Bossy Lobster

A blog by Danny Hermes; musing on tech, mathematics, etc.

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Broken Pipe in a Haystack

Broken Pipe

I recently put on my detective hat and tracked down a bug in network error recovery in a popular PostgreSQL library. Below, we'll walk through the process of bugfinding and iteratively making the feedback loop smaller and smaller. In order to find and fix the bug I

  • Confirmed the root cause of the error at the network level via packet capture
  • Wrote a bare bones client and used a Docker container running postgres so I could reproduce the behavior
  • Introduced a "know-nothing" TCP proxy in between the client and database so I could introduce and expose networking faults to the client
  • Zoomed in on the source of the bug once the proxy enabled 100% reproducible failure


Signs of Trouble

In our sandbox environment at Blend, there were some reports of "broken pipe" errors showing up a few hundred times per day. Although the error rate for this particular error was essentially zero, I was worried this may be an issue with AWS RDS that may get worse, so I devoted a half day1 to track it down.

We kept seeing log lines containing write: broken pipe in a few Go microservices. For example:

Eleven Bad Sockets

Since in sandbox, these services are often completely idle — essentially all activity is due to end-to-end tests (E2Es) that trigger as part of continuous deployment for related services. These broken pipe errors appeared to occur when the services were attempting database queries after long periods of inactivity. This was a hint that the errors were caused by failure to gracefully manage idle connections.

Confirming a Root Cause

In order to pinpoint the exact cause of the failure I decided to set up packet capture for one of the offending services. Rather than trying to find errors across multiple pods, the first thing I did was scale the microservice down to one pod, being sure to remove the autoscaler in the process:

$ kubectl delete horizontalpodautoscaler envelope-service
horizontalpodautoscaler.autoscaling "envelope-service" deleted
$ kubectl scale deployment/envelope-service --replicas 1
deployment.apps/envelope-service scaled
$ kubectl get pods --selector app=envelope-service
NAME                               READY   STATUS        RESTARTS   AGE
envelope-service-bb5999898-5hb78   3/3     Terminating   0          6h4m
envelope-service-bb5999898-7r865   3/3     Running       2          18h
$ kubectl get pods --selector app=envelope-service
NAME                               READY   STATUS    RESTARTS   AGE
envelope-service-bb5999898-7r865   3/3     Running   2          18h

From there, I pointed ksniff — a kubectl plugin — at the pod and waited until an error occurred2:

kubectl sniff \
  envelope-service-bb5999898-7r865 \
  --output-file ./ksniff-5432.pcap \
  --filter "port 5432"

I captured packets in a ninety minute window and the error log lines started showing up around forty minutes in, from 18:39:55 to 18:43:14 UTC. In the fifteen log lines above, there are eleven unique client ports — 40288, 40320, etc. — each corresponding to a socket from a Go database/sql connection pool. Viewing the packet capture we see the AWS RDS instance sent out RST (reset) packets a few minutes before the broken pipe errors showed up. All eleven of the sockets received an RST around 18:27:09 UTC:

Eleven RST Packets

This confirmed the suspicion that the sockets had "gone bad" and that the broken pipe errors occurred on first usage after an extended idle period.

Who Is at Fault

A bit more about why the sockets had "gone bad". I was initially unhappy that AWS RDS had sent RST packets, essentially hanging up the phone abruptly as opposed to saying goodbye with a FIN packet to cleanly close the connection. However it appears that a minute before the RST packets arrived (around 18:26:09 UTC), the AWS RDS instance attempted to send FIN packets to each of the idle sockets. However, the client responded with an RST from a different port in all cases (instead of handling the FIN by responding with a FIN / ACK):

RST Before (from Client)

This may very well be another bug in the lib/pq Go library, but that is a story for another day. I think it's more likely that this is a bug caused by the fact that Istio is managing networking in the pod via iptables and there is some kind of bungled handoff happening. For example we can see that port 40320 receives a FIN and then an RST but never sends back a FIN or RST:

RST to a Specific Port

Synthetic Failure via TCP Proxy

With reasonably high certainty that the issue was caused by first-use-after-RST, it was time to massively decrease the size of the feedback loop. I needed to control three moving pieces here to be able to reproduce the conditions

  • The Go client
  • The postgres server
  • The "network"

In this case we don't literally need to control the network, but we want something programmable (e.g. a proxy) so that we can send an RST without having to reach into the blackbox of the postgres binary running in a Docker container.

