A Recap of Request Handling in Go

12th September 2013

Processing HTTP requests with Go is primarily about two things: ServeMuxes and Handlers.

A ServeMux is essentially a HTTP request router (or multiplexor). It compares incoming requests against a list of predefined URL paths, and calls the associated handler for the path whenever a match is found.

Handlers are responsible for writing response headers and bodies. Almost any object can be a handler, so long as it satisfies the http.Handler interface. In lay terms, that simply means it must have a ServeHTTP method with the following signature:

ServeHTTP(http.ResponseWriter, *http.Request)

Go's HTTP package ships with a few functions to generate common handlers, such as FileServer, NotFoundHandler and RedirectHandler. Let's begin with a simple but contrived example:

$ mkdir handler-example
$ cd handler-example
$ touch main.go
File: main.go
package main

import (
  "log"
  "net/http"
)

func main() {
  mux := http.NewServeMux()

  rh := http.RedirectHandler("http://example.org", 307)
  mux.Handle("/foo", rh)

  log.Println("Listening...")
  http.ListenAndServe(":3000", mux)
}

Let's step through this quickly:

Go ahead and run the application:

$ go run main.go
Listening...

And visit http://localhost:3000/foo in your browser. You should find that your request gets successfully redirected.

The eagle-eyed of you might have noticed something interesting: The signature for the ListenAndServe function is ListenAndServe(addr string, handler Handler), but we passed a ServeMux as the second parameter.

We were able to do this because ServeMux also has a ServeHTTP method, meaning that it too satisfies the Handler interface.

For me it simplifies things to think of a ServeMux as just being a special kind of handler, which instead of providing a response itself passes the request on to a second handler. This isn't as much of a leap as it first sounds – chaining handlers together is fairly commonplace in Go.

Custom Handlers

Let's create a custom handler which responds with the current local time in a given format:

type timeHandler struct {
  format string
}

func (th *timeHandler) ServeHTTP(w http.ResponseWriter, r *http.Request) {
  tm := time.Now().Format(th.format)
  w.Write([]byte("The time is: " + tm))
}

The exact code here isn't too important.

All that really matters is that we have an object (in this case it's a timeHandler struct, but it could equally be a string or function or anything else), and we've implemented a method with the signature ServeHTTP(http.ResponseWriter, *http.Request) on it. That's all we need to make a handler.

Let's embed this in a concrete example:

File: main.go
package main

import (
  "log"
  "net/http"
  "time"
)

type timeHandler struct {
  format string
}

func (th *timeHandler) ServeHTTP(w http.ResponseWriter, r *http.Request) {
  tm := time.Now().Format(th.format)
  w.Write([]byte("The time is: " + tm))
}

func main() {
  mux := http.NewServeMux()

  th := &timeHandler{format: time.RFC1123}
  mux.Handle("/time", th)

  log.Println("Listening...")
  http.ListenAndServe(":3000", mux)
}

In the main function we initialised the timeHandler in exactly the same way we would any normal struct, using the & symbol to yield a pointer. And then, like the previous example, we use the mux.Handle function to register this with our ServeMux.

Now when we run the application, the ServeMux will pass any request for /time straight on to our timeHandler.ServeHTTP method.

Go ahead and give it a try: http://localhost:3000/time.

Notice too that we could easily reuse the timeHandler in multiple routes:

func main() {
  mux := http.NewServeMux()

  th1123 := &timeHandler{format: time.RFC1123}
  mux.Handle("/time/rfc1123", th1123)

  th3339 := &timeHandler{format: time.RFC3339}
  mux.Handle("/time/rfc3339", th3339)

  log.Println("Listening...")
  http.ListenAndServe(":3000", mux)
}

Functions as Handlers

For simple cases (like the example above) defining new custom types and ServeHTTP methods feels a bit verbose. Let's look at an alternative approach, where we leverage Go's http.HandlerFunc type to coerce a normal function into satisfying the Handler interface.

Any function which has the signature func(http.ResponseWriter, *http.Request) can be converted into a HandlerFunc type. This is useful because HandleFunc objects come with an inbuilt ServeHTTP method which – rather cleverly and conveniently – executes the content of the original function.

If that sounds confusing, try taking a look at the relevant source code. You'll see that it's a very succinct way of making a function satisfy the Handler interface.

