Engineering Blog

Being puzzled about when to use channels or mutexes

Given a concurrency problem, it may not always be clear whether we can implement a solution using channels or mutexes. Because Go promotes sharing memory by communication, one mistake could be to always force the use of channels, regardless of the use case. However, we should see the two options as complementary. This section clarifies when we should favor one option over the other. The goal is not to discuss every possible use case (that would probably take an entire chapter) but to give general guidelines that can help us decide.


First, a brief reminder about channels in Go: channels are a communication mechanism. Internally, a channel is a pipe we can use to send and receive values and that allows us to connect concurrent goroutines. A channel can be either of the following:

  • Unbuffered—The sender goroutine blocks until the receiver goroutine is ready.
  • Buffered—The sender goroutine blocks only when the buffer is full.

When should we use channels or mutexes?

Let’s get back to our initial problem. When should we use channels or mutexes? We will use the example the given figure as a backbone.

Our example has three different goroutines with specific relationships:

  • G1 and G2 are parallel goroutines. They may be two goroutines executing the same function that keeps receiving messages from a channel, or perhaps two goroutines executing the same HTTP handler at the same time.
  • On the other hand, G1 and G3 are concurrent goroutines, as are G2 and G3. All the goroutines are part of an overall concurrent structure, but G1 and G2 perform the first step, whereas G3 does the next step.

In general, parallel goroutines have to synchronize: for example, when they need to access or mutate a shared resource such as a slice. Synchronization is enforced with mutexes but not with any channel types (not with buffered channels). Hence, in general, synchronization between parallel goroutines should be achieved via mutexes.

Conversely, in general, concurrent goroutines have to coordinate and orchestrate. For example, if G3 needs to aggregate results from both G1 and G2, G1 and G2 need to signal to G3 that a new intermediate result is available. This coordination falls under the scope of communication—therefore, channels. Regarding concurrent goroutines, there’s also the case where we want to transfer the ownership of a resource from one step (G1 and G2) to another (G3); for example, if G1 and G2 are enriching a shared resource and at some point, we consider this job as complete. Here, we should use channels to signal that a specific resource is ready and handle the ownership transfer.


Mutexes and channels have different semantics. Whenever we want to share a state or access a shared resource, mutexes ensure exclusive access to this resource. Conversely, channels are a mechanic for signaling with or without data (chan struct{} or not). Coordination or ownership transfer should be achieved via channels. It’s important to know whether goroutines are parallel or concurrent because, in general, we need mutexes for parallel goroutines and channels for concurrent ones.


  • 100 Go Mistakes and how to avoid them, Teiva Harsanyi, Manning Publications Co
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