At a recent street fair, I was mesmerized by the one-man band. Yes, I am easily amused, but I was impressed nonetheless. Combining harmonica, banjo, cymbals, and a kick drum -- at mouth, lap, knees, and foot, respectively -- the veritable solo symphony gave a rousing performance of the Led Zeppelin classic "Stairway to Heaven" and a moving interpretation of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. By comparison, I'm lucky if I can pat my head and rub my tummy in tandem. (Or is it pat my tummy and rub my head?)
Lucky for you, the UNIX® operating system is much more like the one-man band than your clumsy columnist. UNIX is exceptional at juggling many tasks at once, all the while orchestrating access to the system's finite resources (memory, devices, and CPUs). In lay terms, UNIX can readily walk and chew gum at the same time.
This month, let's probe a little deeper than usual to examine how UNIX manages to do so many things simultaneously. While spelunking, let's also glimpse the internals of your shell to see how job-control commands, such as Control-C (terminate) and Control-Z (suspend), are implemented. Headlamps on! To the bat cave!
A real multitasker
On UNIX (and most modern operating systems, including Microsoft® Windows®, Mac OS X, FreeBSD, and Linux®), each computing task is represented by a process. UNIX runs many tasks seemingly at the same time because each process receives a little slice of CPU time in a (conceptually) round-robin fashion.
A process is something of a container, bundling a running application, its environment variables, the state of the application's input and output, and the state of the process, including its priority and accumulated resource usage. Figure 1 pictures a process.
Figure 1. A conceptual model of a UNIX process
If it helps, you can think of a process as its own sovereign nation, with borders, resources, and gross domestic product.
Each process also has an owner. Tasks you initiate -- your shell and commands, say -- are typically owned by you. System services might be owned by special users or by the superuser, root. For example, to enhance security, the Apache HTTP Server is typically owned by a dedicated user named www, which provides access to the files the Web server needs, but no others.
Ownership of a process might change but is otherwise strictly exclusive. A process can have only one owner at any given time.
Finally (and simplifying for this introduction), each process has privileges. Typically, a process's privileges are commensurate with those of its owner. (For instance, if you can't access a particular file from your command-line shell, programs you launch from the shell inherit the same limitation.) An exception to this inheritance rule, where a process might acquire greater privileges than its owner, is an application with the special setuid or setgid bit enabled, as shown by ls.
The setuid bit can be set using
chmod u+s. setuid
permissions look like this:
$ ls -l /usr/bin/top -rwsr-xr-x 1 root wheel 83088 Mar 20 2005 top
The setgid bit can be set using
$ ls -l /usr/bin/top -r-xr-sr-x 1 root tty 19388 Mar 20 2005 /usr/bin/wall
A setuid process, such as launching top, runs with the privileges of the user who owns the file. Hence, when you run top, your privileges are promoted to those of root. Similarly, a setgid process runs with the privileges associated with the group owner of the file.
For instance, on Mac OS X, the wall utility -- short for "write all," because it writes a message to every physical or virtual terminal device -- is setgid tty (as shown above). When you log in and are assigned a terminal device to type in (the terminal becomes standard input for your shell), you're made the owner of the device, and tty becomes the group owner. Because wall runs with the privileges of group tty, it can open and write to every terminal.
Like all other system resources, your UNIX system has a finite, albeit large pool
of processes. (In practice, a system almost never runs out of processes.) Each new
task -- say, launching vi or running xclock -- is immediately allocated a process
from the pool. On UNIX systems, you can view one or more processes using the
For example, if you want to see all
the processes you own, type
ps -w --user username:
$ ps -w --user mstreicher
You can view the entire list of processes using
ps -a -w -x. (The format and specific flags of the
ps command vary from UNIX flavor to UNIX flavor. See
the online documentation for your system to find specifics.)
-a selects all processes running on a tty device;
-x further selects all processes not associated with a
tty, which typically includes all the perpetual system services, such as the
Apache HTTP server, the cron job scheduler, and so on; and
-w shows a wide format, useful for seeing the command
line or full pathname of the application associated with each process.
ps has a legion of features, and some versions of
ps even allow you to customize the output. For example,
here is a useful custom process listing:
$ ps --user mstreicher -o pid,uname,command,state,stime,time PID USER COMMAND S STIME TIME 14138 mstreic sshd: mstreicher S 09:57 00:00:00 14139 mstreic -bash S 09:57 00:00:00 14937 mstreic ps --user mstrei R 10:23 00:00:00
-o formats output according to the order of the named
command are process ID, user name, and command,
state reflects the process state, such as
S) or running (
(More on process state in a moment.)
stime shows when
the command started, and
time shows how much CPU time
the process has consumed.
