Linux Signals for the Application Programmer

Signals are a fundamental method for interprocess communication ad are used in everything from network servers to media players. Here's how you can use them in your applications.
Handling Signals

There are many system calls and signal-supported library functions, which provide an easy and efficient way of handling the signals in a process. We start with the standard old signal system call, then we discuss some useful functions like sigaction, sigaddset, sigemptyset, sigdelset, sigismember and kill.

The Signal System Call

The signal system call is used to catch, ignore or set the default action of a specified signal. It takes two arguments: a signal number and a pointer to a user-defined signal handler. Two reserved predefined signal handlers are available in Linux: SIG_IGN and SIG_DFL. SIG_IGN will ignore a specified signal, and SIG_DFL will set the signal handler to the default action for that signal (see man 2 signal).

On success, the system call returns the previous value of the signal handler for the specified signal. If the signal call fails, it returns SIG_ERR. Listing 1 explains how to catch, ignore and set the default action of SIGINT. Try pressing Ctrl-C, which sends SIGINT, during each part.

Listing 1. Catching and Ignoring a Signal


The sigaction system call can be used instead of signal because it has lot of control over a given signal. The syntax of sigaction is:

int sigaction ( int signum,
                const struct sigaction *act,
                struct sigaction *oldact);

The first argument, signum, is a specified signal; the second argument, sigaction, is used to set the new action of the signal signum; and the third argument is used to store the previous action, usually NULL.

The sigaction structure is defined as:

struct sigaction {
    void (*sa_handler)(int);
    void (*sa_sigaction)(int, siginfo_t *, void *);
    sigset_t sa_mask;
    int sa_flags;

The members of the sigaction structure are described as follows.

sa_hander: a pointer to a user-defined signal handler or predefined signal handler (SIG_IGN or SIG_DFL).

sa_mask: specifies a mask of signals when the signal is handled. To avoid the blocking of signals, the SA_NODEFER or SA_NOMASK flags can be used.

sa_flags: specifies the action of signal. Sets of flags are available for controlling the signal in a different manner. More than one flag can be used by ORing:

  • SA_NOCLDSTOP: if we specify the SIGCHLD signal, when the child has stopped its execution it does not receive notification.

  • SA_ONESHOT or SA_RESETHAND: restores the default action of the signal after the user-defined signal handler is executed. To avoid setting the default action, SA_RESTART can be used.

  • SA_NOMASK or SA_NODEFER prevents masking the signal. SA_SIGINFO is used to receive signal-related information.

sa_sigaction: if the SA_SIGINFO flag is used in sa_flags, instead of specifying the signal handler in sa_handler, sa_sigaction should be used.

sa_sigaction is a pointer to a function that takes three arguments, not one as sa_handler does, for example:

void my_handler (int signo, siginfo_t *info,
                     void *context)

Here, signo is the signal number, and info is a pointer to the structure of type siginfo_t, which specifies the signal-related information; and context is a pointer to an object of type ucontext_t, which refers to the receiving process context that was interrupted with the delivered signal.

Listing 2 is similar to Listing 1 but uses the sigaction system call instead of the signal system call. Listing 3 explains signal-related information using the SIG_INFO flag.

Listing 2. Same as Listing 1, but with Sigaction

Listing 3. Using SA_SIGINFO and sa_sigaction to Extract Information from a Signal

Sending Signals

Until now, we've been pressing Ctrl-C to send SIGINT from the shell. To do it from a program, use the kill system call, which accepts two arguments, process ID and signal number:

int kill ( pid_t process_id, int signal_number );

If the pid is positive, the signal is sent to a particular process. If the pid is negative, the signal is sent to the process whose group ID matches the absolute value of pid.

As you might expect, the kill command, which exists as a standalone program (/bin/kill) and is also built into bash (try help kill) uses the kill system call to send a signal.

Not all processes can send signals to each other. In order for one process to send a signal to another, either the sender must be running as root, or the sender's real or effective user ID must be the same as the real or saved ID of the receiver. This means your shell, running as you, can signal a setuid program that you started, but that is now running as root, for example:

cp /bin/sleep ~/rootsleep
sudo chmod u+s ~/rootsleep
./rootsleep 40
killall rootsleep
rm ~/rootsleep

A normal user can't send signals to system processes such as swapper and init.

You also can use kill to find out if a process exists. Specify a signal number of 0, and if the process exists, the kill returns zero; if it doesn't, kill returns -1.

Listing 4. Programs to Send and Receive SIGINT

Listings 4 and 4a explain how to use the kill system call. First, execute the 4a program in one window and get its process ID. Now, run the Listing 4 program in another window and give the 4a example's pid as the input.

This article should help you understand the fundamental concept of a signal and some of its importance. Try the sample programs, and see the man pages for the system calls and the references in Resources for more information.



Dr B. Thangaraju received a PhD in Physics and worked as a research associate for five years at the Indian Institute of Science, India. He is presently working as a manager at Talent Transformation, Wipro Technologies, India. He has published many research papers in renowned international journals. His current areas of research, study and knowledge dissemination are the Linux kernel, device drivers and real-time Linux.



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What if I want to define my signal

Noman Shaukat's picture

I want to define a signal 'SIGCUST 90'

but when i send this signal using kill it say unspecified signal ......

help required ......

Very good introduction

Raphael's picture

Thanks for the article. This is the shortest (but best) explanation of signals programming I've found.

email address change.

Dr. B. Thangaraju's picture

My email address is changed from "" to "".

with best regards,

This change was good idea :)

Anonymous's picture

This change was good idea :)

Re: Linux Signals for the Application Programmer

Anonymous's picture

Dear Author, The article is very interesting and gives a very simple way to understand the tough concept. I am very pleased to see your Physics background with the rich knowledge in Computer Science. Can simply recall the line that Physics is the mother of all Science.