Go Memory Profiling Gotcha

Some quick gotchas for memory profiling in Go.

Austin Burnett

5 minute read


The holidays are typically a great time to experiment, learn new things, and try to contribute back to your team. This year, I attempted to understand better how one of our command-line tools for Hipchat Data Center performs. While being feature complete, we wanted to better understand its resource consumption. Having heard so much about Go’s builtin performance tooling, I was excited to learn more and hopefully glean some valuable information to confirm assumptions and start brainstorming solutions.


I was quickly met with frustration. Many examples online assume you’re building a web application or have an glaringly obvious problem. I was hoping to quickly replicate our problem on a small dataset and I was greeted with an empty memory profile. I created a quick example to demonstrate the empty memory profile problem:

package main

import (

func main() {
    // CPU Profile
    cpuProfile, err := os.Create("example-cpu.prof")
    if err != nil {
    defer pprof.StopCPUProfile()

    // Allocate some memory
    x := make([]string, 0)
    for i := 0; i < 1000000; i++ {
        x = append(x, "my string")

    // Memory Profile
    memProfile, err := os.Create("example-mem.prof")
    if err != nil {
    defer memProfile.Close()
    if err := pprof.WriteHeapProfile(memProfile); err != nil {

Now, the profiling code is mostly lifted from Profiling Go Programs with a quick and dirty memory allocation. I expect to look at the memory profile and see the allocations.

~ go run mem.go
~ go tool pprof mem example-mem.prof
File: mem
Type: inuse_space
Time: Jan 10, 2018 at 11:40am (CST)
Entering interactive mode (type "help" for commands, "o" for options)
(pprof) top
Showing nodes accounting for 1.16MB, 100% of 1.16MB total
      flat  flat%   sum%        cum   cum%
    1.16MB   100%   100%     1.16MB   100%  runtime/pprof.StartCPUProfile /usr/local/go/src/runtime/pprof/pprof.go
         0     0%   100%     1.16MB   100%  main.main /home/aburnett/go/src/stream-test/mem.go
         0     0%   100%     1.16MB   100%  runtime.main /usr/local/go/src/runtime/proc.go

Hmm… Not what I expected. If you remove the call to StartCPUProfile in hopes of removing that from the profile, you actually end up with an empty memory profile. Why is this?


While documented, this information was difficult to uncover. While this post from Defer Panic mentions --alloc_space, it doesn’t mention why you might use it. The pertinent piece of information can be found in the Golang Performance Wiki: The former [inuse_objects] is useful for profiles collected with net/http/pprof on live applications, the latter is useful for profiles collected at program end [alloc_space] (otherwise you will see almost empty profile). With many of the blogs and guides out there assuming you’re writing a web application, few of them mention these options and go tool pprof --help yields no help either. Despite a lack of documentation, these options make sense and are useful. If you’re trying to trouble a live application, it’s useful to track what is in use right now, where as if you just have a program that runs and terminates, you want to see what was allocated over it’s runtime.

~ go tool pprof --alloc_space mem example-mem.prof
File: mem
Type: alloc_space
Time: Jan 10, 2018 at 11:40am (CST)
Entering interactive mode (type "help" for commands, "o" for options)
(pprof) top
Showing nodes accounting for 87.10MB, 100% of 87.10MB total
      flat  flat%   sum%        cum   cum%
   85.94MB 98.67% 98.67%    87.10MB   100%  main.main /home/aburnett/go/src/stream-test/mem.go
    1.16MB  1.33%   100%     1.16MB  1.33%  runtime/pprof.StartCPUProfile /usr/local/go/src/runtime/pprof/pprof.go
         0     0%   100%    87.10MB   100%  runtime.main /usr/local/go/src/runtime/proc.go
(pprof) list main.main
Total: 87.10MB
ROUTINE ======================== main.main in /home/aburnett/go/src/stream-test/mem.go
   85.94MB    87.10MB (flat, cum)   100% of Total
         .          .     14:   cpuProfile, err := os.Create("example-cpu.prof")
         .          .     15:   if err != nil {
         .          .     16:           fmt.Println(err)
         .          .     17:           os.Exit(1)
         .          .     18:   }
         .     1.16MB     19:   pprof.StartCPUProfile(cpuProfile)
         .          .     20:   defer pprof.StopCPUProfile()
         .          .     21:
         .          .     22:   x := make([]string, 0)
         .          .     23:   for i := 0; i < 1000000; i++ {
   85.94MB    85.94MB     24:           x = append(x, "my string")
         .          .     25:   }
         .          .     26:
         .          .     27:   runtime.GC()
         .          .     28:   memProfile, err := os.Create("example-mem.prof")
         .          .     29:   if err != nil {

That is more of what we expected to see. If you notice, the Type is now alloc_space as opposed to the default inuse_objects. Now, in the intro I mentioned that I was using a small dataset. Before learning about --alloc_space I tried pulling in github.com/pkg/profile and added defer profile.Start(profile.MemProfileRate(2048)).Stop() at the top of main, not really knowing what MemProfileRate might do. After adding this, I noticed the profile it generated was non-empty. I started digging into what github.com/pkg/profile does. Turns out, it mostly wraps runtime to make it more convenient to profile. Setting MemProfileRate adjusts the rate at which it samples memory usage. The default is 1 sample per 512kb allocated. I found out that my small sample was never crossing this threshold, resulting in an empty profile. If you want to record every allocation, you can set this to 1. This should enable you to detect problems at any scale. Like I mentioned, there’s no need to use github.com/pkg/profile other than convenience, you can do this with runtime (i.e. runtime.MemProfileRate = 2048).

As I discovered, while the tooling may be robust, the documentation is somewhat lacking for Go’s profiling tools, especially if you’re not using a web application. If you find yourself looking at an empty memory profile, make sure that you’re looking at the right usage pattern (inuse_objects - running application vs. alloc_space - program that has already ran) and that you’re sampling frequency is adjusted accordingly (or that you track every allocation).

Edit 1/18/18: I learned about log.Fatal and updated snippet.