All about Linux signals

In most cases if you want to handle a signal in your application you write a simple signal handler like:

void handler (int sig)

and use the signal(2) system function to run it when a signal is delivered to the process. This is the simplest case, but signals are more interesting than that! Information contained in this article is useful for example when you are writing a daemon and must handle interrupting your program properly without interrupting the current operation or the whole program.

What is covered here

The article describes how signals work in Linux and how to handle signals using POSIX API. I will cover functions working on every modern Linux system, but it should also apply to most POSIX systems unless explicitly stated otherwise. Legacy functions are not covered. A basic knowledge about signals is required.

What is signaled in Linux

Your process may receive a signal when:
  • From user space from some other process when someone calls a function like kill(2).
  • When you send the signal from the process itself using a function like abort(3).
  • When a child process exits the operating system sends the SIGCHLD signal.
  • When the parent process dies or hangup is detected on the controlling terminal SIGHUP is sent.
  • When user interrupts program from the keyboard SIGINT is sent.
  • When the program behaves incorrectly one of SIGILL, SIGFPE, SIGSEGV is delivered.
  • When a program accesses memory that is mapped using mmap(2) but is not available (for example when the file was truncated by another process) - really nasty situation when using mmap() to access files. There is no good way to handle this case.
  • When a profiler like gprof is used the program occasionally receives SIGPROF. This is sometimes problematic when you forgot to handle interrupting system functions like read(2) properly (errno == EINTR).
  • When you use the write(2) or similar data sending functions and there is nobody to receive your data SIGPIPE is delivered. This is a very common case and you must remember that those functions may not only exit with error and setting the errno variable but also cause the SIGPIPE to be delivered to the program. An example is the case when you write to the standard output and the user uses the pipeline sequence to redirect your output to another program. If the program exits while you are trying to send data SIGPIPE is sent to your process. A signal is used in addition to the normal function return with error because this event is asynchronous and you can't actually tell how much data has been successfully sent. This can also happen when you are sending data to a socket. This is because data are buffered and/or send over a wire so are not delivered to the target immediately and the OS can realize that can't be delivered after the sending function exits.

For a complete list of signals see the signal(7) manual page.

Signal handlers

Traditional signal() is deprecated

The signal(2) function is the oldest and simplest way to install a signal handler but it's deprecated. There are few reasons and most important is that the original Unix implementation would reset the signal handler to it's default value after signal is received. If you need to handle every signal delivered to your program separately like handling SIGCHLD to catch a dying process there is a race here. To do so you would need to set to signal handler again in the signal handler itself and another signal may arrive before you cal the signal(2) function. This behavior varies across different systems. Moreover, it lacks features present in sigaction(2) you will sometimes need.

The recommended way of setting signal actions: sigaction

The sigaction(2) function is a better way to set the signal action. It has the prototype:
  1. int sigaction (int signum, const struct sigaction *act, struct sigaction *oldact);

As you can see you don't pass the pointer to the signal handler directly, but instead a struct sigaction object. It's defined as:

  1. struct sigaction {
  2. void (*sa_handler)(int);
  3. void (*sa_sigaction)(int, siginfo_t *, void *);
  4. sigset_t sa_mask;
  5. int sa_flags;
  6. void (*sa_restorer)(void);
  7. };

For a detailed description of this structure's fields see the sigaction(2) manual page. Most important fields are:

  • sa_handler - This is the pointer to your handler function that has the same prototype as a handler for signal(2).
  • sa_sigaction - This is an alternative way to run the signal handler. It has two additional arguments beside the signal number where the siginfo_t * is the more interesting. It provides more information about the received signal, I will describe it later.
  • sa_mask allows you to explicitly set signals that are blocked during the execution of the handler. In addition if you don't use the SA_NODEFER flag the signal which triggered will be also blocked.
  • sa_flags allow to modify the behavior of the signal handling process. For the detailed description of this field, see the manual page. To use the sa_sigaction handler you must use SA_SIGINFO flag here.

What is the difference between signal(2) and sigaction(2) if you don't use any additional feature the later one provides? The answer is: portability and no race conditions. The issue with resetting the signal handler after it's called doesn't affect sigaction(2), because the default behavior is not to reset the handler and blocking the signal during it's execution. So there is no race and this behavior is documented in the POSIX specification. Another difference is that with signal(2) some system calls are automatically restarted and with sigaction(2) they're not by default.

Example use of sigaction()

See example of using sigaction() to set a signal handler with additional parameters.

