// Patrick Louis

Unix Signals

Smoke signals (Transcript of the podcast)

Unix signals
Trap me up!


Let’s go over some history.

Signals have been there since the very first version of Unix. They were just a bit different from what we know today. For many reasons in fact, they’ve gone through many iterations of development and ideas.
Today we have one single system call to catch all signals but that only appeared in version 4 of Unix and before that there were different system calls to catch different types of signals.
In version 7 of Unix signals received a symbolic name for the number corresponding to the signal, for instance: “KILL” “HUP”.
The kill command appeared early on in version 2 of Unix.
BSD soon added the SIGUSR1 and SIGUSR2 signals to their version with the aim of using it for IPC.

This is a general principle — people will want to hijack any tools you build, so you have to design them to either be un-hijackable or to be hijacked cleanly. Those are your only choices. Except, of course, for being ignored—a highly reliable way to remain unsullied, but less satisfying than might at first appear. — Ken Arnold

A main contributor to the original Berkeley (BSD), noticeably noted for:

  • curses and termcap:
  • The most widely used version of fortune
  • Ctags

Talking about BSD, BSD 4.x implemented the so called “reliable” signals that don’t reset unless explicitly requested to and also introduced primitives to block or temporarily suspend processing of a given set of signals.
Most modern unixes support both styles, the old (Sytem V) and the BSD ones, the BSD handling being favored for new code. In fact the modern signals API is portable across all recent Unix versions. It’s a POSIX standard. However, even though some signal codes stay the same across Unix, others differ.

In sum, signals have quite a history of design changes in the signal code and various implementations of UNIX. Those changes were done partly because the early implementations were deficient or had some obvious flaws, and also because the surrounding workflow gradually changed.
No worries if you didn’t get anything of what I just said, everything will be explained in the next sections and you’ll be able to do some mental gymnastic to link back to this little history part.

What are signals

A signal is an asynchronous message or event that interrupts a running process. They are intrinsically defined by their effects.
Signals are software interrupts, just like hardware interrupts, they nudge or notify a process, stop its normal flow of execution, and then the process decides what to do with the signal it receives. For that reason they can be used as a limited form of inter-process communication. They’re useful in the case where you need small computational and memory footprint because the signals are implemented at the kernel level.

Signals weren’t meant to be used as IPC but BSD adding SIGUSR1 and SIGUSR2 allowed to do this more easily. Doing IPC this way introduces many unexpected issues.


Signals are comparable to hardware interrupts, which are nudges the hardware push when it wants to tell the CPU something. For instance the disk input output interface nudges the CPU when it finishes an operation. When the CPU is nudged, the kernel handles it in an interrupt handler, it’s just a function that chooses what to do based on the source and cause of the interrupt.
Imagine it like event driven programming, because this is what it is.

One might wonder if there’s a direct relation between hardware interrupts and signals. That’s a fair question to ask.
There is in fact one.
Let’s take an explanatory scenario. When a process attempts to execute any code that generates a hardware exception or failure the cpu will receive an interrupt from that piece of hardware.

For example dividing by zero.
Just like we mentioned above, it’s a hardware nudge.

What’s the next step, the kernel enters the event handling routine, which here is the kernel exception handler. Now depending on the situation, sometimes the kernel can handle the failure by itself and continue execution normally, otherwise, in other situations it has to propagate it. The kernel, in this case, defers the exception to the faulty process in the form of a signal corresponding to the error.
The division by zero would send back to the process a SIGFPE signal, floating-point exception, or if the process wants to access and address outside its memory virtual address space it would get a SIGSEGV signal. But, it’s important to mention, that’s only on x86 CPUs. Because, like everything hardware related, this differs from architecture to architecture.
The mapping between those signal names and exceptions is dependent upon the architectures, since exception types differ between architectures.

Another thing to mention is how this affects the asynchronicity versus synchronicity of the signal handling. This depends on the source of the signal and the underlying reason or cause.
Synchronous signals occur as a result of executing instructions that are error prone and unrecoverable. Errors that need immediate handling, such as division by zero. Those signals are sent to the faulty thread that caused the error within the process.
This is the type we mentioned above.
It’s also referred to as a trap because the kernel initiate its trap handler. But the name trap is also used for any signal handler function.

On the other hand, asynchronous signals are external to the process or thread itself. It’s another process initiating a system call that will then push the signal to the target process. We’ll discuss the specific system calls later.

