Wizard Boot Camp, Part Six: Daemons & Subshells

More about processes and signals: writing daemons, suspending subshells.

Let’s continue our discussion of Linux processes with a look at two unrelated concepts that are both good to understand. First we’ll write a simple daemon process and send signals to it. Then we’ll see how to suspend a child shell — which gives some insight into how shells cope with signals sent to them.

What’s a daemon?

A daemon is typically a long-running job that doesn’t have a controlling terminal (tty). It’s often started when the system boots — for instance, from one of the files in /etc/rc* — and it runs until shut down. It could also be run from cron or on demand.

The Linux Daemon Writing HOWTO has code examples and descriptions for GCC. The Unix Programming FAQ has a useful section titled “How do I get my program to act like a daemon?” An easy way to do the most important parts of the job is with the daemon system call. It detaches the process from its parent, redirects all standard I/O to /dev/null, and changes the current directory to the root, /.

Many daemons have a configuration file that’s read when the program starts and again if the daemon catches a signal — often SIGHUP (signal 1). This lets you update a daemon while it keeps running.

Daemon in a shell script

One way to make simple daemons is by writing a daemon-like shell script. To simplify, our sample script will send messages to its standard output. (If it were a “real” daemon, it probably wouldn’t have a standard output — or an associated terminal to show its stdout. Instead, it could use mail to send email messages or logger to send messages to the syslog facility.)

Listing One shows a Bash script named watchload. Although it’s just an example (for instance, its configuration file is in the temporary-file directory /tmp), it has important features of a more complete daemon:

  • A function named read_config reads the configuration file. (The . operator, also named source, reads shell commands from the file as if they were part of the shell script. A more sophisticated daemon might read multiple variables from $config — and it should do some error checking.)
  • When the trap (set in line 15) catches signal 1, it runs read_config to reset the value of $maxload.
  • An endless while loop checks the system’s one-minute load average every 60 seconds. The : (colon) operator simply returns a zero exit status, which is a convenient way to make an endless while loop. The loop runs until the shell is killed by an untrapped signal — such as signal 15, the default signal sent by kill.

Listing One: watchload (with line numbering)

 1  #!/bin/sh
 2  config=/tmp/watchload.config
 3  myname="${0##*/} (PID $$)"
 5  # Function to set $maxload from $config:
 6  read_config()
 7  {
 8    if [ "$1" == -v ]
 9    then echo "$myname: reading $config file"
10    fi
11    . $config
12  }
14  read_config                 # set $maxloads array
15  trap 'read_config -v' HUP   # On SIGHUP, re-read $config
17  # Endless loop until killed by signal 15 (etc.):
18  while :
19  do
20    loads=$(< /proc/loadavg)  # get system loads
21    load1=${loads%%.*}        # get 1-minute load (integer)
22    if [[ load1 -ge maxload ]]
23    then echo "$myname: 1-minute load is $load1 at $(date)"
24    fi
25    sleep 60
26  done

Some of the bash syntax in watchload may be new to you.

  • The ${0##*/} in line 1 edits the contents of $0 (the pathname that was used to invoke the script) to remove everything from the start of the string to the last slash. The $$ operator expands into the process ID number of the shell that’s running the script.
  • Line 20 uses the operator $(< file) to read the contents of /proc/loadavg (more about that next month) into the $loads shell variable.
  • The ${loads%%.*} in line 21 removes everything starting from the first dot (the first decimal point) in $loads. This is a quick-and-dirty way to get the integer one-minute load average: by truncating a number like 5.67 to simply 5, and throwing away the rest of the $loads string too.

We’ll take watchload for a spin in Listing Two.

Listing Two: Running the watchload script

[1]+  Stopped         vim watchload
$ cat /tmp/watchload.config
$ ./watchload &
[2] 9864
(...time passes...)
$ echo "maxload=0" > /tmp/watchload.config
$ kill -hup %2
watchload (PID 9864): reading /tmp/watchload.config file
watchload (PID 9864): 1-minute load is 3 at Thu Jan 24 19:26:45 MST 2008
watchload (PID 9864): 1-minute load is 4 at Thu Jan 24 19:27:45 MST 2008
$ kill %2
[2]-  Terminated              ./watchload

First we stop vim — which has been editing the watchload script — by typing CTRL-Z. As we saw last month, that suspends the editor process and leaves it just where it was. Sometime later, typing fg %1 resumes editing where we left off.

The configuration file starts with the single line maxload=5. When the script reads this shell command (via the read_config function), it sets $maxload to 5, which means the script won’t output messages until the system’s load average is at least 5.

Starting the script running in the background, the parent shell assigns it job number 2 and shows that the child shell’s PID is 9864.

After a while, we overwrite the config file with the new value maxload=0, then use kill -hup to send SIGHUP to job number 2. (We could also have used the signal number and the PID, like kill -1 9864.) The script outputs a message to say that it’s re-read the configuration file. Because the load average can’t be less than 0 (the value of $maxload), the script will begin printing a message every 60 seconds.

Sending signal 15 to the job terminates the endless loop — and the daemon exits.

Suspending a subshell

In the previous section, we stopped the vim editor. That leaves its process in a steady state until, sometime later, it’s put into the foreground again with fg.

