Process Handling in Linux
October 11, 2005
In Linux processes communicate with each other and with the kernel to coordinate their activities. Linux supports a number of Inter-Process Communication (IPC) mechanisms. Signals and pipes are two of them but Linux also supports the System V IPC mechanisms named after the Unix TM release in which they first appeared. Signals are one of the oldest inter-process communication methods used by Unix TM systems. The common Linux shells all allow redirection. For example $ ls | pr | lpr pipes the output from the ls command listing the directory's files into the standard input of the pr command which paginates them. Finally the standard output from the pr command is piped into the standard input of the lpr command which prints the results on the default printer. (2005,www.tldp.org) They are used to signal asynchronous events to one or more processes. A signal could be generated by a keyboard interrupt or an error condition such as the process attempting to access a non-existent location in its virtual memory. Signals are also used by the shells to signal job control commands to their child processes. There are a set of defined signals that the kernel can generate or that can be generated by other processes in the system, provided that they have the correct privileges. Processes can choose to ignore most of the signals that are generated, with two notable exceptions: neither the SIGSTOP signal which causes a process to halt its execution nor the SIGKILL signal which causes a process to exit can be ignored. Otherwise though, a process can choose just how it wants to handle the various signals. Processes can block the signals and, if they do not block them, they can either choose to handle them themselves or allow the kernel to handle them. If the kernel handles the signals, it will do the default actions required for this signal. For example, the default action when a process receives the SIGFPE (floating point exception) signal is to core dump and then exit. Signals have no inherent relative priorities. If two signals are generated for a process at the same time then they may be presented to the process or handled in any order. Also there is no mechanism for handling multiple signals of the same kind. There is no way that a process can tell if it received 1 or 42 SIGCONT signals. (2005,www.tldp.org) Linux implements signals using information stored in the task_struct for the process. The number of supported signals is limited to the word size of the processor. Processes with a word size of 32 bits can have 32 signals whereas 64 bit processors like the Alpha AXP may have up to 64 signals. The currently pending signals are kept in the signal field with a mask of blocked signals held in blocked. With the exception of SIGSTOP and SIGKILL, all signals can be blocked. If a blocked signal is generated, it remains pending until it is unblocked. Linux also holds information about how each process handles every possible signal and this is held in an array of sigaction data structures pointed at by the task_struct for each process. Amongst other things it contains either the address of a routine that will handle the signal or a flag which tells Linux that the process either wishes to ignore this signal or let the kernel handle the signal for it. The process modifies the default signal handling by making system calls and these calls alter the sigaction for the appropriate signal as well as the blocked mask. Not every process in the system can send signals to every other process, the kernel can and super users can. Normal processes can only send signals to processes with the same uid and gid or to processes in the same process group1. Signals are generated by setting the appropriate bit in the task_struct's signal field. If the process has not blocked the signal and is waiting but interruptible (in state Interruptible) then it is woken up by changing its state to Running and making...
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