Let’s add that synchronicity is usually assured if it’s the process itself that initiate the signal even though it can be using system calls that are asynchronous. Like the synchronous ones, the asynchronous ones are usually referred to as interrupts. But again, the naming convention are mixed, and can be used interchangeably. However, you cannot assume that a signal will be handled synchronously or asynchronously and that’s one of the issues.


There are ways to make sure the messages are sent in order, or synchronously, or at least try to avoid the issue.
You can suspend execution until a signal is received by using the

pause(2)        Suspends execution until any signal is caught.
sigsuspend(2)   Temporarily  changes the signal mask (see below) and
                suspends execution until one of the unmasked signals
                is caught.

Or you can try to synchronously catch signals by avoiding using signal handlers and instead block execution until a signal is delivered using:

  • sigwaitinfo(2), sigtimedwait(2), and sigwait(3) suspend execution until one of the signals in a specified set is delivered. Each of these calls returns information about the delivered signal.

  • signalfd(2) [Linux specific] returns a file descriptor that can be used to read information about signals that are delivered to the caller. Each read(2) from this file descriptor blocks until one of the signals in the set specified in the signalfd(2) call is delivered to the caller. The buffer returned by read(2) contains a structure describing the signal.

Last but not least you can modify the signal mask, that is to modify the status of signals, between blocked, pending, and delivered. “A set of bits representing their status.”

When a signal is blocked it won’t be delivered until its unblocked, it’ll stay in pending mode in a kernel queue.

This mask is specific to the thread and there are system calls to manipulate them. But that poses the problem of a signal directed at a process and not a thread, the kernel will still send that signal to the process to an arbitrary thread that doesn’t have it blocked.
You can then unblock the handlers on demand and process the signals.
A nota bene here, blocking signal is extremely useful when you don’t want your process to suddenly stop executing in critical parts of your code to avoid race conditions and interruptions. We’ll come back to this idea when discussing atomic instructions.

So to recap those 3 new handling ways they mostly consist of blocking the process or/and signals and wait so that we can safely poll new signals by releasing the process or the signals. There are many examples in the show notes. Those all introduce even more issues of their own.


Signals come from many sources. What can be and is signaled exactly?

  • Something executing the system call that transmit a signal to a process
  • Sending a signal from the process unto itself
  • When a child process exits
  • When the parent process dies or hangup
  • When the program behaves incorrectly
  • Hardware failure

Each of those should have a unique signal name, at least to categorize them. Those abbreviated signal names begin with SIG, they have this prepended. For instance SIGINT, the signal interrupt that is sent when a user hits ctrl+c on the shell when a program is executing. So what are the standard signals?

You can specify a signal by its number or by its name. The POSIX specifies many signal names that are common between unix OSs however, the numbers aren’t all portable, they might differ from one unix like OS to another. There are some that are portable across them, their numbers are static. They are the following:

Signal  Portable number Default Action        Description
SIGHUP     1            Terminate             Hangup/ line hangup
SIGINT     2            Terminate             Terminal interrupt signal. (ctr-c)
SIGQUIT    3            Terminate (core dump) Terminal quit signal.
SIGABRT    6            Terminate (core dump) Process abort signal (abort syscall)
SIGKILL    9            Terminate             Kill (cannot be caught or ignored).
SIGALRM    14           Terminate             Alarm clock
SIGTERM    15           Terminate             Termination signal. (default one when using the kill command)

The other standard ones are:

Signal Portable number Default Action         Description
SIGSTOP    n/a         Stop                   Stop executing (cannot be caught or ignored).
SIGBUS     n/a         Terminate (core dump)  Access to an undefined portion of a memory object.
SIGCONT    n/a         Continue               Continue executing, if stopped.
SIGFPE     n/a         Terminate (core dump)  Erroneous arithmetic operation.
SIGILL     n/a         Terminate (core dump)  Illegal instruction.
SIGPIPE    n/a         Terminate              Write on a pipe with no one to read it.
SIGPOLL    n/a         Terminate              Pollable event.
SIGPROF    n/a         Terminate              Profiling timer expired.
SIGSEGV    n/a         Terminate (core dump)  Invalid memory reference.
SIGSYS     n/a         Terminate (core dump)  Bad system call.
SIGTRAP    n/a         Terminate (core dump)  Trace/breakpoint trap.
SIGTSTP    n/a         Stop                   Terminal stop signal.
SIGTTIN    n/a         Stop                   Background process attempting read.
SIGTTOU    n/a         Stop                   Background process attempting write.
SIGCHLD    n/a         Ignore                 Child process terminated, stopped, or continued.
SIGURG     n/a         Ignore                 High bandwidth data is available at a socket.
SIGVTALRM  n/a         Terminate              Virtual timer expired.
SIGXCPU    n/a         Terminate (core dump)  CPU time limit exceeded.
SIGXFSZ    n/a         Terminate (core dump)  File size limit exceeded
SIGUSR1    n/a         Terminate              User-defined signal 1. (BSD introduced)
SIGUSR2    n/a         Terminate              User-defined signal 2. (BSD introduced)

