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Watching for File Changes in Go

·682 words·4 mins·

In numerous cases, such as my general-purpose file watcher stalk, software needs to be aware of changes in files in near-real-time and respond to them. Luckily, the fsnotify library implements a Go-native channel-based interface that works seamlessly across operating systems that enables Go developers to tap into the host machine’s file system based on specific events.

Required Packages #

The following packages are required for time measurements, OS-level APIs and user signal handling.

import (


Initialising Watcher #

Firstly, the file watcher has to be initialised, and while I’m at it, I’ll also create a fatal errors channel for the termination logic I’ll discuss later.

watcher, err := fsnotify.NewWatcher()
if err != nil {
	return err
defer watcher.Close()
// fatal error channel
errs := make(chan error, 1)

Watching for Events #

In a separate thread, the file watcher listens to its multiplexed events and errors channels. For the events channel I found that sometimes more than one write events are received every time I save a file (from a text editor), which is why I choose to ignore subsequent events that are less than 10th of a second from their predecessor. In addition, I found some events had an empty Name property, which is probably related to a write event on one of the root directories the file watcher is assigned to. At present, I filter out the above-mentioned subset of events because this subset of events has no meaning for a general file watcher like stalk, but you should decide for your use case how much filtering your code should perform.

After filtering out unwanted events, you can write custom code that handles this events as per your use case.

go func() {
	lastEventTime := time.Unix(0, 0)
	for {
		select {
		case event := <-watcher.Events:
			eventType := event.Op != fsnotify.Write && event.Op != fsnotify.Create
			eventTime := time.Since(lastEventTime) <= time.Second/10
			if event.Name == "" || eventType || eventTime {
			// do something in a thread-safe manner
		case err := <-watcher.Errors:
			// deal with error, can either stop watching by breaking from the loop
			// can report error by pushing to global error channel

Adding Files to Watch #

While the file watcher waits for events, a separate thread adds the files to be watched in parallel. These files can be obtained from command-line arguments, an external file, an array/slice, an network request or any other method that enables you to iterate over a file path list.

go func() {
	// assuming a files array/slice is available
	for _, path := range files {
		if err := watcher.Add(path); err != nil {
			// handle file system error

Termination #

In order to enable clean termination upon request or fatal error such that the file watcher is closed correctly, I tend to wait to either for a user-issued signal (sent by the signals channel), or to a fatal error (sent by the logic shown above through the errs channel). Assuming the file watcher initialisation and termination logic are in the same function, any return statement after the file watcher’s creation will trigger its defer statement, thus exiting cleanly. If this is not the case, the file watcher’s Close method can be called without deferring.

signals := make(chan os.Signal, 1)
signal.Notify(signals, os.Interrupt, syscall.SIGINT, syscall.SIGQUIT)
select {
case <-signals:
	// respond to user-issued termination signal
case err := <-errs:
	// respond to error
// triggering the defer statement shown above

My Use Cases #

My general-purpose file watcher implements a variation of the above-mentioned logic in two ways:

  • stalk wait waits for a single file system event that applies to its set of paths, supplied by its command arguments.
  • stalk watch continuously watches for file system events that applies to its set of paths (supplied by its command arguments), and runs a shell command for each until stopped by a fatal error or the user.

I use it for observing live changes in my Pandoc-$\LaTeX$ files, and live-reloading my HTTP server code as I edit and re-save it, all across both Linux and macOS systems.