In this example we use the three arguments version of signal handler for SIGTERM. Without setting the SA_SIGINFO flag we would use a traditional one argument version of the handler and pass the pointer to it by the sa_handler field. It would be a replacement for signal(2). You can try to run it and do kill PID to see what happens.

In the signal handler we read two fields from the siginfo_t *siginfo parameter to read the sender's PID and UID. This structure has more fields, I'll describe them later.

The sleep(3) function is used in a loop because it's interrupted when the signal arrives and must be called again.

SA_SIGINFO handler

In the previous example SA_SIGINFO is used to pass more information to the signal handler as arguments. We've seen that the siginfo_t structure contains si_pid and si_uid fields (PID and UID of the process that sends the signal), but there are many more. They are all described in sigaction(2) manual page. On Linux only si_signo (signal number) and si_code (signal code) are available for all signals. Presence of other fields depends on the signal type. Some other fields are:
  • si_code - Reason why the signal was sent. It may be SI_USER if it was delivered due to kill(2) or raise(3), SI_KERNEL if kernel sent it and few more. For some signals there are special values like ILL_ILLADR telling you that SIGILL was sent due to illegal addressing mode.
  • For SIGCHLD fields si_status, si_utime, si_stime are filled and contain information about the exit status or the signal of the dying process, user and system time consumed.
  • In case of SIGILL, SIGFPE, SIGSEGV, SIGBUS si_addr contains the memory address that caused the fault.

We'll see more examples of use of siginfo_t later.

Compiler optimization and data in signal handler

Let's see the following example:
  1. #include <stdio.h>
  2. #include <unistd.h>
  3. #include <signal.h>
  4. #include <string.h>
  6. static int exit_flag = 0;
  8. static void hdl (int sig)
  9. {
  10. exit_flag = 1;
  11. }
  13. int main (int argc, char *argv[])
  14. {
  15. struct sigaction act;
  17. memset (&act, '\0', sizeof(act));
  18. act.sa_handler = &hdl;
  19. if (sigaction(SIGTERM, &act, NULL) < 0) {
  20. perror ("sigaction");
  21. return 1;
  22. }
  24. while (!exit_flag)
  25. ;
  27. return 0;
  28. }

What it does? It depends on compiler optimization settings. Without optimization it executes a loop that ends when the process receives SIGTERM or other sgnal that terminates the process and was not handler. When you compile it with the -O3 gcc flag it will not exit after receiving SIGTERM. Why? because whe while loop is optimized in such way that the exit_flag variable is loaded into a processor register once and not read from the memory in the loop. The compiler isn't aware that the loop is not the only place where the program accesses this variable while running the loop. In such cases - modifying a variable in a signal handler that is also accessed in some other parts of the program you must remember to instruct the compiler to always access this variable in memory when reading or writing them. You should use the volatile keyword in the variable declaration:

  1. static volatile int exit_flag = 0;

After this change everything works as expected.

Atomic Type

There is one data type defined that is guaranteed to be atomically read and written both in signal handlers and code that uses it: sig_atomic_t. The size of this type is undefined, but it's an integer type. In theory this is the only type you can safely assign and read if it's also accessed in signal handlers. Keep in mind that:

  • It doesn't work like a mutex: it's guaranteed that read or write of this type translates into an uninterruptible operation but code such as:

  1. sig_atomic_t i = 0;
  3. void sig_handler (int sig)
  4. {
  5. if (i++ == 5) {
  6. // ...
  7. }
  8. }

Isn't safe: there is read and update in the if operation but only single reads and single writes are atomic.

  • Don't try to use this type in a multi-threaded program as a type that can be used without a mutex. It's only intended for signal handlers and has nothing to do with mutexes!
  • You don't need to worry if data are modified or read in a signal handler are also modified or read in the program if it happens only in parts where the signal is blocked. Later I'll show how to block signals. But you will still need the volatile keyword.

Signal-safe functions

You can't just do anything in a signal handler. Remember that your program is interrupted, you don't know at which point, which data objects are in the middle of being modified. It may be not only your code, but a library you are using or the standard C library. In fact there is a quite short list of function you can safely call from a signal handler in signal(7). You can for example open a file with open(2), remove a file with unlink(2), call _exit(2) (but not exit(3)!) and more. In practice this list is so limited that the best you can do is to just set some global flag to notify the process to do something like exiting. On the other hand the wait(2) and waitpid(2) functions can be used, so you can cleanup dead processes in SIGCHLD, unlink(2) is available, so you can delete a pid file etc.