There are 5 behaviors that the default handlers can have:

  • Terminate — Abnormal termination of the process. The process is terminated with all the consequences of _exit() except that the status made available to wait() and waitpid() indicates abnormal termination by the specified signal. (forces the process to exit.)
  • Terminate (core dump) — Abnormal termination of the process. Additionally, implementation-defined abnormal termination actions, such as creation of a core file, may occur. (forces the process to exit and create a core file.)
  • Ignore — Ignore the signal. (ignores the signal; no action taken.)
  • Stop — Stop (not terminate) the process. (stops the process.)
  • Continue — Continue the process, if it is stopped; otherwise, ignore the signal.

You can find more list of signals with their descriptions in the show notes.


The behavior of those signals is predefined, it’s the default signal. But you can override them, that means having your own handler that catches the signal to do the things you want, such as cleanup.

What’s also particular about the different signals is that there are two that cannot be intercepted by the user/overriden, and they are the SIGSTOP and SIGKILL. SIGSTOP always moves a process to the background and SIGKILL always terminates it, it’s what usually happen when you do ctrl-z. They cannot be handled, so stopping a process with SIGKILL, for example, is considered a bad idea because the program cannot clean itself before exiting.

So what is there to know about declaring a custom signal handler that overrides the default action.

Like we said that function is asynchronous, so keep that in mind for now, we’ll return to it later.
Remember we said there had been many changes to the signals interface. Well here’s one difference. There are actually two different flavors of signals handling.
In older implementations (before early System V), the handler for a given signal is reset to the default for that signal whenever the handler fires. The result of sending two of the same signal in quick succession is therefore usually to kill the process, no matter what handler was set or it even had unexpected behavior such as race conditions and anomalies when sending multiple signals in a row. Which is why starting from the BSD 4.x version, new reliable signals were introduced, signals that don’t reset unless requested. They also introduced primitives to block or temporarily suspend processing of a given set of signals, which is in fact the signal mask we mentioned earlier, the one that control which signals are received by a thread in a process or by the process itself. Modern Unixes support both styles but you should use the BSD-style when you have the choice.

So we’ll discuss this new interface and what we need to pay attention to when writing them.

NB: The default signal handler also has a name: SIG_DFL and to ignore it’s the SIG_IGN. So you can reset them back to those in case you need or want to.

The old system call is still available but deprecated and it’s the signal(2) function. The new one is the sigaction(2) system call. To catch a signal you have to register this signal handling function to the kernel.

int sigaction (int signum, const struct sigaction *act, struct sigaction *oldact);

struct sigaction {
    void      (*sa_handler)(int);
    void      (*sa_sigaction)(int, siginfo_t *, void *);
    sigset_t   sa_mask;
    int        sa_flags;
    void      (*sa_restorer)(void);

So you specific a signal number to be caught and a structure sigaction with the information related, like the mask and the handler funtion. In comparison with the older version of the signal handler this one is more complex. The old one only took as argument the signal number and a pointer to the handler function.
Also remember to always use the signal names and not the numbers directly as we’ve said before only certain numbers are portable across different unix-like operating systems.

Now what is there that is special inside this function? Apart from knowing that the handlers are asynchronous and that SIGKILL and SIGSTOP cannot be caught, what’s next?

Specific signals, different ways to handle them

When overriding signals, you should consider the rule of least surprise. There are conventional signal names, and they are expected to act like their name says otherwise the behavior you are sugar coating it with will confuse the users of your program.

For instance SIGHUP, a signal originally sent to a program on a serial-line drop, like when the connection is interrupted, is more often used to reinitialize daemons or reload the configuration files.

It’s conventional to implement that signal handler this way, it is the existing model.

The same goes for SIGCHLD that is used to check if a child process has exited to clean up after it. Also, for SIGTERM, the graceful shutdown signal. And SIGUSR1 and 2 used for special signal handling. If you receive a hardware error you can cleanup and then create a dump by calling back the default signal handler that creates a dump, such as abort(2). Also, about sleep and alarms, alarm() arranges for a SIGALRM signal to be delivered to the calling process in seconds, but that’s not always the case, however you can’t assume things.

