000000      MOVQ $0x7b, 0x8(SP)
  0x4805c9              0f57c0                  XORPS X0, X0
  0x4805cc              0f11442410              MOVUPS X0, 0x10(SP)
  0x4805d1              c3                      RET

What we see here is that error being an interface, the function returning error must set up two extra words of return value.

In the nil case this is still straightforward (at the expense of 16 bytes of extra zero data).

It is also still pretty straightforward if the error object was pre-allocated. For example:

var errDivByZero = errors.New("can't divide by zero")

func Compute(x, y float64) (float64, error) {
  if y == 0 {
    return 0, errDivByZero
  return x / y, nil

Compiling to:

  0x4805e0              f20f10442410            MOVSD_XMM 0x10(SP), X0 // load y into X0
        if y == 0 {
  0x4805e6              0f57c9                  XORPS X1, X1    // compute float64(0)
  0x4805e9              660f2ec1                UCOMISD X1, X0  // is y == 0?
  0x4805ed              7521                    JNE 0x480610    // no: go to return x/y
  0x4805ef              7a1f                    JP 0x480610     // no: go to return x/y
                return 0, errDivByZero
  0x4805f1              488b05402c0a00          MOVQ src.errDivByZero+8(SB), AX
  0x4805f8              488b0d312c0a00          MOVQ src.errDivByZero(SB), CX
  0x4805ff              f20f114c2418            MOVSD_XMM X1, 0x18(SP)
  0x480605              48894c2420              MOVQ CX, 0x20(SP)
  0x48060a              4889442428              MOVQ AX, 0x28(SP)
  0x48060f              c3                      RET
        return x / y, nil
  0x480610              f20f104c2408            MOVSD_XMM 0x8(SP), X1   // load x into X1
  0x480616              f20f5ec8                DIVSD X0, X1            // compute x / y
  0x48061a              f20f114c2418            MOVSD_XMM X1, 0x18(SP)  // return x / y
  0x480620              0f57c0                  XORPS X0, X0            // compute error(nil)
  0x480623              0f11442420              MOVUPS X0, 0x20(SP)     // return error(nil)
  0x480628              c3                      RET

Common case: computed errors

The simple case where error objects are pre-allocated is handled efficiently, but in real world code the error text is usually computed to include some contextual information, for example:

func Compute(x, y float64) (float64, error) {
  if y == 0 {
    return 0, fmt.Errorf("can't divide %f by zero", x)
  return x / y, nil

At the moment we organize the function this way, we are paying the price of a call to another function: setting up an activation record, frame pointer, checking the stack size, etc. Even on the “hot” path where the error does not occur.

This makes the relatively “simple” function Compute, where the crux of the computation is just 1 instruction, divsd, extremely large:

  // [... stack size check, SP and BP set up elided ...]
  0x482201              f20f10442468            MOVSD_XMM 0x68(SP), X0  // load y
        if y == 0 {   // like before
  0x482207              0f57c9                  XORPS X1, X1   // compute float64(0)
  0x48220a              660f2ec1                UCOMISD X1, X0 // is y == 0?
  0x48220e              0f85a7000000            JNE 0x4822bb   // no: go to return x/y
  0x482214              0f8aa1000000            JP 0x4822bb    // no: go to return x/y

                return 0, fmt.Errorf("can't divide %f by zero", x)
  0x48221a              f20f10442460            MOVSD_XMM 0x60(SP), X0  // load x

  // The following code allocates a special struct using
  // runtime.convT2E64 to pass the variable arguments to
  // fmt.Errorf. The struct contains the value of x.
  0x482220              f20f11442438            MOVSD_XMM X0, 0x38(SP)
  0x482226              0f57c0                  XORPS X0, X0
  0x482229              0f11442440              MOVUPS X0, 0x40(SP)
  0x48222e              488d05cbf80000          LEAQ 0xf8cb(IP), AX
  0x482235              48890424                MOVQ AX, 0(SP)
  0x482239              488d442438              LEAQ 0x38(SP), AX
  0x48223e              4889442408              MOVQ AX, 0x8(SP)
  0x482243              e83895f8ff              CALL runtime.convT2E64(SB)
  0x482248              488b442410              MOVQ 0x10(SP), AX
  0x48224d              488b4c2418              MOVQ 0x18(SP), CX

