The program that would not go away

This post is about a program hang. The hang was in the Python process that was running Ansible scripts. The problem was hard to debug and had me go back to Unix textbook.

Quick quiz

This quiz is about Unix signals.

Let’s say you’ve set SIGTERM to be ignored in your program. You invoke a shell script and the script itself invokes, say, python.

Can you quickly tell if you can kill the python process via SIGTERM?

As you might have guessed by now, the answer is no.

The signal disposition of your program is carried forward to your child and beyond, unless the child program resets it at startup.

Signals in Unix

Unix allows you to deal with signals in two ways.

  • You can ignore a signal, and the system will not deliver it to you. On the other hand, you can also specify a function that will handle the signal. The relevant system call is sigaction().

  • You can specify a signal mask: a series of bits that tell the system which signals not to deliver. The signals are said to be blocked, until a system call is specifically made to unblock them. The relevant system call is sigprocmask().

Signals across program copies

The crucial question is: what happens to these when you make a copy of yourself via fork, or load a different program via exec?

Here’s what happens.

  • If you’ve asked a signal to be ignored, the forked and execed programs will inherit it.

  • If you’ve set up a signal handler, the forked program retains this handler, but the exec’ed program does not. (It cannot, because the new program is entirely different code, right?)

  • If you’ve set up a signal mask for blocking, the forked and execed programs will inherit it.

The manual pages are quite dense about this:

After a fork(2) or vfork(2) all signals, the signal mask, the signal stack, and the restart/interrupt flags are inherited by the child.

The execve(2) system call reinstates the default action for all signals which were caught and resets all signals to be caught on the user stack. Ignored signals remain ignored; the signal mask remains the same; signals that restart pending system calls continue to do so.

Useful commands

ps, the standard utility to observe process state, has the following flags to check the signal details for a program. The commands below come from FreeBSD, but it will be similar on Linux or Mac OS X.

The output below is quite wide, so you may have to scroll a bit to the right.

$ ps axjf -O pending,ignored,blocked
pgxl        27053     1 26638 11566    0 I     ??    0:00.58 /usr/local/bin/p 27053        0 1948d007     5004  ??  I      0:00.58 /usr/local/bin/python -u /va

Note the 3 columns with headers PENDING, IGNORED and BLOCKED. They show which signals are pending delivery to the process, which are being ignored by the process, and which have been blocked.

This particular process has no pending signals (0). It is ignoring some signals, as specified by the mask 0x1948d007. It is also blocking some signals, vide the mask 0x5004.

You can decipher the mask by looking at the man page for signal, but the easier way is to use the procstat command. With the -i option, it shows which signals are being ignored (I), and with the -j option, it shows which signals are being blocked (B).

$ procstat -i 38540
  PID COMM             SIG     FLAGS
38540 nsulfd           HUP      -I-
38540 nsulfd           INT      -I-
38540 nsulfd           QUIT     -I-
38540 nsulfd           ILL      ---
38540 nsulfd           TRAP     ---

$ procstat -j 38540
  PID    TID COMM             SIG     FLAGS
38540 101220 nsulfd           HUP      --
38540 101220 nsulfd           INT      --
38540 101220 nsulfd           QUIT     -B
38540 101220 nsulfd           ILL      --
38540 101220 nsulfd           TRAP     --

The Ansible problem

With this introduction, I can now analyze the problem I had. Ansible forks a bunch of worker processes and they communicate via a queue. When the work is all done, the driver sends them a TERM signal.

But with the above setup of SIGTERM being ignored by some parent process which invoked Ansible, they never get the TERM … and they hang!

I spent a lot of time over the details of Python’s multiprocessing, decoding Python’s call stack via gdb, and of course, reading similar Ansible bug reports. The actual solution came when I noticed that another program from the same parent was also not terminating. A sharp colleague of mine connected the dots and thought this might have something to do with signal inheritance. Bingo!

View from the other side

It is possible to verify some of this behavior from the kernel sources. Here is the relevant code in the implementation of fork() in FreeBSD 8.4. You can see the mask of blocked signals, as well as handlers being passed from parent to child.


(kern/fork.c. Comments mine.)

            /* copy signal mask from parent to child */
547         td2->td_sigmask = td->td_sigmask;
            /* ... */
572         if (flags & RFSIGSHARE) {
                    /* not true for fork() - ignore */
574         } else {
                    /* this is a copy from parent to child:
                     * child inherits the handlers, ignored signals,
                     * signals okay to be caught, etc.
575                 sigacts_copy(newsigacts, p1->p_sigacts);
576                 p2->p_sigacts = newsigacts;
577         }


Here is the relevant code in exec(), where the system resets signal handlers.

(kern/kern_sig.c. Comments mine.)

941         ps = p->p_sigacts;
942         mtx_lock(&ps->ps_mtx);
            /* go through all the signals the program wants to catch */
943         while (SIGNOTEMPTY(ps->ps_sigcatch)) {
                    /* find first signal caught by a handler function */
944                 sig = sig_ffs(&ps->ps_sigcatch);
                    /* remove it so that this while loop can end */
945                 SIGDELSET(ps->ps_sigcatch, sig);
                    /* if this signal is to be ignored by default ... */
946                 if (sigprop(sig) & SA_IGNORE) {
                            /* ... set it to be ignored */
947                         if (sig != SIGCONT)
948                                 SIGADDSET(ps->ps_sigignore, sig);
949                         sigqueue_delete_proc(p, sig);
950                 }
                    /* set default action on the signal - handler is gone */
951                 ps->ps_sigact[_SIG_IDX(sig)] = SIG_DFL;
952         }

What’s interesting about the exec code is what it does not do, and therefore what I cannot show: it does not clear signals that are already being ignored (ps_sigignore). Also, it does not clear the signal mask (td_sigmask).

This means both of these remain the same on the exec’ed code!

More information

There is more to Unix signals than what a blog post can discuss. For a very good treatment of the nuances in a dedicated chapter, I recommend the book Computer Systems: A Programmer’s Perspective by Bryant and O’Hallaron.

unix  signals  fork  exec 

See also