Moreover, don’t forget to document the latter as otherwise no one can assume the things that will happen when they are triggered. Let’s mention something and then move on to the specificities inside the handler function.

Threads and Signals

And this thing is threads, how should they behave when they receive signals? What if a process receives a signal, to which thread is it sent? They have the same PID so what?

We already mentioned that every thread has its own signal mask but what about the rest?
The signal disposition, that is how signals are handled is the same within the same process and it cannot be unique amongst threads. So the signal handlers are shared.
What about children processes, they inherit the handlers and masks of their parents only if they are created with fork(2) and not with exec(2), with the exec family of system calls the handlers are all set to the default. And also, a new child always start with an empty signal queue. But to which thread is the signal sent?

The signal isn’t multiplied and sent to multiple threads, don’t make that assumption because it’s wrong, only one signal is sent.

Let’s start with synchronous signals, the one we mentioned in the first section, the ones that happen when a hardware error is encountered for example, they are sent to the thread that initiated that error.
For asynchronous signals there’s really no order, they are simply sent to the first thread found that isn’t blocking the signal. It’s more or less arbitrary. In fact, it’s sent to the first thread that isn’t blocking in the pid hash stored by the kernel, and implementation wise hashes have no real order. However, there’s the pthread_sigmask(3) function that can be used exactly like sigprocmask(2) to manage the masks and control what goes where. There’s even a function that can be used to send signal to a specific thread and not a process, it’s the pthread_kill(2), but it should be used inside the process itself. We’ll see more of the methods used to send signals in a bit.

Now let’s move to what you do inside that handler.

Atomic instructions

The key idea is that everything can be suspended at any moment when a signal is received and thus for maximum portability a signal handler should only do a minimal amount of actions:

  • Make successful calls to the function signal() or sigaction()
  • Assign values to objects of type volatile sig_atomic_t
  • Return control to its caller

Why this atomic thing? Let’s discuss this topic of atomic instructions.

This sig_atomic_t is the only type that is guaranteed to be automatically read and written in signal handlers. Its size is undefined, but it’s an integer type. It’s the only safe type in the handler, anything else that is non-atomic cannot be used with certainty. You also need that volatile keyword because otherwise compiler optimizations might mess up what happens inside the handler.

However, some consider volatile harmful and not necessarily necessary. https://www.kernel.org/doc/Documentation/volatile-considered-harmful.txt

Other than that you need to pay attention to whatever you’re doing inside those handlers and to when they are called.
Your program can be interrupted at any time… Actually that’s not completely true, it can only be interrupted after an atomic instruction.
Not all system calls are atomic, and thus might be stopped right in the middle of what they were performing, this is excruciatingly annoying when you were doing I/O operations as you don’t know what would happen when the process comes back, will it continue operation, restart it, ignore it, or fail. Every system or standard library function can potentially be interrupted. It’s important to check the documentation to the related functions you are using, maybe they have a “safe” version you can use or at least they might specify the behavior they have when they are interrupted.

The safe functions are called async-signal-safe functions, and they are defined in POSIX. You can find a list of them online.

Overall you need to avoid side effect inside the handler. One last thing to say is that intercepting signals on the shell is done using the trap command.


We’ve seen how to intercept those signals, now how do we send them. Other than the self-generated errors, how can we intentionally create them. There are multiple ways.

Typing certain key combinations at the controlling terminal of a running process causes the system to send it certain signals:

Ctrl-C  (in older Unixes, DEL) sends an INT signal ("interrupt", SIGINT);
        by default, this causes the process to terminate.
Ctrl-Z  sends a TSTP signal ("terminal stop", SIGTSTP); by default,
        this causes the process to suspend execution.
Ctrl-\  sends a QUIT signal (SIGQUIT); by default, this causes the process
        to terminate and dump core.
Ctrl-T  (not supported on all UNIXes) sends an INFO signal (SIGINFO);
         by default, and if supported by the command, this causes the
         operating system to show information about the running command.

These default key combinations can be changed with the stty command, that’s because the key sequence is defined in the terminal session. Remember we said that to propagate the signal to threads inside a process we use the pthread_kill(3) well, that comes from the kill(2) system call. This system call is used to send a specified signal to a process if permission allows it. And like most system calls it comes with a shell command that wraps it, the kill command. What permission do you need to send a signal to a process, it’s quite simple.

  • You can kill all your own process.
  • Only root user can kill system level process.
  • Only root user can kill process started by other users.