Daddy, where do processes come from?
On UNIX, some processes run from system boot to shutdown, but most processes come and go rapidly, as tasks start and complete. At times, a process can die a premature, even horrible death (say, due to a crash). Where do new processes come from?
Each new UNIX process is the spawn of an existing process. Further, each new process -- let's call it the "child" process -- is a clone of its "parent" process, at least for an instant, until the child continues execution independently. (If each new process is the offspring of an existing process, that begs the quandary, "Where does the first process come from?" See the sidebar below for the answer.)
Figures 1-4 detail the spawning, uh, process:
- In Figures 2 and 3, Process A is
running a program represented by the blue box. It runs the instructions numbered
10, 11, 12, and so on. Process A has its own data, its own copy of the program,
its set of open files, and its own collection of environment variables, which
were initially captured when Process A sprang into existence.
Figure 2. Process A running code
- In UNIX, the
fork()system call (so named because it's a call, or request, for operating system assistance) is used to spawn a new process. When Program A executes
fork()in Instruction 13, the system immediately creates an exact clone of Process A, named Process Z. Z has the same environment variables as A, the same memory contents, the same program state, and the same files open. The state of Processes A and Z immediately after Process A spawns process Z is shown in Figure 3.
Figure 3. Process A spawns a clone of itself
- At inception, Process Z begins execution at the same place where Process A left off. That is, after inception, Process Z begins execution at Instruction 14. Process A continues execution at the same instruction.
- Typically, the programming logic at Instruction 14 tests whether the current
process is the child or parent process -- that is, Instruction 14 in Process Z
and Instruction 14 in process A separately determine if its process is the
progeny or progenitor. To differentiate, the
fork()system call returns 0 in the progeny but returns the process ID of Process Z to the progenitor.
- After the previous test, Process A and Process Z diverge, each taking a
separate code path, as if both came to a fork in the road and each took a
distinct branch. The process of spawning a new process is more often called
forking, given the metaphor of two travelers reaching a fork in the
road. Hence, the system call is named
After the fork, Process A might continue running the same application. However, Process Z might immediately choose to metamorphose to another application. The latter operation of changing what program is running with a process is called execution, but you can think of it as reincarnation: Although the process ID remains the same, the instructions within the process are replaced entirely with those of the new program. Figure 4 shows the state of Process Z some time later.
Figure 4. Process Z is now independent of its progenitor, Process A
You can experience forking right from the comfort of your private command line. To begin, open a new xterm. (You likely now realize that xterm is its own process and, within xterm, the shell is a separate process spawned by xterm). Next, type:
ps -o pid,ppid,uname,command,state,stime,time
You should see something like this:
PID PPID USER COMMAND S STIME TIME 16351 16350 mstreic -bash S 11:23 00:00:00 16364 16351 mstreic ps -o pid,ppid,u R 11:24 00:00:00
According to the
PPID fields in this list, the
ps command is a child of the bash shell. (The
-bash indicates that the shell instance is a
login shell.) To run
ps, bash forks to create a new
process; the new process reincarnates itself using execution, turning into a new
Here's another experiment to try. Type:
sleep 10 & sleep 10 & sleep 10 & ps -o pid,ppid,uname,command,state,stime,time
You should see something like this:
$ sleep 10 & sleep 10 & sleep 10 & ps -o pid,ppid,uname,command,state,stime,time PID PPID USER COMMAND S STIME TIME 16351 16350 mstreic -bash S 11:23 00:00:00 16843 16351 mstreic sleep 10 S 11:42 00:00:00 16844 16351 mstreic sleep 10 S 11:42 00:00:00 16845 16351 mstreic sleep 10 S 11:42 00:00:00 16846 16351 mstreic ps -o pid,ppid,u R 11:42 00:00:00
The command line spawns four new processes. Typing ampersand
&) after each
command runs each of those commands in the background, or in parallel with
ps is another spawned process, but it's
running in the foreground, preventing the shell from running another
command until it terminates. Again, all four processes are the spawn of the shell,
as shown by the values of PPID. The three
commands are marked
S, because none of the process are
consuming resources while they're sleeping.