  // The varargs struct is saved for later on the stack.
  0x482252              4889442440              MOVQ AX, 0x40(SP)
  0x482257              48894c2448              MOVQ CX, 0x48(SP)

  // The constant string "can't divide..." is passed in the argument list of fmt.Errorf.
  0x48225c              488d05111e0300          LEAQ 0x31e11(IP), AX
  0x482263              48890424                MOVQ AX, 0(SP)
  0x482267              48c744240817000000      MOVQ $0x17, 0x8(SP)

  // A slice object is created to point to the vararg struct and given
  // as argument to fmt.Errorf.
  0x482270              488d442440              LEAQ 0x40(SP), AX
  0x482275              4889442410              MOVQ AX, 0x10(SP)
  0x48227a              48c744241801000000      MOVQ $0x1, 0x18(SP)
  0x482283              48c744242001000000      MOVQ $0x1, 0x20(SP)
  0x48228c              e8cf81ffff              CALL fmt.Errorf(SB)
  // The result value of fmt.Errorf is retrieved.
  0x482291              488b442428              MOVQ 0x28(SP), AX
  0x482296              488b4c2430              MOVQ 0x30(SP), CX

  // return float64(0) as first return value:
  0x48229b              0f57c0                  XORPS X0, X0
  0x48229e              f20f11442470            MOVSD_XMM X0, 0x70(SP)
  // return the result of fmt.Errorf as 2nd return value:
  0x4822a4              4889442478              MOVQ AX, 0x78(SP)
  0x4822a9              48898c2480000000        MOVQ CX, 0x80(SP)
  // [ ... restore BP/SP ... ]
  0x4822ba              c3                      RET

        return x / y, nil    // same as before
  0x4822bb              f20f104c2460            MOVSD_XMM 0x60(SP), X1 // load x into X1
  0x4822c1              f20f5ec8                DIVSD X0, X1           // compute x / y
  0x4822c5              f20f114c2470            MOVSD_XMM X1, 0x70(SP) // return x / y
  0x4822cb              0f57c0                  XORPS X0, X0           // compute error(nil)
  0x4822ce              0f11442478              MOVUPS X0, 0x78(SP)    // return error(nil)
  // [ ... restore BP/SP ... ]
  0x4822dc              c3                      RET

So what are we learning here?

  • fmt.Errorf (like all vararg functions in Go) get additional argument passing code: the arguments are stored in the caller's activation record, and a slice object is given as argument to the vararg-accepting callee.

  • this price is paid on the cold path to any real-world function that allocates error objects dynamically when an error is encountered.

Note, we are not considering here the cost of running fmt.Errorf itself, which usually has to go to the heap allocator multiple times because it does not know in advance how long the computed string will be.

Common case: testing for errors

The other common case is when a caller checks the error returned by a callee, like this:

func Caller() (int, error) {
  v, err := Callee()
  if err != nil {
    return -1, err
  return v + 1, nil

This gives us:

  // [... stack size check, SP and BP set up elided ...]
        v, err := Callee()
  0x48061d              e8beffffff              CALL src.Callee(SB)
  0x480622              488b442410              MOVQ 0x10(SP), AX  // retrieve return value
  0x480627              488b0c24                MOVQ 0(SP), CX     // load error vtable
  0x48062b              488b542408              MOVQ 0x8(SP), DX   // load error value
        if err != nil {
  0x480630              4885d2                  TESTQ DX, DX       // is the value part nil?
  0x480633              741d                    JE 0x480652        // yes, go to v+1 below
                return -1, err
  0x480635              48c7442428ffffffff      MOVQ $-0x1, 0x28(SP)  // return -1
  0x48063e              4889542430              MOVQ DX, 0x30(SP)     // return err.vtable
  0x480643              4889442438              MOVQ AX, 0x38(SP)     // return err.value
  // [ ... restore BP/SP ... ]
  0x480651              c3                      RET
        return v + 1, nil
  0x480652              488d4101                LEAQ 0x1(CX), AX    // compute v + 1
  0x480656              4889442428              MOVQ AX, 0x28(SP)   // return v + 1
  0x48065b              0f57c0                  XORPS X0, X0        // compute error(nil)
  0x48065e              0f11442430              MOVUPS X0, 0x30(SP) // return error(nil)
  // [ ... restore BP/SP ... ]
  0x48066c              c3                      RET

So any time a caller needs to check the error return of a callee, there are 2 instructions to retrieve the error value, 2 instructions to test whether it is nil, and in the “hot” path where there is no error two more instruction on every return path to return error(nil).