Let's reproduce the timeHandler application using this technique:

File: main.go
package main

import (
  "log"
  "net/http"
  "time"
)

func timeHandler(w http.ResponseWriter, r *http.Request) {
  tm := time.Now().Format(time.RFC1123)
  w.Write([]byte("The time is: " + tm))
}

func main() {
  mux := http.NewServeMux()

  // Convert the timeHandler function to a HandleFunc type
  th := http.HandlerFunc(timeHandler)
  // And add it to the ServeMux
  mux.Handle("/time", th)

  log.Println("Listening...")
  http.ListenAndServe(":3000", mux)
}

In fact, converting a function to a HandlerFunc type and then adding it to a ServeMux like this is so common that Go provides a shortcut: the ServeMux.HandleFunc method.

This is what the main() function would have looked like if we'd used this shortcut instead:

func main() {
  mux := http.NewServeMux()

  mux.HandleFunc("/time", timeHandler)

  log.Println("Listening...")
  http.ListenAndServe(":3000", mux)
}

Most of the time using a function as a handler like this works well. But there is a bit of a limitation when things start getting more complex.

You've probably noticed that, unlike the method before, we've had to hardcode the time format in the timeHandler function. What happens when we want to pass information or variables from main() to a handler?

A neat approach is to put our handler logic into a closure, and close over the variables we want to use:

File: main.go
package main

import (
  "log"
  "net/http"
  "time"
)

func timeHandler(format string) http.Handler {
  fn := func(w http.ResponseWriter, r *http.Request) {
    tm := time.Now().Format(format)
    w.Write([]byte("The time is: " + tm))
  }
  return http.HandlerFunc(fn)
}

func main() {
  mux := http.NewServeMux()

  th := timeHandler(time.RFC1123)
  mux.Handle("/time", th)

  log.Println("Listening...")
  http.ListenAndServe(":3000", mux)
}

The timeHandler function now has a subtly different role. Instead of coercing the function into a handler (like we did previously), we are now using it to return a handler. There's two key elements to making this work.

First it creates fn, an anonymous function which accesses ‐ or closes over – the format variable forming a closure. Regardless of what we do with the closure it will always be able to access the variables that are local to the scope it was created in – which in this case means it'll always have access to the format variable.

Secondly our closure has the signature func(http.ResponseWriter, *http.Request). As you may remember from earlier, this means that we can convert it into a HandlerFunc type (so that it satisfies the Handler interface). Our timeHandler function then returns this converted closure.

In this example we've just been passing a simple string to a handler. But in a real-world application you could use this method to pass database connection, template map, or any other application-level context. It's a good alternative to using global variables, and has the added benefit of making neat self-contained handlers for testing.

You might also see this same pattern written as:

func timeHandler(format string) http.Handler {
  return http.HandlerFunc(func(w http.ResponseWriter, r *http.Request) {
    tm := time.Now().Format(format)
    w.Write([]byte("The time is: " + tm))
  })
}

Or using an implicit conversion to the HandlerFunc type on return:

func timeHandler(format string) http.HandlerFunc {
  return func(w http.ResponseWriter, r *http.Request) {
    tm := time.Now().Format(format)
    w.Write([]byte("The time is: " + tm))
  }
}

The DefaultServeMux

You've probably seen DefaultServeMux mentioned in lots of places, from the simplest Hello World examples to the Go source code.

It took me a long time to realise it isn't anything special. The DefaultServeMux is just a plain ol' ServeMux like we've already been using, which gets instantiated by default when the HTTP package is used. Here's the relevant line from the Go source:

var DefaultServeMux = NewServeMux()

The HTTP package provides a couple of shortcuts for working with the DefaultServeMux: http.Handle and http.HandleFunc. These do exactly the same as their namesake functions we've already looked at, with the difference that they add handlers to the DefaultServeMux instead of one that you've created.

Additionally, ListenAndServe will fall back to using the DefaultServeMux if no other handler is provided (that is, the second parameter is set to nil).

So as a final step, let's update our timeHandler application to use the DefaultServeMux instead:

File: main.go
package main

import (
  "log"
  "net/http"
  "time"
)

func timeHandler(format string) http.Handler {
  fn := func(w http.ResponseWriter, r *http.Request) {
    tm := time.Now().Format(format)
    w.Write([]byte("The time is: " + tm))
  }
  return http.HandlerFunc(fn)
}

func main() {
  // Note that we skip creating the ServeMux...

  var format string = time.RFC1123
  th := timeHandler(format)

  // We use http.Handle instead of mux.Handle...
  http.Handle("/time", th)

  log.Println("Listening...")
  // And pass nil as the handler to ListenAndServe.
  http.ListenAndServe(":3000", nil)
}

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Filed under: golang, tutorial
Last updated: 6th October 2014 (for Go version 1.3)

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