For convenience, the shell keeps track of all background processes it spawns.
jobs to see a list:
$ sleep 10 & sleep 10 & sleep 10 &  16843  16844  16845 $ jobs  Running sleep 10 &  Running sleep 10 &  Running sleep 10 &
Here, the three jobs are labeled 1, 2, and 3 for convenience. The numbers 16843, 16844, and 16845 are the process IDs of each respective process. Thus, background task 1 is process ID 16843.
You can manipulate your background jobs from the command line using these labels.
For instance, to terminate a command, type
kill %N, where
N is the command's label. To move a command from
the background to the foreground, type
$ sleep 10 & sleep 10 & sleep 10 &  17741  17742  17743 $ kill %7 $ jobs  Terminated sleep 10 - Running sleep 10 & + Running sleep 10 & $ fg %8 sleep 10
Running multiple commands simultaneously and asynchronously from the command line
is a great way to juggle your own set of tasks. A long-running job -- say, number
crunching or a large compilation -- is perfect to place in the background. To
capture the output of each background command, consider redirecting the output to
a file, using the redirection operators
>>&. Whenever a background
command finishes, the shell prints an alert message before the next prompt:
$ whoami mstreicher - Done sleep 10 + Done sleep 10 $
To the great process pool in the sky
Some processes live forever (such as init), and some processes reincarnate themselves into a new form (such as your shell). Ultimately, most processes die of natural causes -- a program runs to completion.
Additionally, you can place a process in a kind of suspended animation, where it
waits to be reanimated. And as the previous example shows, you can terminate a
process prematurely with
If a command is running in the foreground and you want to suspend it, press Control-Z:
$ sleep 10 (Press Control-Z) + Stopped sleep 10 $ ps PID PPID USER COMMAND S STIME TIME 18195 16351 mstreic sleep 10 T 12:44 00:00:00
The shell has suspended the command and assigned it a label for convenience. You
can use this label as before to terminate the job or return it to the foreground.
You can also use the
bg command to resume the process
in the background:
bg %1 + sleep 10 &
If a command is running in the foreground and you want to terminate it, press Control-C:
$ sleep 10 (Press Control-C $ jobs $
Your shell makes suspending and terminating a process easy, but a little voodoo is working beneath the shell's innocent facade. Internally, your shell uses UNIX signals to affect the state of processes. A signal is an event, and it's used to alert a process. The operating system originates many signals, but you can send signals from one process to another, or even have a process signal itself.
UNIX includes a wide variety of signals, most of which have a special purpose.
For example, if you send signal
SIGSTOP to a process,
the process suspends. (For a complete list of signals, type
man 7 signal or type
kill -L). You send signals with the
$ sleep 20 &  19988 $ kill -SIGSTOP 19988 $ jobs + Stopped sleep 20
sleep command started in the background
with process ID 19988. After sending
process changed state, becoming suspended or stopped. Sending another signal,
SIGCONT, reanimates the process, and it resumes where
it left off.
In other words, your shell sends
SIGSTOP to the
foreground process each time you press Control-Z. The
bg command sends
And Control-C sends
SIGTERM, which requests that
the process terminate immediately.
Some signals can be blocked by a process, and applications can be designed to
explicitly "catch" signals and react to each event in a special way. For instance,
the system service xinetd, which launches other network services on demand,
re-reads its configuration files upon the receipt of
SIGHUP. On Linux, sending signals to init can change
the system runlevel and even initiate system shutdown. (Here's a question: What's
the difference between
kill %1 and
A process can even signal itself. Imagine that you're writing a game and want to
give the user five seconds to respond. Your code can set a five-second timer and
continue, say, redrawing the screen. When the timer runs out,
SIGALRM is sent back to your process. Bzzzzt! Time's
(Here's the answer to the question:
kills your background job labeled 1.
kill 1 terminates
init, which is a signal to the operating system that it should shut down the entire
Still other signals are transmitted from the operating system to
processes in special circumstances. A memory violation can spur
SIGSEGV, killing the process instantly while leaving a
core dump behind. One special signal,
SIGKILL, can't be
blocked or caught, and it kills a process immediately.
As with many other resources in UNIX, you can only signal processes that you own. This prevents you from terminating important system services and the processes of other users. The superuser, root, can signal any process.
More magic demystified
UNIX has many moving parts. It has system services, devices, memory managers, and
more. Luckily, most of these complex machinations are hidden from view or are made
convenient to use through user interfaces, such as the shell and windowing tools.
Better yet, if you want to dive in, specialized tools, such as
kill, all are readily available.
Now that you know how processes work, you can become your own one-person band. Just one request: Freebird!
- Speaking UNIX: Check out other parts in this series.
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