For reference (we'll consider that again below), if there was no error to check/propagate the function becomes much simpler:

    // [... stack size check, SP and BP set up elided ...]
    0x48060d              e8ceffffff              CALL
    0x480612              488b0424                MOVQ 0(SP), AX    // retrieve return value
    0x480616              48ffc0                  INCQ AX           // compute v + 1
    0x480619              4889442418              MOVQ AX, 0x18(SP) // return v + 1
    // [ ... restore BP/SP ... ]
    0x480627              c3                      RET

(No extra instructions, no extra branch.)

Implementation of defer

Go provides a feature to register, from the body of a function, a list of callback functions that are guaranteed to be called when the call terminates, even during exception propagation.

(This is useful e.g. to ensure that resources are freed and mutexes unlocked regardless of what happens with one of the callees.)

How does this work? Let's consider the simple example:

func Defer1() int { defer f(); return 123 }

This compiles to:

    // [... stack size check, SP and BP set up elided ...]

    // Prepare the return value 0. This is set in memory because
    // (theoretically, albeit not in this particular example) the deferred
    // function can access the return value and may do so before it was
    // set by the remainder of the function body.
    0x48208d              48c744242000000000      MOVQ $0x0, 0x20(SP)

    // Prepare the defer by calling runtime.deferproc(0, &f)
    0x482096              c7042400000000          MOVL $0x0, 0(SP)
    0x48209d              488d05f46e0300          LEAQ 0x36ef4(IP), AX
    0x4820a4              4889442408              MOVQ AX, 0x8(SP)
    0x4820a9              e8822afaff              CALL runtime.deferproc(SB)

    // Special check of the return value of runtime.deferproc.
    // In the common case, deferproc returns 0.
    // If a panic is generated by the function body (or one of the callees),
    // and the defer function catches the panic with `recover`, then
    // control will re-return from `deferproc` with value 1.
    0x4820ae              85c0                    TESTL AX, AX
    0x4820b0              7519                    JNE 0x4820cb  // has a panic been caught?

    // Prepare the return value 123.
    0x4820b2              48c74424207b000000      MOVQ $0x7b, 0x20(SP)
    0x4820bb              90                      NOPL
    // Ensure the defers are run.
    0x4820bc              e84f33faff              CALL runtime.deferreturn(SB)
    // [ ... restore BP/SP ... ]
    0x4820ca              c3                      RET

    // We've caught a panic. We're still running the defers.
    0x4820cb              90                      NOPL
    0x4820cc              e83f33faff              CALL runtime.deferreturn(SB)
    // [ ... restore BP/SP ... ]
    0x4820da              c3                      RET

How to read this:

The code is generated this way regardless of whether the deferred function contains recover(), see below.

Deferred closures

In real-world uses, the deferred function is actually a closure that has access to the enclosing function's local variables. For example:

func Defer2() (res int) {
    defer func() {
            res = 123
    return -1

This compiles to:

    // [... stack size check, SP and BP set up elided ...]

    // Store the zero value as return value.
    0x48208d              48c744242800000000      MOVQ $0x0, 0x28(SP)

    // Store the frame pointer of Defer2 for use by the deferred closure.
    0x482096              488d442428              LEAQ 0x28(SP), AX
    0x48209b              4889442410              MOVQ AX, 0x10(SP)

    // Call runtime.deferproc(8, &Defer2.func1)
    // Where Defer2.func1 is the code generated for the closure, see below.
    // The closure takes an implicit argument, which is the frame
    // pointer of the enclosing function, where it can peek
    // at the enclosing function's local variables.
    0x4820a0              c7042408000000          MOVL $0x8, 0(SP)
    0x4820a7              488d05b26e0300          LEAQ 0x36eb2(IP), AX
    0x4820ae              4889442408              MOVQ AX, 0x8(SP)
    0x4820b3              e8782afaff              CALL runtime.deferproc(SB)

    // Are we recovering from a panic?
    0x4820b8              85c0                    TESTL AX, AX
    0x4820ba              7519                    JNE 0x4820d5