Alternative method of handling signals: signalfd()

signalfd(2) is a quite new Linux specific call available from the 2.6.22 kernel that allows to receive signals using a file descriptor. This allows to handle signals in a synchronous way, without providing handler functions. Let's see an example of signalfd() use

First we must block the signals we want to handle with signalfd(2) using sigprocmask(2). This function will be described later. Then we call signalfd(2) to create a file descriptor that will be used to read incoming signals. At this point in case of SIGTERM or SIGINT delivered to your program it will not be interrupted, no handler will be called. It will be queued and you can read information about it from the sfd descriptor. You must supply a buffer large enough to read the struct signalfd_siginfo object that will be filled with information similar to the previously described siginfo_t. The difference is that the fields are named a bit different (like ssi_signo instead of si_signo). What is interesting is that the sfd descriptor behaves and can be used just like any other file descriptor, in particular you can:

  • Use it in select(2), poll(2) and similar functions.
  • Make it non-blocking.
  • Create many of them, each handling different signals to return different descriptors as ready by select(2) for every different signal.
  • After fork() the file descriptor is not closed, so the child process can read signals that were send to the parent.

This is perfect to be used in a single-process server with the main loop executes a function like poll(2) to handle many connections. It simplifies signal handling because the signal descriptor can be added to the poll's array of descriptors and handled like any other of them, without asynchronous actions. You handle the signal when you are ready for that because your program is not interrupted.

Handling SIGCHLD

If you create new processes in your program and don't really want to wait until they exit, and possibly their exist status doesn't matter, just want to cleanup zombie processes you can create a SIGCHLD handler that does just that and forget about process you've created. This handler can look like this one:

Fragment of example: SIGCHLD handler

  1. static void sigchld_hdl (int sig)
  2. {
  3. /* Wait for all dead processes.
  4. * We use a non-blocking call to be sure this signal handler will not
  5. * block if a child was cleaned up in another part of the program. */
  6. while (waitpid(-1, NULL, WNOHANG) > 0) {
  7. }
  8. }

This way whenever a child exits it will be cleaned-up but information which process was that, why it exited and its exit status is forgotten. You could make the handler more intelligent but remember to not use any function that is not listed as signal-safe.

You must remember that if you make child processes SIGCHLD must have a handler. The behavior of ignoring this signal is undefined, so at least a handler that doesn't do anything is required.

Handling SIGBUS

The SIGBUS signal is sent to the process when you access mapped memory (with mmap(2)) that doesn't correspond to a file. A common example is that the file you've mapped was later truncated (possible by another program) and you read past it's current end. Accessing files this way doesn't require any system function that could return an error, you just read from memory like if it was on the heap or stack. This is a really bad situation when you don't want your program to terminate after a file read error. Unfortunately handling SIGBUS isn't simple or clean, but it's possible. If you want to continue running your program you have to use longjmp(3). It's something like goto but worse! We have to jump to some other place in the program that the mmap()ed memory is not accessed if we receive SIGBUS. If you place an empty handler for this signal, in case of read error the program will be interrupted, signal handler executed and the control returns to the same place that caused the error. So we need to jump into another place from the signal handler. This sounds low-level, but it's possible using standard POSIX functions.

See the example: SIGBUS handling

You must keep in mind the list of signal-safe functions: In this example we never actually return from the signal handler. The stack is cleaned up, but program is restarted in completely different place, so if you've had, for example, a mutex locked during the operation like:

  1. pthread_mutex_lock (&m);
  2. for (l = 0; l < 1000; l++)
  3. if (mem[l] == 'd') // BANG! SIGBUS here!
  4. j++;
  5. pthread_mutex_unlock (&m);

After longjmp(3) the mutex is still held although in every other situation the mutex is released.

So handling SIGBUS is possible but very tricky and can introduce bugs that are very hard to debug. The program's code also becomes ugly.

Handling SIGSEGV

Handling the SIGSEGV (segmentation fault) signal is also possible. In most cases returning from the signal handler makes no sense since the program will be restarted from the instruction that caused segmentation fault. So if you have no solution on how to fix the state of the program to let it continue running properly at the same moment it crashed, you must end the program. One example of when you may restart the program is when you have memory obtained using mmap(2) that is read-only, you may check if the signal handler that the cause of segmentation fault was writing to this memory (using data from siginfo_t) and use mprotect(2) to change the protection of this memory. How practical is it? I don't know.