First we run the database:

docker run \
  --detach \
  --name pg-trigger-rst \
  --hostname localhost \
  --publish 13370:5432 \
  --env POSTGRES_DB=superuser_db \
  --env POSTGRES_USER=superuser \
  --env POSTGRES_PASSWORD=password \

Next, using the library, the broken-pipe.go script creates a single connection and then executes the statement SELECT 1 before and after a sleep statement. During the sleep, we expect an RST packet to be sent. In order to ensure with a high level of certainty that the RST packet has arrived, after the first statement the script indicates it has gone idle by writing to a (shared) state file and then sleeps for a second before executing the second statement. If we use the script to directly query postgres (i.e. without a proxy):

$ go run ./broken-pipe.go --port 13370
14:48:14.355999 Setting state to ACTIVE
14:48:14.375156 Setting state to IDLE
14:48:14.375429 Sleeping for 1 second
14:48:15.376486 Done sleeping
14:48:15.379833 Setting state to COMPLETE

The last bit here is the "network". The rst-proxy.go script runs a TCP proxy that usually shuttles packets between the Go client and the postgres server. However, it polls the (shared) state file and once the client has gone IDLE it closes the connection. In normal circumstances, closing the connection would still not result in an RST, the kernel3 will send a FIN to gracefully close the connection. To modify this behavior we must set the SO_LINGER socket option:

tc, ok := c.(*net.TCPConn)
// ...
sc, err := tc.SyscallConn()
// ...
err = sc.Control(func(fd uintptr) {
        &syscall.Linger{Onoff: 1, Linger: 0},

When running the rst-proxy.go script and pointing our client at the proxy port, we can reproduce the error 100% of the time:

$ go run ./rst-proxy.go
14:48:18.799745 Setting up TCP proxy on localhost:23370
14:48:20.803298 Handling TCP connection from
14:48:20.905144 State file switched to IDLE, closing connection
14:48:21.068089 Done proxying connection
$ # e.g. In another shell
$ go run ./broken-pipe.go --port 23370
14:48:20.800452 Setting state to ACTIVE
14:48:20.817998 Setting state to IDLE
14:48:20.818213 Sleeping for 1 second
14:48:21.818725 Done sleeping
14:48:21.818906 write tcp> write: broken pipe
exit status 1

Finding the Bug

Once I had a very small loop for reproducing the error4 it was time to find the source of the bug. I initially assumed that database/sql in Go would "actively" manage the connection pool and remove a connection the moment an RST was received. The fact that the error can be reproduced 100% of the time puts that theory to rest. I also did a sanity check with the pgx library and verified it does not have this bug, meaning that this was a bug in lib/pq. (Despite its popularity and longevity, lib/pq is in maintenance mode and the maintainers recommend using pgx.)

I wasn't sure where to look to find the bug and had zero familiarity with the lib/pq codebase. So, in order zoom in on the issue I created a custom postgres-wrapped database driver via the super helpful library. In Go, a database driver is composed of types that satisfy a small set of interfaces from database/sql and database/sql/driver. For example the driver itself satisfies driver.Driver and must have an Open() method that returns a connection satisfying driver.Conn. Using ngrok/sqlmw, I was able to log every invocation of a method from one of these interfaces, for example:

type loggingInterceptor struct {

func (*loggingInterceptor) ConnPing(ctx context.Context, conn driver.Pinger) error {
    log.Println("ConnPing() called")
    return conn.Ping(ctx)

func (*loggingInterceptor) ConnExecContext(ctx context.Context, conn driver.ExecerContext, query string, args []driver.NamedValue) (driver.Result, error) {
    log.Println("ConnExecContext() called")
    return conn.ExecContext(ctx, query, args)

func main() {
    // ...
    sql.Register("postgres-wrapped", sqlmw.Driver(&pq.Driver{}, &loggingInterceptor{}))
    // ...
    pool, err := sql.Open("postgres-wrapped", dsn)
    // ...

