Error Retries in Temporal Workflow

Retry or not retry?

Introduction

When working with Temporal to build workflows, you will have to face to error handling at some point because workflow and activity can fail for different reasons. Temporal Go SDK defines its error handling logic and activity and workflow retries in the official documentation. But whenever I visit those pages, I always feel that it’s missing something that I need as a developer. So I decide to write this article, to share my understanding of error retries in Temporal in Go SDK, as a complementary to the official documents. And hopefully, it will clarify different situations and give you a clearer picture of how errors are retried. This article is written with Temporal Go SDK v1.10.0 (15 Sept 2021).

• The difference between retryable and non-retryable error at acvitity level
• Non-retryable error types in retry policy
• How to use retry policy?
• The maximum attempts when retrying
• How to write unit tests?

If you don’t have time to read the entire article, here is a table for summarizing the difference.

Scope Error Type Methods Retryable (Default) Retryable (Override)
Activity ApplicationError temporal.NewNonRetryableApplicationError() No -
Activity ApplicationError temporal.NewApplicationError() Yes -
Activity Other errors fmt.Errorf(), errors.New() Yes Retry policy (activity options)
Top-level workflow All - No Retry policy (start workflow options)
Child workflow All - No Retry policy (child workflow options)

Retryable and Non-Retryable Application Error

By default, Temporal retries activities, but not workflows. According to official documentation Error Handling in Go, if the activity returns an error as errors.New() or fmt.Errorf(), that error will be converted to *temporal.ApplicationError, which is retryable. If you don’t want the error to be retried, you can return a non-retryable application error from the activity.

func MyActivity(ctx context.Context, name string) (string, error) {
...
// retryable
return "", fmt.Errorf("oops")
}

func MyActivity(ctx context.Context, name string) (string, error) {
...
// retryable
return "", temporal.NewApplicationError("oops", "test")
}

func MyActivity(ctx context.Context, name string) (string, error) {
...
// non-retryable
return "", temporal.NewNonRetryableApplicationError("oops", "test", err)
}


This is easy to understand: Temporal wants to provide a fault-tolerant system so that it can retry automatically when thing goes wrong. So at activity-level, error are retried by default, unless user asks Temporal to not retry explicitly via wrapper method temporal.NewNonRetryableApplicationError(...).

If we dive into the source code, you can see that ApplicationError determines the retry-ability of an error using its internal boolean attribute nonRetryable:

// go.temporal.io/sdk@v1.10.0/internal/error.go
type (
// ApplicationError returned from activity implementations with message and optional details.
ApplicationError struct {
temporalError
msg          string
errType      string
nonRetryable bool  // HERE
cause        error
details      converter.EncodedValues
}
...
}


One possible usecase for temporal.NewNonRetryableApplicationError(...) is when interacting with a third-party service. When that service returns a deterministic error indicating that required action cannot be performed, you may not want to retry. For example, when a resource deletion request is rejected by the third party service because it is still in used, you probably don’t want to retry. Therefore, calling temporal.NewNonRetryableApplicationError(...) is a good choice.

Non-Retryable Error Types in Retry Policy

Another way to define non-retryable error types for activity is to provide a custom RetryPolicy as part of the ActivityOptions or ChildWorkflowOptions. For example, to avoid retrying errors of type MyError, we can make it as non-retryable as follows:

func MyWorkflowWithRetryPolicy(ctx workflow.Context, name string) (string, error) {
ctx = workflow.WithActivityOptions(ctx, workflow.ActivityOptions{
StartToCloseTimeout: 10 * time.Second,
RetryPolicy: &temporal.RetryPolicy{
InitialInterval:    1 * time.Second,
BackoffCoefficient: 2,
MaximumInterval:    1 * time.Minute,
MaximumAttempts:    5,
NonRetryableErrorTypes: []string{"MyError"},  // HERE
},
})
...
}


But, why Temporal has NonRetryableErrorTypes in Retry Policy? In my opionion, there are several reasons:

• temporal.NewNonRetryableApplicationError(...) is not enough. It does not fit all the usecases. Sometime users already know the error types that they don’t want to retry, but they don’t want to determine the error types themselves for each activity and fire a non-retryable applicaton error, since it makes the activity verbose.
• Bringing the control at workflow level. An activity can be used for multiple workflows, e.g. primitive activities for GitHub, Slack, Build, Kubernetes, etc. Depending on the case of each workflow, some may want to retry while others don’t.
• Retry policy is not only used by activity. It can be used as part of the activity options, child workflow options, or event the top-level workflow options. Since the policy controls the retry activitation, having NonRetryableErrorTypes allows to refine the activiations on different types of error.