Just as a shell runs vim in a subprocess, a shell can run another shell in a subprocess. Why would you want to do this? Examples of child shells include:

  • Using another shell, with features you want to have sometime, on your current login session, as yourself. For instance, you might like the powerful features of the Z shell in some cases, but not want (or not be allowed to) run it as your login shell (as the shell that starts when you log into a system and/or when you open a new X Window).
  • An ssh session that starts an interactive shell on another host. (The subprocess is actually the ssh on your local host, but the effect is to suspend the remote shell.)
  • An su command that runs a shell as another user. (After it checks your password, if needed, the su subprocess replaces itself with a shell running under the other user’s effective UID.)

You can start the child shell, change its current directory, do whatever else you need to do — and, when you want to go back to your login shell, suspend the child shell. Its command history, current directory, and all of its other attributes, will wait until you bring the child shell back into the foreground.

Shells ignore SIGTSTP, but you can stop a shell with its built-in command suspend. A few shells, like ash and dash, don’t have suspend. But, as we’ll see, you can send SIGSTOP to those shells.

(Note that you can’t use suspend to stop a login shell. If you did — or if you send SIGSTOP to a login shell — that shell session will freeze, and you can only un-freeze it by sending SIGCONT to it from another shell.)

Listing Three: Suspending subshells

bash$ jobs
bash$ pwd
bash$ tcsh
tcsh> cd foo
tcsh> pwd
tcsh> suspend

[1]+  Stopped         tcsh
bash$ zsh
PS1='zsh%% '
zsh% cd bar
zsh% pwd
zsh% suspend

[2]+  Stopped         zsh
bash$ pwd
bash$ dash
$ suspend
dash: suspend: not found
$ kill -STOP $$

[3]+  Stopped         dash
bash$ su web
<web@myhost> (1) ->suspend

[4]+  Stopped         su web
bash$ ssh -2C other@remhost
other@remhost's password:
Last login: Fri Nov 30 18:45:41 2007...
NetBSD 3.99.5 ...
other@remhost$ ~^Z [suspend ssh]

[5]+  Stopped         ssh -2C other@remhost
bash$ jobs -l
[1]  27125 Stopped         tcsh
[2]  27144 Stopped         zsh
[3]  27165 Stopped         dash
[4]+ 27182 Stopped         su web
[5]- 27204 Stopped         ssh -2C other@remhost
bash$ %
su web
<web@myhost> (2) ->

The parent shell in Listing Three is bash, with the prompt bash$. We start by showing that there are no child processes in the shell’s job table and that the current directory is ~jpeek. Typing tcsh starts a child process that gives a tcsh> prompt. We change the child shell’s directory to a subdirectory, then suspend the child.

Back in the parent shell, we do the same thing with zsh.

Next, we start a simple POSIX shell, dash, that doesn’t have a built-in suspend command. That doesn’t keep us from stopping the shell, though: passing the child shell’s PID to kill -STOP sends the uncatchable SIGSTOP to dash. As in the first two cases, the parent bash sees that the child has stopped, prints a message to tell you the job number and PID, and prints a new bash$ prompt.

And two more examples: changing to the user web using su, and starting a shell on a remote host with ssh. Because su starts a child shell, suspend does the job. However, the ssh process running on the local host isn’t a shell, so we need a different method here. The ssh escape sequence of a newline character (which you get by pressing RETURN), followed immediately by a tilde character (~) and the control sequence CTRL-Z, tells ssh to suspend itself. (The network session to the remote host, and the remote shell, wait for the ssh process to resume.)

(If you’d started an ssh session from remhost to yet another remote host, you would type two tildes (~~^Z) to suspend that session and return to a prompt on remhost. Why? Because ~~, when followed by a CTRL-Z character, escapes the second tilde — which sends a single tilde from your local host to the ssh subprocess running on remhost.)

We take a look at the parent shell’s job table. The jobs option -l (lower-case “L”) shows the child processes’ PIDs — and their current directory, if it’s different. (Why doesn’t jobs -l report that jobs 1 and 2 are running in a different directory? That’s because jobs -l only tracks what the parent shell’s current directory was at the time that the child process was started! The parent shell doesn’t have any easy way to find out what changes a child process has made to its environment.)

Finally, we bring the su job into the foreground. (Typing fg %4 is the exact way to do this, but typing % by itself is a shortcut to bring the current job into the foreground.)

Suspending subshells vs. separate windows

Listing Two and its description show a lot about using multiple subshells. Is it clearer to suspend subshells from a single terminal window than to open separate windows on your deskcop? That’s for you to decide, of course. The concepts are worth understanding, at least.

By the way, if you do open separate windows, here’s a tip. To replace the login shell in a window, use exec followed by the shell name. (We saw exec in the November 2007 issue, in part 3 of this series.)

When you pass a program name to the shells’ built-in exec command, that program replaces the current shell. (In this way, it’s similar to the exec system call.) For instance, if you want a Z Shell running in your terminal window, type exec zsh at a shell prompt. The previous shell is replaced, but the process PID stays the same. When you type exit, the zsh process terminates and the window closes.

Next time…

The seventh column will look into the /proc pseudo-filesystem. We’ll see some of what’s there and some ways to use its process information.

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