Exhausting stack space is one of the causes of segmentation fault. In this case running a signal handler is not possible because it requires space on the stack. To allow handling SIGSEGV in such condition the sigaltstack(2) function exists that sets alternative stack to be used by signal handlers.

Handling SIGABRT

When handling this signal you should keep in mind how the abort(3) function works: it rises the signal twice, but the second time the SIGABRT handler is restored to the default state, so the program terminates even if you have a handler defined. So you actually have a chance to do something in case of abort(3) before the program termination. It's possible to not terminate the program by not exiting from the signal handler and using longjmp(3) instead as described earlier.

What happens when a process receives a signal?

Default actions

With each signal there is an associated default action which is taken when you don't provide a signal handler and you don't block a signal. The actions are:
  • Termination of a process. This is the most common action. Not only for SIGTERM or SIGQUIT but also for signals like SIGPIPE, SIGUSR1, SIGUSR2 and others.
  • Termination with code dump. This is common for signals that indicate a bug in the program like SIGSEGV, SIGILL, SIGABRT and others.
  • Few signals are ignored by default like SIGCHLD.
  • SIGSTOP (and similar stop signals) cause the program to suspend and SIGCOND to continue. The most common situation is when you use the CTRL-Z command in the shell.

For a complete list of default actions see the signal(7) manual page.

Interrupting system calls

If you set a signal handler in your program you must be prepared that some system calls can be interrupted by signals. Even if you don't set any signal handler there could be signals delivered to your program so it's best to be prepared for that. An example situation is compiling your program with the -pg gcc option (enable profiling), so when running it occasionally gets SIGPROF handled without your knowledge, but causing syscalls to be interrupted.

What is interrupted?

Every system or standard library function that uses a system call can be potentially interrupted and you must consult it's manual page to be sure. In general function that return immediately (don't wait for any I/O operation to complete or sleep) are not interruptible like socket(2) which just allocates a socket and doesn't wait for anything. On the other hand functions that wait for something (like for a network transfer, pipe read, explicit sleep etc.) will be interruptible like select(2), read(2), connect(2) and you must be prepared for that. What exactly happens when a signal arrives during waiting for such function to complete is described in it's manual page.

Simple example of signal aware code

The simplest case is sleep(3) which is implemented using nanosleep(2). If it's interrupted by a signal it exits returning number of seconds left to sleep. If you want to sleep 10s regardless of signals that are handled by your application you must do something like:
  1. #include <unistd.h>
  2. #include <signal.h>
  4. static void hdl (int sig)
  5. {
  6. }
  8. void my_sleep (int seconds)
  9. {
  10. while (seconds > 0)
  11. seconds = sleep (seconds);
  12. }
  14. int main (int argc, char *argv[])
  15. {
  16. signal (SIGTERM, hdl);
  18. my_sleep (10);
  20. return 0;
  21. }

This example works, but if you try it and send few signals during sleep you can see that it may sleep different amount of time. This is because sleep(3) takes the argument and returns the value with 1s resolution so it can't be precise telling you how long it need to sleep after interruption.

Data transferring and signals

Very important thing in daemon programs is proper handling of interruption of system functions. One part of the problem is that common functions that transfer data like recv(2), write(2) and similar like select(2) may be interrupted by a signal which is handled in it's handler, so you need to continue receiving data, restart select(2) etc. We've just seen a simple example how to handle it in case of sleep(3).

See an example of how to handle interruption of system calls.

This program reads from it's standard input and copies the data to the standard output. Additionally, when SIGUSR1 is received it prints to stderr how many bytes has been already read and written. It installs a signal handler which sets a global flag to 1 if called. Whatever the program does at the moment it receives the signal, the numbers are immediately printed. It works because read(2) and write(2) functions are interrupted by signals even during operation. In case of those functions two things might happen:

  • When read(2) waits for data or write(2) waits for stdout to put some data and no data were yet transfered in the call and SIGUSR1 arrives those functions exit with return value of -1. You can distinguish this situation from other errors by reading the value of the errno variable. If it's EINTR it means that the function was interrupted without any data transfered and we can call the function again with the same parameters.
  • Another case is that some data were transfered but the function was interrupted before it finished. In this case the functions don't return an error but a value less that the supplied data size (or buffer size). Neither the return value nor the errno variable tells us that the function was interrupted by a signal, if we want to distinguish this case we need to set some flag in the signal handler (as we do in this example). To continue after interruption we need to call the function again keeping in mind that some data were consumed or read adn we must restart from the right point. In our example only the write(2) must be properly restarted, we use the written variable to track how many bytes were actually written and properly call write(2) again if there are data left in the buffer.