Using Retry Policy

Now, let’s see how to use retry policy in different cases.

Activity Options

Enable custom retry policy as activity options:

func MyWorkflowWithRetryPolicy(ctx workflow.Context, name string) (string, error) {
ctx = workflow.WithActivityOptions(ctx, workflow.ActivityOptions{
StartToCloseTimeout: 10 * time.Second,
RetryPolicy:         &retryPolicy,
})
...
}


In this case, failed activities will be retried, more precisely:

• Errors having type defined in NonRetryableErrorTypes won’t be retried
• Errors wrapped into non-retryable application error won’t be retried
• Other application errors will be retried

Child Workflow Options

Enable custom retry policy as child workflow options:

func MyWorkflowWithChildWorkflowRetryPolicy(ctx workflow.Context, name string) (string, error) {
ctx = workflow.WithChildOptions(ctx, workflow.ChildWorkflowOptions{
WorkflowRunTimeout: 10 * time.Second,
RetryPolicy:        &retryPolicy,
})
...
}


In this case, failed child workflow will be retried (which is not the case by default). The child workflow will be retried on all types of errors, except the ones defined in NonRetryableErrorTypes in the retry policy.

Top-Level Workflow Options

Enable custom retry policy as top-level workflow options:

startOptions := client.StartWorkflowOptions{
ID:                  id,
WorkflowRunTimeout:  20 * time.Second,
WorkflowTaskTimeout: 3 * time.Second,
RetryPolicy:         &retryPolicy,
}
err := ts.executeWorkflowWithOption(startOptions, workflowFn, nil)


In this case, top-level workflow will be retried by the server on all types of errors, except the ones defined in NonRetryableErrorTypes in the retry policy.

Maximum Attempts

For how many times is the server going to retry?

When the custom retry policy is defined, the answer is obvious: the server is going to retry MaximumAttempts times, defined in the policy. If the policy is defined, but MaximumAttempts is not set or set to 0, it means unlimited, and we rely on activity ScheduleToCloseTimeout to stop.

When the custom retry policy is not defined, for activities, it means using the default retry policy. The default RetryPolicy provided by the server specifies (v1.10.0):

• InitialInterval of 1 second
• BackoffCoefficient of 2.0
• MaximumInterval of 100 x InitialInterval
• MaximumAttempts of 0 (unlimited)

For top-level workflow or child workflow, it means that there are no retry because by default, Temporal retries activies, but not workflows (doc).

Writing Unit Tests

Now we understand how the error retries mechanism works, it’s time to write some tests. Yes, writing tests because we need it: we need it to assert the retry behavior, to assert the number of retry attempts, to assert the completion and the result of the workflow, etc.

Here is an example for demonstrating that an applicaton error “oops” is retryable and the activity is being executed twice: the first time failed and the second time succeed.

func (ts *WorkflowTestSuite) TestActivityError_ExplicitRetryableError() {
// Given
executionCount := 0
ts.env.OnActivity(MyActivity, mock.Anything, mock.Anything).Return(func(ctx context.Context, msg string) (string, error) {
executionCount++
if executionCount == 1 {
return "", temporal.NewApplicationError("oops", "test")
} else {
return "Hello, UnitTest!", nil
}
})

// When
ts.env.ExecuteWorkflow(MyWorkflow, "UnitTest")

// Then
ts.True(ts.env.IsWorkflowCompleted())

var result string
ts.NoError(ts.env.GetWorkflowResult(&result))
ts.Equal("Hello, UnitTest!", result)
ts.Equal(2, executionCount, "1st execution failed and 2nd execution succeed")
}


See https://github.com/mincong-h/learning-go/pull/15 for more samples.

Conclusion

In this article, we saw the retryable and non-retryable application errors in Temporal; we saw the non-retryable error tpes defined by RetryPolicy; we saw how to use retry policy as activity options, child workflow options, and start workflow options for top-level workflows; and we also discuss the maximum attempts for retries in different cases.