Once I was able to determine that ExecContext() was the source of the write: broken pipe, I started to modify ${GOPATH}/src/ until I narrowed down the source:

  • pq.conn.ExecContext implements driver.ExecerContext (source)
  • pq.conn.ExecContext calls pq.conn.Exec (source)
  • pq.conn.Exec calls pq.conn.simpleExec (source)
  • pq.conn.simpleExec calls pq.conn.send (source)
  • pq.conn.send fails a net.Conn.Write with "broken pipe" and then panics (source)
  • pq.conn.errRecover — invoked from pq.conn.Exec — handles the panic() recovery (source)
  • pq.conn.errRecover handles a *net.OpError by setting the bad flag to tombstone the connection but just returns the error as-is (source)

I must say I was surprised by this, using panic() / recover() essentially amounts to try / except in other languages, a pattern that is not very common in Go5.

Fixing the Bug

Luckily I was able to submit a fix (lib/pq#1013) that was small and easy to reason about. This likely contributed to the quick review and merge from the lib/pq maintainers. The fix was to explicitly mark the error as safe to retry when we know zero bytes were written and then to return the driver.ErrBadConn sentinel to signal to database/sql that the connection should be removed from the pool:

diff --git a/conn.go b/conn.go
index f313c14..0d96600 100644
--- a/conn.go
+++ b/conn.go
@@ -891,9 +891,20 @@ func (cn *conn) Exec(query string, args []driver.Value) (res driver.Result, err
    return r, err

+type safeRetryError struct {
+   Err error
+func (se *safeRetryError) Error() string {
+   return se.Err.Error()
 func (cn *conn) send(m *writeBuf) {
-   _, err := cn.c.Write(m.wrap())
+   n, err := cn.c.Write(m.wrap())
    if err != nil {
+       if n == 0 {
+           err = &safeRetryError{Err: err}
+       }
diff --git a/error.go b/error.go
index 3d66ba7..a227e08 100644
--- a/error.go
+++ b/error.go
@@ -495,6 +495,9 @@ func (cn *conn) errRecover(err *error) {
    case *net.OpError:
        cn.bad = true
        *err = v
+   case *safeRetryError:
+       cn.bad = true
+       *err = driver.ErrBadConn
    case error:
        if v == io.EOF || v.(error).Error() == "remote error: handshake failure" {
            *err = driver.ErrBadConn

I certainly didn't come up with this idea on my own. I previously mentioned that pgx did not have the same bug. When vetting pgx, I dug through the source in the same way that I did with lib/pq and found that PgConn.Exec() marks an error as safe when exactly zero bytes are written and the high-level driver connection returns the sentinel driver.ErrBadConn if an error is safe to retry.


In some sense, we should've never been down this road because lib/pq is in maintenance mode. However, the real story here is about starting from a wide open view of microservice logs and narrowing down all the way to a line of library code. Additionally, the story may not be over if the RST packets are caused by a connection handoff issue with Istio.

So what should a reader take away from this long and winding road to a bugfix?

  • A first lesson in tight feedback loops: ensure the code being debugged is running in a controlled environment. Here that meant scaling the Kubernetes deployment down to one pod
  • Networking bugs are not so scary, packet capture coupled with logs and Wireshark's helpful UI quickly told the story
  • Another lesson in tight feedback loops: once the RST hypothesis was confirmed, control the whole stack. Throw away as many confounding factors as possible and just focus in on the problem area. Strongly prefer reproducible examples that can be run on your development machine (i.e. a develop, deploy, debug loop is not tight enough).
  • Treat components as a black box when beneficial. Figuring out in fine detail how to make postgres send the RST could've taken a very long time, so we took the shorter path by putting a proxy in front of postgres that we could fully control.
  • Had we used the recommended pgx, there would have been no bug to fix; upgrade dependencies early and often and look out for deprecation notices like the one in lib/pq

  1. which later became a whole day
  2. Note the filter only applies to port 5432, the PostgreSQL port. The .pcap file only grew to 644KiB in ninety minutes but without a filter it would've been over 1GiB.
  3. This part of the socket lifecycle is not managed by Go at all, but fully by the kernel.
  4. I could've made it smaller if I ran the proxy and the client in the same binary, but in my initial sleuthing I was using Python for the proxy because of a great StackOverflow answer that taught me about SO_LINGER.
  5. and one that carries with it the cost of stack unwinding