There are other specific system calls to send signals but kill is the most relevant one, the others are just wrappers. For instance abort(3) and raise(3) are respectively used to send the SIGABRT to a signal and to send signal to the current process.

On the command line there are many utility helpers to help narrow down the choices.

  • For instance you can send a signal from process viewers such as top and htop.
  • You can send a signal using pkill, using a program name instead of its pid.
  • You can do a killall to do something similar to pkill but to all processes with the matching name.
  • You can use kill -l to list all the signals available on your platform.

You can even check the signal mask of the processes to know which one ignores which signal. You can do that using the kill -L <pid> to get the hexadecimal value of the signal handler. Or on Linux you can use /proc//status and verify the SigIgn for instance.


Indeed, many ways to send signals and manage them. Let’s also say that signals are a great way to do job control on the command line, especially with foreground and background jobs. But that’s another topic for another time.

BSD signal semantic?

Let’s move to a discussion on BSD. If you remember in the introduction, I talked about how BSD implemented reliable signals. Well, they’ve done a lot of thinking on that part.

Not only about non-resetting signal handlers and adding the ability to block signals and control them flexibly, but more. Let’s first recap that now that you’ve got the hang of signals.

In the system C style:

  • Recursive signal handling is always allowed.
  • Signal handlers are reset to SIG_DFL prior to being called.
  • System calls interrupt when a signal is delivered.

Now in the BSD 4.x style:

  • Signals are blocked for the duration of a signal handler (i.e. recursive signals are not normally allowed).
  • A “signal mask” can be set to block most signals during critical regions.
  • Signal handlers normally remain installed during and after signal delivery.
  • A separate signal handler stack can be used if desired.
  • Most system calls are restarted following delivery of a signal.

This all seems lovely but there’s even more discussion that the BSD guys brought up.

For instance, they’ve wondered and came up to the conclusion that signal catching functions should be reentrant. That means that it’s a function whose execution can be restarted at any point without it being affected. That makes sense because signals are mostly asynchronous.

They’ve reached an even higher level.

What about shell scripts? What if you have a script running and that script calls sequentially multiple other sub-scripts and in the middle you press ctrl-c on the terminal.

What will happen? How will the signal propagate?

Will it stop only the current command that was running at the time? Will the parent script be notified of that signal?

Those are all important questions to ask.

They came up with three keywords for those:

  • “immediate unconditional exit”

The shell itself exits immediately when it receives SIGINT.

  • “wait and unconditional exit”
As a variant of the former, when the shell receives SIGINT while it is
waiting for a child to exit, the shell does not exit immediately. But
it remembers the fact that a SIGINT happened. After the called program
exits and the shell's wait ends, the shell will exit itself and hence
discontinue the script.
  • “wait and cooperative exit”
As in the WUE way, the shell waits for the child to complete. It figures
whether the program was ended on SIGINT and if so, it discontinues the
script. If the program did any other exit, the script will be continued.

Now different shells handle signals different ways but what we want is the signal to reach the current running process and then propagate to the parent if needed. This is the “wait and cooperative exit.”
However, the parent won’t be notified, as in it won’t receive the signal of the child, if this child process messes the signal handling. That’s an issue in its own way because it’s against the principle of least suprise.

So they came up with a sort of standard on how to properly handle signals. That works somehow like a reseter of the handler inside the signal handler. At the end of the handler you should call back the default handler for the signal received, using the raise(3) function or simply just kill(2). So now that signal will propagate to the parent. That’s about it, fancy smart BSD guys, kudos!

Other Uses

Signals are used in other places. As we’ve said, they’re a sort of bad way to do IPC. You can “watch” processes using signal. There are even real-time signals for real-time operating systems however they’re badly implemented on a lot of Unix-like OS, probably only used in real-time operating systems only, as that’s their only use.


Signals are tough, they’re not trivial. I assumed they would be an easier topic to treat than what they really turned out to be.
However, I’m impressed by how engrained they are in the Unix history and how the BSD guys have added to them.

Overall, they’re pretty nifty but horrendous to handle properly. So beware of that. Don’t worry, with a bit of trial and errors your signal handlers should work fine. Plus, you’ve now got the hang of how they work deep down so you can debug them.

–(Show Notes)–

signal(7) #list of signals  

https://ldpreload.com/blog/signalfd-is-useless interesting article - but as with all blogs it’s purpose is to nag about the situation. You can read it after this podcast.
https://busybox.net/~vda/init_vs_runsv.html how signals are used in a bad way and an alternative

Music: Kronstudio - Volume

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