Remember that not all system calls behave exactly the same way, consult their manual page to make sure.

Reading the sigaction(2) manual page you can think that setting the SA_RESTART flag is simpler that handling system call interruption. The documentation says that setting it will make certain system calls automatically restartable across signals. It's not specified which calls are restarted. This flag is mainly used for compatibility with older systems, don't use it.

Blocking signals

How to block signals

There is sometime a need to block receiving some signals, not handling them. Traditional way is to use the deprecated signal(2) function with SIG_IGN constant as a signal handler. There is also newer, recommended function to do that: sigprocmask(2). It has a bit more complex usage, let's see an example of signal blocking with sigprocmask().

This program will sleep for 10 seconds and will ignore the SIGTERM signal during the sleep. It works this way because we've block the signal with sigprocmask(2). The signal is not ignored, it's blocked, it means that are queued by the kernel and delivered when we unblock the signal. This is different than ignoring the signal with signal(2). First sigprocmask(2) is more complicated, it operates in a set of signals represented by sigset_t, not on one signal. The SIG_BLOCK parameter tells that the the signals in set are to be blocked (in addition to the already blocked signals). The SIG_SETMASK tells that the signals in set are to be blocked, and signals that are not present in the set are to be unblocked. The third parameter, if not NULL, is written with the current signal mask. This allows to restore the mask after modifying the process' signal mask. We do it in this example. The first sleep(3) function is executed with SIGTERM blocked, if the signal arrives at this moment, it's queued. When we restore the original signal mask, we unblock SIGTERM and it's delivered, the signal handler is called.

See the sigprocmask(2) manual on how to use this function and sigsetops(3) on how to manipulate signal sets.

Preventing race conditions.

In the previous example nothing really useful was presented, such use of sigprocmask(2) isn't very interesting. Here is a bit more complex example of code that really needs sigprocmask(2):

Fragment of example: Signal race with select() and accept()

  1. while (!exit_request) {
  2. fd_set fds;
  3. int res;
  5. /* BANG! we can get SIGTERM at this point. */
  7. FD_ZERO (&fds);
  8. FD_SET (lfd, &fds);
  10. res = select (lfd + 1, &fds, NULL, NULL, NULL);
  12. /* accept connection if listening socket lfd is ready */
  13. }

Let's say it's an example of a network daemon that accepts connections using select(2) and accept(2). It can use select(2) because it listens on multiple interfaces or waits also for some events other than incoming connections. We want to be able to cleanly shut it down with a signal like SIGTERM (remove the PID file, wait for pending connections to finish etc.). To do this we have a handler for the signal defined which sets global flag and relay on the fact that select(2) will be interrupted when the signal arrives at the moment we are just waiting for some events. If the main loop in the program looks similarly as the above code everything works... almost. There is a specific case in which the signal will not interrupt the program even if it does nothing at all at the moment. When it arrives between checking the while condition and executing select(2). The select(2) function will not be interrupted (because signal was handled) and will sleep until some file descriptor it monitors will be ready.

This is where the sigprocmask(2) and other "new" functions are useful. Let's see an improved version:

Fragment of example: Using pselect() to avoid a signal race

  1. sigemptyset (&mask);
  2. sigaddset (&mask, SIGTERM);
  4. if (sigprocmask(SIG_BLOCK, &mask, &orig_mask) < 0) {
  5. perror ("sigprocmask");
  6. return 1;
  7. }
  9. while (!exit_request) {
  11. /* BANG! we can get SIGTERM at this point, but it will be
  12. * delivered while we are in pselect(), because now
  13. * we block SIGTERM.
  14. */
  16. FD_ZERO (&fds);
  17. FD_SET (lfd, &fds);
  19. res = pselect (lfd + 1, &fds, NULL, NULL, NULL, &orig_mask);
  21. /* accept connection if listening socket lfd is ready */
  22. }

What's the difference between select(2) and pselect(2)? The most important one is that the later takes an additional argument of type sigset_t with set of signals that are unblocked during the execution of the system call. The idea is that the signals are blocked, then global variables/flags that are changed in signal handlers are read and then pselect(2) runs. There is no race because pselect(2) unblocks the signals atomically. See the example: the exit_request flag is checked while the signal is blocked, so there is no race here that would lead to executing pselect(2) just after the signal arrives. In fact, in this example we block the signal all the time and the only place where it can be delivered to the program is the pselect(2) execution. In real world you may block the signals only for the part of the program that contains the flag check and the pselect(2) call to allow interruption in other places in the program.
Another difference not related to the signals is that select(2)'s timeout parameter is of type struct timeval * and pselect(2)'s is const struct timespec *. See the pselect(2) manual page for more information.