    // Common path.
    // Set -1 as return value.
    0x4820bc              48c744242800000000      MOVQ $-1, 0x28(SP)
    0x4820c5              90                      NOPL
    // Run the defers.
    0x4820c6              e84533faff              CALL runtime.deferreturn(SB)
    // [ ... restore BP/SP ... ]
    0x4820d4              c3                      RET

    // Recovering from a panic.
    0x4820d5              90                      NOPL
    0x4820d6              e83533faff              CALL runtime.deferreturn(SB)
    // [ ... restore BP/SP ... ]
    0x4820e4              c3                      RET

    // Load the frame pointer of the enclosing function.
    MOVQ    0x8(SP), AX
    // Store the new value into the return value slot of the
    // enclosing function's frame.
    MOVQ    $123, (AX)

So a closure gets compiled as an anonymous function which returns a pointer to the enclosing frame as implicit first argument.

Every non-local variable accessed in the closure is marked to force spill in the enclosing function, to ensure they are allocated on the stack and not in registers.

Since return values and arguments are always on the stack anyway, using them in closures thus comes at no additional overhead. This would be different for other variables which could avoid a stack allocation otherwise.


This section focuses specifically on deferred closures. This gives the Go compiler the guarantee that the closure itsself does not escape.

If the closure did escape, then additional machinery would kick in to allocate the closure on the heap together with the variables it needs to access from the enclosing function.

Implementation of panic

Using panic() in a function

A function that uses panic() without computing anything (including, for now, not computing any object as exception) looks like this:

func Panic1() { panic(nil) }
var x int
func Panic2() { panic(&x) }

This gives us:

    // [... stack size check, SP and BP set up elided ...]
    0x4805fd              0f57c0                  XORPS X0, X0
    0x480600              0f110424                MOVUPS X0, 0(SP)
    0x480604              e8f747faff              CALL runtime.gopanic(SB)
    0x480609              0f0b                    UD2

    // [... stack size check, SP and BP set up elided ...]
    0x4806dd              488d05bcaf0000          LEAQ 0xafbc(IP), AX
    0x4806e4              48890424                MOVQ AX, 0(SP)
    0x4806e8              488d05f1f00b00          LEAQ src.x(SB), AX
    0x4806ef              4889442408              MOVQ AX, 0x8(SP)
    0x4806f4              e80747faff              CALL runtime.gopanic(SB)
    0x4806f9              0f0b                    UD2

What is going on?

Using panic() in the body of a function translates in any case to a call to runtime.gopanic(). Therefore in any case the function needs to check its stack size and set up an activation record, like every other function that calls anything.

Then for the call to runtime.gopanic(): this function takes a single argument of type interface{}. So the caller that invokes panic() must create an interface value with whatever object/value it wants to use as exception.

  • In Panic2() the regular vtable for interface{} is used and the address of x is passed as interface value.

  • In Panic1() the Go compiler uses another special-case optimization: interface{}(nil) is implemented using a zero vtable.

So really, from the perspective of generated code, using panic() in the body of a function looks very much like any other function call, except it is actually simpler: the compiler knows that runtime.gopanic() does not return and thus does not need to generate instructions to return the caller on the return path from the call to gopanic.

Finally, if the function needs to create/allocate an object to throw as exception, the code to prepare this object (initialization, allocation, etc.) will be added just as usual.

Exceptions for intermediate functions

The Go code generation of a function that calls another function that may throw an exception does not handle anything specially: it sets up an activation record and prepares the frame pointer as usual.

This price paid for setting up the frame pointer is paid anytime another function is called, irrespective of whether it will throw an exception or not.

Therefore, exception propagation in Go is cheaper than the testing and propagation of error results.

Catching exceptions: defer + recover

As of Go 1.10 the language does not provide a simple-to-use control structure like try-catch.

Instead, it provides a special pseudo-function called recover(). When the author of a function foo() wishes to catch an exception generated in foo() or one of its callees, the code must be structured as follows:

Low-level mechanism

We can look at the mechanism by compiling the following:

func Recovering(r *int) {
    // The pseudo-function recover() returns nil by default, except when
    // called in a deferred activation, in which case it catches the
    // exception object, stops stack unwinding and returns the exception
    // object as its return value.
    if recover() != nil {
       *r = 123

func TryCatch() (res int) {
    defer Recovering(&res)
    // call a function that may throw an exception.
    // Regular path: return -1
    res = -1

In this example, the TryCatch function is compiled like the functions Defer1/Defer2 of the previous section, so it is not detailed further. The interesting part is Recovering:

    // [... stack size check, SP and BP set up elided ...]

