What are the limits of Go channels, and just how fast are they?


As part of my upcoming talk at GoWayFest, I learned a lot about how Go channels work under the hood. Let’s highlight some of the most important numbers while looking into the Go 1.14 release branch!

Channels ensure thread-safe communication between executing goroutines; but how fast is that communication? And what are the limitations that the language imposes on them?


The limitations on the chan type are pretty straightforward to decode.

func makechan(t *chantype, size int) *hchan {
	elem := t.elem

	if elem.size >= 1<<16 {
		throw("makechan: invalid channel element type")
	if hchanSize%maxAlign != 0 || elem.align > maxAlign {
		throw("makechan: bad alignment")

	mem, overflow := math.MulUintptr(elem.size, uintptr(size))
	if overflow || mem > maxAlloc-hchanSize || size < 0 {
		panic(plainError("makechan: size out of range"))

First off, the maximum message size (or channel type) is 2^16 bytes, or 64 kilobytes.

Moreover, the same limitations that exist on slices or maps are applied here; a check against maxAlloc as well as a check using math.MulUintptr.

The maxAlloc value defines the maximum allocation that is allowed by the compiler; in a 64-bit Unix-like system that is 2^47 bytes (~140 Terabytes), while the pointer multiplication ensures a maximum buffer size so that the channel type multiplied by this buffer doesn’t overflow 64-bits.

Here are the maximum buffer sizes allowed by the compiler for some basic data types.

    // Max buffer size allowed by compiler
    ch1 := make(chan struct{}, 1<<63-1)

    ch2 := make(chan bool, 1<<48-96)

    ch3 := make(chan int16, 1<<47-48)

    ch4 := make(chan int32, 1<<46-24)

    ch5 := make(chan int64, 1<<45-12)

    ch6 := make(chan complex128, 1<<44-6)

While the compiler might allow such large buffers sizes, you’ll probably meet some memory issues way before as channels allocate the whole buffer upfront, retaining it until it’s garbage collected.


On the topic of speed, the send and receive operations are relatively straightforward. The time is dominated by the price of goroutine context-switching (which should be consistently ≤ 200ns).

Using the following simple benchmark we can get a measure on the upper limit of the send/receive channel operations.

func BenchmarkUnbufferedChannelEmptyStruct(b *testing.B) {
    ch := make(chan struct{})
    go func() {
        for {
    for i := 0; i < b.N; i++ {
        ch <- struct{}{}

I repeated the test with a buffered channel, and sending a single byte instead of an empty struct.

On a 2019 MBP’s Intel Core i5@1.4 GHz the results can be seen in the following table.

BenchmarkBufferedChannelEmptyStruct-8         23657084            49.9 ns/op
BenchmarkBufferedChannelOneByte-8             21230530            54.6 ns/op      18.31 MB/s

BenchmarkUnbufferedChannelEmptyStruct-8        6075384            177 ns/op
BenchmarkUnbufferedChannelOneByte-8            6341457            184 ns/op       5.44 MB/s

We notice a 4x decline when using unbuffered channels due to their blocking behavior slowing down the communication between goroutines. The transfer rate of 18.31 MB/s is suspiciously low but it’s also constrained by the small size of the message type.

On this machine, the upper limit is thus ~18-20 million messages per second using buffered channels and ~5 million messages per second when using unbuffered ones.


I find it a little unlikely that you’ll be hitting this kind of limits for passing around messages.

But if you actually do, you can always ensure thread-safety using Mutexes. The Lock and Unlock operations of a sync.Mutex are about 5x faster, plus you might avoid moving data around.

Finally, and as a measuring stick, the copying of data between memory addresses takes about ~0.5ns.

func BenchmarkMutexLockUnlock(b *testing.B) {
    var mux sync.Mutex
    for i := 0; i < b.N; i++ {


func BenchmarkNaiveCopy(b *testing.B) {
    from := make([]byte, b.N)
    to := make([]byte, b.N)
    copy(to, from)

BenchmarkMutexLockUnlock-8                96631381	    11.8 ns/op
BenchmarkNaiveCopy-8                    1000000000	   0.548 ns/op	   1823.95 MB/s


That’s all for today! I plan on continuing with the articles dissecting the Go internals, so check back soon for more!

Written on June 29, 2020