If you like poll(2) there is analogous ppoll(2) functions, but in contrast of pselect(2) ppoll(2) is not a standard POSIX function.

Waiting for a signal

Suppose we want to execute an external command and wait until it exits. We don't want to wait forever, we want to set some timeout after which we will kill the child process. How to do this? To run a command we use fork(2) and execve(2). To wait for a specific process to exit we can use the waitpid(2) function, but it has no timeout parameter. We can also create a loop in which we call sleep(3) with the timeout as an argument and use the fact that sleep(3) will be interrupted by the SIGCHLD signal. This solution will work... almost. It would contain a race condition: if the process exits immediately, before we call sleep(3) we will wait until the timeout expires. It's a race similar to the one described previously.

The proper solution is to use a dedicated function to wait for a signal: see an example of using sigtimedwait().

This program creates a child process that sleeps few seconds (in a real world application this process would do something like execve(2)) and waits for it to finish. We want to implement a timeout after which the process is killed. The waitpid(2) function does not have a timeout parameter, but we use the SIGCHLD signal that is sent when the child process exits. One solution would be to have a handler for this signal and a loop with sleep(3) in it. The sleep(3) will be interrupted by the SIGCHLD signal or will sleep for the whole time which means the timeout occurred. Such a loop would have a race because the signal could arrive not in the sleep(3), but somewhere else like just before the sleep(3). To solve this we use the sigtimedwait(2) function that allows us to wait for a signal without any race. We can do this because we block the SIGCHLD signal before fork(2) and then call sigtimedwait(2) which atomically unblock the signal and wait for it. If the signal arrives it block it again and returns. It can also take a timeout parameter so it will not sleep forever. So without any trick we can wait for the signal safely.

One drawback is that if sigtimedwait(2) is interrupted by another signal it returns with an error and doesn't tell us how much time elapsed, so we don't know how to properly restart it. The proper solution is to wait for all signals we expect at this point in hte program or block other signals. There is another small bug i the program: when we kill the process, SIGCHLD is sent and we don't handle it anywhere. We should unblock the signal before waitpid(2) and have a handler for it.

Other functions to wait for a signal

There are also other functions that can be used to wait for a signal:

  • sigsuspend(2) - waits for any signal. It takes a signal mask of signals that are atomically unblocked, co it doesn't introduce race conditions.
  • sigwaitinfo(2) - like sigtimedwait(2), but without the timeout parameter.
  • pause(2) - simple function taking no argument. Just waits for any signal. Don't use it, you will introduce a race condition similar to the described previously, use sigsuspend(2).

Sending signals

Sending signal from keyboard

There are two special key combinations that can be used in a terminal to send a signal to the running application:
  • CTRL-C - sends SIGINT which default action is to terminate the application.
  • CTRL-\ - sends SIGQUIT which default action is to terminate the application dumping core.
  • CTRL-Z - sends SIGSTOP that suspends the program.


The simplest way to send a signal to the process is to use kill(2). It takes two arguments: pid (PID of the process) and sig (the signal to send). Although the function has a simple interface it's worth to read the manual page because there are few more things we can do than just sending a signal to a process:
  • The pid can be 0, the signal will be sent to all processes in the process group.
  • The pid can be -1, the signal is sent to every process you have permission to send signals except init and system processes (you won't kill system threads).
  • The pid can be less than -1 to send signal to all processes in the process group whose ID is -pid.
  • You can check is a process exists sending signal 0. Nothing is really sent, but the kill(2) return value will be as if it sent a signal, so if it's OK it means that the process exists.

Sending signals to yourself

There are two standard function that will help you to send signals to yourself:
  • raise(3) - Just send the specified signal to yourself, but if it's a multithreaded program it sends the signal to the thread, not the process.
  • abort(3) - Sends SIGABRT, but before that it will unblock this signal, so this function works always, you don't need to bother about unblocking this signal. It will also terminates you program even if you have handler for SIGABRT by restoring the default signal handler and sending the signal again. You can prevent it as was mentioned in signal handling chapter.