    // Call runtime.gorecover(), giving it the address of Recover's
    // activation record as argument.
    0x48208d              488d442428              LEAQ 0x28(SP), AX
    0x482092              48890424                MOVQ AX, 0(SP)
    0x482096              e8653efaff              CALL runtime.gorecover(SB)

    // Check the return value.
    0x48209b              488b442408              MOVQ 0x8(SP), AX
    0x4820a0              4885c0                  TESTQ AX, AX  // is it nil?
    0x4820a3              740c                    JE 0x4820b1   // yes, go to the return path below.

    // Retrieve the argument r
    0x4820a5              488b442428              MOVQ 0x28(SP), AX
    // Set *r = 123
    0x4820aa              48c7007b000000          MOVQ $0x7b, 0(AX)

        // [ ... restore BP/SP ... ]
    0x4820ba              c3                      RET

Because using the pseudo-function recover() compiles to a function call, the Recovering function needs its own activation record, thus stack size check, frame pointer, etc.

What the gorecover() function internally does, in turn, is to check if there is an exception propagation in progress. If there is, it stops the propagation and returns the panic object. If there is not, it simply returns nil.

(To “stop the propagation” it sets a flag in the panic object / goroutine struct. This is subsequently picked up by the unwind mechanism when the deferred function terminates. See the source code in src/runtime/panic.go for details.)

Cost of defer + recover

A function that wishes to catch an exception needs to defer the other function that will actually do the catch.

This incurs the cost of defer always, even when the exception does not occur:

  • setting up an activation record (checking the stack size, adjusting the stack pointer, setting the frame pointer, etc.) because there will be a call in any case.

  • setting up the deferred call in the goroutine header struct at the beginning.

  • performing the deferred call on every return path.

The first cost is only overhead if the function catching the exception did not otherwise contain function calls and could have avoided allocating an activation record. For example, a “small” function that merely accesses some existing structs and may only panic due to e.g. a nil pointer dereference, would see that cost as overhead.

The other two costs are relatively low:

  • setting up the deferred call does not need heap allocation. Its code path is relatively short. The main price it pays is accessing the goroutine header struct and a couple conditional branches.

  • running the deferred calls however incurs:

    • the price of jumping around the deferred call list (a few memory accesses but no conditional branch, so fairly innocuous);

    • running the body of the actual deferred functions. This in turn costs the overhead of setting up and tearing down their activation record (because they're probably calling other functions, e.g. when they use recover) even when there is no exception to catch.

We will look at empirical measurements in a separate article.

An interesting question: error vs panic?

What is cheaper: handling exceptions via panic / recover, or passing and testing error results with if err := ...; err != nil { return err }?

The analysis above so far reveals:

So in short, this is not a clear-cut case: panic-based exception handling is nearly-always cheaper for the tree of callees, but more expensive for the code that catches the exception.

Using panic over error returns is thus only advantageous if there is enough computation in the call tree to offset the cost of setting up the catch environment. This is true in particular:

I aim to complement this article with a later experiment to verify this hypothesis empirically.

Differences with gccgo

The GNU Compiler Collection now contains a Go compiler too called gccgo.

In contrast to 6g (the original Go compiler) this tries to mimic the native calling convention. This brings potential performance benefits:

However these benefits are not actually realized, because gccgo (as of GCC 8.2) also has the following problems:

These two limitations together make the code generated by gccgo unacceptably longer and more memory-heavy overall.

For example, the simple FuncAdd from the beginning of this document compiles with gccgo to:

  3b91:       64 48 3b 24 25 70 00    cmp    %fs:0x70,%rsp           // is the stack large enough?
  3b98:       00 00
  3b9a:       73 12                   jae    3bae <src.FuncAdd+0x1d> // yes, go below
  3b9c:       41 ba 08 00 00 00       mov    $0x8,%r10d              // call __morestack
  3ba2:       41 bb 00 00 00 00       mov    $0x0,%r11d
  3ba8:       e8 36 10 00 00          callq  4be3 <__morestack>

  // The following `retq` instruction on the return path to
  // __morestack is not actually executed: `__morestack` is a standard
  // GCC facility (not specific to Go) which auto-magically
  // returns to the *next* instruction after its return address.
  3bad:       c3                      retq

  // Main function body.

