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.

A good understanding of signals is important for an application programmer working in the Linux environment. Knowledge of the signaling mechanism and familiarity with signal-related functions help one write programs more efficiently.

An application program executes sequentially if every instruction runs properly. In case of an error or any anomaly during the execution of a program, the kernel can use signals to notify the process. Signals also have been used to communicate and synchronize processes and to simplify interprocess communications (IPCs). Although we now have advanced synchronization tools and many IPC mechanisms, signals play a vital role in Linux for handling exceptions and interrupts. Signals have been used for approximately 30 years without any major modifications.

The first 31 signals are standard signals, some of which date back to 1970s UNIX from Bell Labs. The POSIX (Portable Operating Systems and Interface for UNIX) standard introduced a new class of signals designated as real-time signals, with numbers ranging from 32 to 63.

A signal is generated when an event occurs, and then the kernel passes the event to a receiving process. Sometimes a process can send a signal to other processes. Besides process-to-process signaling, there are many situations when the kernel originates a signal, such as when file size exceeds limits, when an I/O device is ready, when encountering an illegal instruction or when the user sends a terminal interrupt like Ctrl-C or Ctrl-Z.

Every signal has a name starting with SIG and is defined as a positive unique integer number. In a shell prompt, the kill -l command will display all signals with signal number and corresponding signal name. Signal numbers are defined in the /usr/include/bits/signum.h file, and the source file is /usr/src/linux/kernel/signal.c.

A process will receive a signal when it is running in user mode. If the receiving process is running in kernel mode, the execution of the signal will start only after the process returns to user mode.

Signals sent to a non-running process must be saved by the kernel until the process resumes execution. Sleeping processes can be interruptible or uninterruptible. If a process receives a signal when it is in an interruptible sleep state, for example, waiting for terminal I/O, the kernel will awaken the process to handle the signal. If a process receives a signal when it is in uninterruptible sleep, such as waiting for disk I/O, the kernel defers the signal until the event completes.

When a process receives a signal, one of three things could happen. First, the process could ignore the signal. Second, it could catch the signal and execute a special function called a signal handler. Third, it could execute the default action for that signal; for example, the default action for signal 15, SIGTERM, is to terminate the process. Some signals cannot be ignored, and others do not have default actions, so they are ignored by default. See the signal(7) man page for a reference list of signal names, numbers, default actions and whether they can be caught.

When a process executes a signal handler, if some other signal arrives the new signal is blocked until the handler returns. This article explains the fundamentals of the signaling mechanism and elaborates on signal-related functions with syntax and working procedures.

Signals inside the Kernel

Where is the information about a signal stored in the process? The kernel has a fixed-size array of proc structures called the process table. The u or user area of the proc structure maintains control information about a process. The major fields in the u area include signal handlers and related information. The signal handler is an array with each element for each type of signal being defined in the system, indicating the action of the process on the receipt of the signal. The proc structure maintains signal-handling information, such as masks of signals that are ignored, blocked, posted and handled.

Once a signal is generated, the kernel sets a bit in the signal field of the process table entry. If the signal is being ignored, the kernel returns without taking any action. Because the signal field is one bit per signal, multiple occurrences of the same signal are not maintained.

When the signal is delivered, the receiving process should act depending on the signal. The action may be terminating the process, terminating the process after creating a core dump, ignoring the signal, executing the user-defined signal handler (if the signal is caught by the process) or resuming the process if it is temporarily suspended.

The core dump is a file called core, which has an image of the terminated process. It contains the process' variables and stack details at the time of failure. From a core file, the programmer can investigate the reason for termination using a debugger. The word core appears here for a historical reason: main memory used to be made from doughnut-shaped magnets called inductor cores.

Catching a signal means instructing the kernel that if a given signal has occurred, the program's own signal handler should be executed, instead of the default. Two exceptions are SIGKILL and SIGSTOP, which cannot be caught or ignored.

sigset_t is a basic data structure used to store the signals. The structure sent to a process is a sigset_t array of bits, one for each signal type:

typedef struct {
                   unsigned long sig[2];
                }  sigset_t;

Because each unsigned long number consists of 32 bits, the maximum number of signals that may be declared in Linux is 64 (according to POSIX compliance). No signal has the number 0, so the other 31 bits in the first element of sigset_t are the standard first 31 signals, and the bits in the second element are the real-time signal numbers 32-64. The size of sigset_t is 128 bytes.



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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.

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Dr. B. Thangaraju's picture

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Anonymous's picture

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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.