Sending data along with signal - sigqueue()

The sigqueue(2) function works very similar to kill(2) but is has a third argument of type const union sigval which can be used to send an integer value or a pointer that can be read in the signal handler if it reads the siginfo_t argument. If you use this function instead of 32) the handler can distinguish this with the si_code field because it will have SI_QUEUE value.

Real-time signals

The POSIX specification defines so called real-time signals and Linux supports it. They are to be used by the programmer and have no predefined meaning. Two macros are available: SIGRTMIN and SIGRTMAX that tells the range of these signals. You can use one using SIGRTMIN+n where n is some number. Never hard code their numbers, real time signals are used by threading library (both LinuxThreads and NTPL), so they adjust SIGRTMIN at run time.

Whats the difference between RT signals and standard signals? There are couple:

  • More than one RT signal can be queued for the process if it has the signal blocked while someone sends it. In standard signals only one of a given type is queued, the rest is ignored.
  • Order of delivery of RT signal is guaranteed to be the same as the sending order.
  • PID and UID of sending process is written to si_pid and si_uid fields of siginfo_t. For more information see section about Real time signals in signal(7).

Signals and fork()

What happens with signals and signal-related settings after fork(2)? A new child starts with the signal queue empty even if some signals were queued for the parent at the time fork(2) was invoked. Signal handers and blocked signal state is inherited by the child. Attributes of file descriptors associated with signals are also inherited. In conclusion: no unexpected behavior here, you don't need to set up any signal handlers or mask in the child.

Signals and threads

There are differences in signal handling between a single-threaded program and a multi-threaded program. Since according to POSIX specification a multi-threaded program is one process with one PID, which thread is interrupted to handle the arriving signal? If you use the old (unsupported) LinuxThreads implementation the answer is simple: all threads have separate PIDs, so the signal is delivered to the thread with PID provided to kill(2), so in case of this implementation all threads are treated as separate processes. This fact is not really interesting since this implementation is not used in any modern Linux distribution.

With Native POSIX Threads Library things get more interesting. Since this is the POSIX compliant implementation the behavior described here also applies to other POSIX systems.

Which thread receives the signal?

This is the most interesting question. There are two cases:
  • Process-directed signals (sent to a PID using functions like kill(2)). Threads have their separate signal mask which can be manipulated using pthread_sigmask(2) similary to sigprocmask(2), so such signal is not delivered to a thread that has this signal blocked. It's delivered to one of threads in the process with this signal unblocked. It's unspecified which thread will get it. If all threads have the signal blocked, it's queued in the per-process queue. If there is no signal handler defined for the signal and the default action is to terminate the process with or without dumping the core the whole process is terminated.
  • Thread-directed signals. There is a special function to send a signal to a specific thread: pthread_kill(2). It can be used to send a signal from one thread to another (or itself). This way the signal will be delivered or queued for the specific thread. There are also per-thread directed signals generated by the operating system like SIGSEGV. If there is no signal handler defined for a signal that default's action is to terminate the process, a thread-directed signal terminated the whole process.

As you can see there is a process-wide signal queue and a per-thread queues.

Signal handlers

Signal actions are set for the whole process. The behavior of signal(2) is undefined for multi-threaded application, sigaction(2) must be used. Keep in mind that none of pthreads related functions are described as signal safe in signal(7). Especially using mutexes in signal handlers is very bad idea.

sigwaitinfo()/sigtimedwait() and process-directed signals

To get sigwaitinfo(2) and sigtimedwait(2) functions behave reliable for process-directed signals, all signals you wait for must be blocked for all threads. Especially using pause() for process-directed signals can be a bad idea.

Real-time signals

As previously said, both threading implementations (LinuxThreads and NPTL) internally use some number of real-time signals, so it's another good reason to always refer to those signals using SIGRTMIN+n notation.

Other uses of signals

Here I'll present non-traditional uses of signals, but mainly for historical reasons. We have better mechanisms to do the same things now, but it might be interesting that signals may be used this way.

It's possible to be notified of I/O availability by a signal. It's an alternative to functions like select(2). It's done by setting the O_ASYNC flag on the file descriptor. If you do so and if I/O is available (as select(2) would consider it) a signal is sent to the process. By default it's SIGIO, but using Real-time signals is more practical and you can set up the file descriptor using fcntl(2) so that you get more information in siginfo_t structure. See the links at the bottom of this article for more information. There is now a better way to do it on Linux: epoll(7) and similar mechanisms are available on other systems.