  // Start by preparing the frame pointer.
  3bae:       55                      push   %rbp
  3baf:       48 89 e5                mov    %rsp,%rbp

  // Store the arguments x, y, z into temporaries on the stack.
  3bb2:       48 89 7d e8             mov    %rdi,-0x18(%rbp)
  3bb6:       48 89 75 e0             mov    %rsi,-0x20(%rbp)
  3bba:       48 89 55 d8             mov    %rdx,-0x28(%rbp)

  // Store zero (the default value) into a  temporary variable
  // holding the return value at BP+8.
  3bbe:       48 c7 45 f8 00 00 00    movq   $0x0,-0x8(%rbp)
  3bc5:       00
  // Re-load the arguments x and y from the stack.
  3bc6:       48 8b 55 e8             mov    -0x18(%rbp),%rdx
  3bca:       48 8b 45 e0             mov    -0x20(%rbp),%rax
  // Compute x + y.
  3bce:       48 01 d0                add    %rdx,%rax
  // Re-load z from the stack and compute x + y - z.
  3bd1:       48 2b 45 d8             sub    -0x28(%rbp),%rax
  // Store the result value into the temporary variable
  // for the return value.
  3bd5:       48 89 45 f8             mov    %rax,-0x8(%rbp)
  // Re-load the return value from the temporary variable into
  // a register.
  3bd9:       48 8b 45 f8             mov    -0x8(%rbp),%rax

  // Restore the frame pointer, return.
  3bdd:       5d                      pop    %rbp
  3bde:       c3                      retq

This is very sad. GCC for other languages than Go is perfectly able to eliminate temporary variables. The following code would be just as correct:

   add %rdi, %rsi, %rax
   sub %rax, %rdx, %rax

(Disclaimer: these limitations can be lifted in a later version of gccgo.)

Summary of observations

The low-level calling convention used by the Go compiler on x86-64 targets is memory-heavy: arguments and return values are always passed on the stack. This can be contrasted with code generation by compilers for other languages (C/C++, Rust, etc) where registers are used when possible for arguments and return values.

The Go compiler uses dynamic registration (with a linked list of frame pointers) to prepare activation records for stack unwinding. This incurs a stack setup overhead on any function that calls other functions, even in the common case where stack unwinding does not occur. This can be contrasted with other languages that consider exceptions uncommon and implement table-driven unwinding, with no stack setup overhead on the common path.

Arguments and return values incur the standard memory costs of data types in Go. Scalar and struct types passed by value occupy their size on the stack. String and interface values use two words, slices use three. Because error is an interface type, it occupies two words.

Building an error value to return is usually more expensive than other values because in most cases this incurs a call to a vararg-accepting function (e.g. fmt.Errof).

The call sequence for vararg-accepting functions is the same as functions accepting slices as arguments, but the caller must also prepare the slice's contents on the stack to contain (a copy of) the argument values.

Go implements defer, a feature similar to finally in other languages. This is done by registering a callback in the current lightweight thread (“goroutine”) at the beginning and executing the registered callbacks on every return path. This mechanism does not require heap allocation but incurs a small overhead on the control path.

Exceptions are thrown with panic() and caught with defer and recover(). Throwing the panic compiles down to a regular call to an internal function of the run-time system. That internal function is then responsible for stack unwinding. The compiler knows that panic() does not return and thus skips generating code for a return path. The mechanism to catch exceptions is fully hidden inside the pseudo-function recover() and does not require special handling for the code generator. Code generation makes no distinction between functions that may throw exceptions and those who are guaranteed to never throw.

The calling convention suggests there is a non-trivial trade-off between handling exceptional situations with panic vs. using error return values and checking them at every intermediate step of a call stack. This trade-off remains to be analyzed empirically in particular applications.

The GCC-based gccgo compiler attempts to use a completely different, potentially more efficient register-based calling convention. Sadly, it fails to generate more efficient code overall because it does not eliminate temporary variables on the stack, like GCC does for other languages and the original Go compiler does for Go.

Next in the series:

Further reading