The dnotify mechanism uses similar technique: you are notified about file system actions using signals related to file descriptors of monitored directories or files. The recommended way of monitoring files is now inotify.

Related websites

Here are some places worth visiting that describe some topics in more details.

- - Describes Squid's modifications to use RT signals to polling sockets.
- - Old (2000), but still interesting article on how signals are implemented in Linux kernel.

It's not really everything...

The title of this article is misleading. UNIX/Linux signals is a big topic. When I was writing it I found many aspects of signals I had not known about. I'm also not a big expert, so as always: there could be bugs, not all important things may be mentioned. Comments are welcome!


Hello, Thank you for good

Hello, Thank you for good article. Is it possible to give permission of other user program to send signal to my process ? If yes, then how to do this ?

I don't think it's possible.

I don't think it's possible.

Restarting system calls

"It's not specified which calls are restarted" - says the last paragraph. It is very much specified, on the signal(7) man page.

very useful and readable blog about Unix signals

Unix signals is a deep and interesting topic. For example, the signal() function is either referring to the version in the C library or the version in the operating system. The topic of signals has a rich history as part of Unix.


I just want to say thank you , I was googling about what happens to signals handlers when I fork() and you blog showed up. thanks

Ctrl+Z Signal


Hi, typo jerk here

Hi, typo jerk here again: page3: Moreover, it lack's features -> lacks why the signal was send -> sent page5: signals like SIGPIPE, SIGUSR1, SIGUSR1 -> SIGUSR2 signal i exits -> it This program read from it's -> reads, its Additionally when SIGUSR1 -> Additionally, when [missing comma] I hope you really, truly don't consider this as some kind of personal attack.

i love type jerk!

typos suck! combat them!

Thanks. I don't consider it

Thanks. I don't consider it as an attack :) Some of them are just caused by the fact that English is not my native language.

I was looking for linux

I was looking for linux programming tutorial and i found this blog . keep good work.

Great write-up

Great write-up; thanks for the information.

Signals - That's not everything

I wouls suggest the reading of "Advanced Programming in the Unix Environment". It does not address signals with threads, but it is the most extensive explanation of signal handling. It treats also long jumps to remove races in signal handling.

Problem regarding signals.

Hi I have written a sample program to understand signal handling. signal1.c
/* for random() stuff */

termination_handler (int signum)
  struct temp_file *p;
 int err;

main (void)

	int shmfd,*shared_msg, pid;
	struct sigaction new_action, old_action;
	int shared_seg_size = (1 * sizeof(int));
	//shm operations
	shmfd = shm_open("/shm_sumit",O_CREAT|O_RDWR|O_EXCL,S_IRWXU | S_IRWXG);
	if (shmfd < 0) {
	        perror("In shm_open()");

	ftruncate(shmfd, shared_seg_size);
	shared_msg = (int *)mmap(NULL, shared_seg_size, PROT_READ | PROT_WRITE, MAP_SHARED, shmfd, 0);
	if (shared_msg == NULL) {
	        perror("In mmap()");

        pid = getpid();
        *shared_msg = pid; 

  /* Set up the structure to specify the new action. */
  new_action.sa_handler = termination_handler;
  sigemptyset (&new_action.sa_mask);
  new_action.sa_flags = SA_NODEFER;

    sigaction (SIGUSR1, &new_action, NULL);
	/*if (shm_unlink("/shm_sumit") != 0) {
	        perror("In shm_unlink()");



termination_handler (int signum)
  struct temp_file *p;

main (void)
	int shmfd,*shared_msg, pid;
    struct sigaction new_action, old_action;
    int shared_seg_size = (1 * sizeof(int));
    //shm operations
    shmfd = shm_open("/shm_sumit",O_RDWR,S_IRWXU | S_IRWXG);
    shared_msg = (int *)mmap(NULL, shared_seg_size, PROT_READ | PROT_WRITE, MAP_SHARED, shmfd, 0);
    printf(" Process id of sigtest1 = %d\n",*shared_msg);
	if (shm_unlink("/shm_sumit") != 0) {
        perror("In shm_unlink()");

here sigtest2.c send SIGUSR1 to sigtest1.c 5 times, but the string "Terminated " gets printed sometimes 2 times and sometimes 5 times. why is this printing behavior inconsistent??

Hi, because while handling

Hi, because while handling the signal it wont be handle the signal of same type . you can check this by remove the sleep(10) in sigtest1.c . It will work fine.