CS110: Principles of Computer Systems

Autumn 2021
Jerry Cain


Lecture 10: Introduction to Signals

  • A signal is a small message that notifies a process that an event of some type occurred.
    • Signals are a higher-level software form of exceptional control flow that allows processes and the kernel to interrupt other processes (signals are generally sent by the kernel, but they can be sent from other processes as well).
  • You're already familiar with some types of signals, even if you've not referred to them by that name before.
    • You haven't truly programmed in C before unless you've unintentionally (or intentionally, if that's who you are) dereferenced a NULL pointer.
    • When that happens, the kernel delivers a SIGSEGV signal of type SIGSEGV, informally known as a segfault.
  • Each signal category (e.g. SIGSEGV) is represented internally by some number (e.g. 11). For example, C #defines SIGSEGV to be the number 11.
  • Low-level hardware exceptions are processed by the kernel’s exception handlers and would not normally be visible to user processes.
    • Signals provide a way to expose these types of exceptions to user processes.

Lecture 10: Introduction to Signals

  • Other signal types:
    • Whenever a process commits an integer-divide-by-zero (and, in some cases, a floating-point divide by zero on older architectures), the kernel hollers and fires a SIGFPE signal at the offending process. By default, the program responds to the SIGFPE by immediately terminating the program.
    • When a process attempts to publish data to the write end of a pipe after the read end has been closed, the kernel delivers a SIGPIPE to the offending process. The default SIGPIPE handler simply terminates the program.
    • When a process tries to execute an illegal assembly code instruction, the kernel issues a SIGILL instruction to that process (and the program terminates).

    • When you type CTRL-C from the terminal, the kernel sends a SIGINT to the foreground process. By default, that foreground process is terminated.
    • When you type CTRL-Z, the kernel send a SIGTSTP to the foreground process (and by default, the foreground process is halted until a subsequent SIGCONT signal instructs it to continue).
    • A user program can set a timer using a system call like setitimer. When the timer goes off, the kernel sends a SIGALRM to the process.

process control related

timing related

Lecture 10: Introduction to Signals

  • Some common signals (some 30 types are supported on Linux systems):

Lecture 10: Introduction to Signals

  • Signal handlers are ordinary functions we ask the operating system to run whenever a signal comes in. The signal function installs a signal handler with the intent that the OS execute that signal handler to, well, handler, the signal.
    • Some signals are handled synchronously, which means any installed signal handler is executed immediately, the instant the signal is generated.  These types of signals generally result from the process doing something bad to itself (e.g. dividing by zero, or dereferencing a bad address, or executing an illegal instruction). These type of signals are often called traps.
    • Other signals are handled asynchronously, which means they were generated outside of the process (e.g. you typed CTRL-C to generate a SIGINT, or a previously established timer expired to generate a SIGALRM). The generation of these signals often happens while the target process is off the CPU, so the signal handler is executed as soon as gets the CPU again. These types of asynchronously handled signals are often called interrupts.
    • Programs can very rarely recover from traps, though there certainly can recover from interrupts.  That's why the default handler for most traps is to terminate the process and the default handler for most interrupts is something else.
  • Signal handlers take a single argument, which is used to specify which signal it is handling.

Lecture 10: Introduction to Signals

  • Here are two very small examples we'll tinker with during lecture.
    • This first one installs a signal handler to execute code that results from an intentional NULL pointer dereference.  Note that our signal handler takes the opportunity to print a custom message ahead of termination.

    • The second one installed a custom handler to be executed in response to CTRL-C.
static void handleSIGSEGV(int sig) {
  assert(sig == SIGSEGV);
  cout << "There's no recovering from this." << endl;
  exit(139); // as per https://www.geeksforgeeks.org/exit-codes-in-c-c-with-examples
} // SIGSEGV handlers should still end the program.

int main(int argc, char *argv[]) {
  signal(SIGSEGV, handleSIGSEGV);
  *(int *)NULL = 110; 
  return 0;
static void handleSIGINT(int sig) {
  assert(sig == SIGINT);
  cout << "I'm ignoring you." << endl;
} // By the way, Doris is over Thor.  She likes Brutus now.

int main(int argc, char *argv[]) {
  signal(SIGINT, handleSIGINT);
  cout << "Just try to interrupt me, Thor!" << endl;
  for (size_t i = 0; i < 50; i++) { sleep(1); }
  return 0;

Lecture 10: Introduction to Signals

  • One asynchronous signal type important to multiprocessing? SIGCHLD
    • Whenever a process changes state—that is, it exits, crashes, stops, or resumes from a stopped state—the kernel sends a SIGCHLD signal to the process's parent.
      • By default, the signal is ignored. In fact, we've ignored it all fork examples until now and we've gotten away with it.
    • Doing so allows forked child processes to run in the background while allowing the parent to do its own meaningful work without blocking in some waitpid call.
    • The parent process, however, is still required to reap child process resources, so a parent will typically register a custom SIGCHLD handler—using that signal function we just learn about—to be asynchronously invoked whenever a child process changes state.
    • These custom SIGCHLD handlers almost always include calls to waitpid to surface the pids of child processes that've changed state. If the child process of interest actually terminated or crashed, the waitpid also reaps the now-zombie process's resources (e.g. its process control block).
    • One key takeaway from that: waitpid calls aren't really optional.   

Lecture 10: Introduction to Signals

  • Our first signal handler example: Disneyland, Take I
    • The premise? dad takes his five kids out to play. Each child plays for a different length of time. When all five kids are done playing, the six of them all go home.
    • The parent process models dad and the five others model his children.

static const size_t kNumChildren = 5;  // constant
static size_t numDone = 0;             // global variable!

int main(int argc, char *argv[]) {
  cout << "Let my five children play while I take a nap." << endl;
  signal(SIGCHLD, reapChildProcesses);
  for (size_t kid = 1; kid <= kNumChildren; kid++) {
    pid_t pid = fork();
    if (pid == 0) {
      sleep(3 * kid); // sleep emulates "play" time
      cout << "Child " << kid << " tires... returns to dad." << endl;
      return 0;
    while (numDone < kNumChildren) {
    cout << "At least one child still playing, so dad nods off." << endl;
    snooze(5); // signal-safe version of sleep
    cout << "Dad wakes up! ";
  cout << "All children accounted for.  Good job, dad!" << endl;
  return 0;

Lecture 10: Introduction to Signals

  • Our first signal handler example: Disneyland, Take I
    • Each child process exits at three-second intervals. reapChildProcesses handles each of the SIGCHLD signals delivered as each child process exits (or rather, when each child has had enough of playing).
    • The signal prototype doesn't allow for state to be shared via parameters, so we have no choice but to use global variables.  That means that the implementation of reapChildProcesses—that's our signal handler here—needs to coordinate with the main execution flow via the numDone global variable.
static void reapChildProcesses(int unused) {
  waitpid(-1, NULL, 0);

Lecture 10: Introduction to Signals

  • Our first signal handler example: Disneyland, Take I
    • Here's the output of the previous program.

    • Dad's wake-up times (at t = 5 sec, t = 10 sec, etc.) interleave the various finish times (3 sec, 6 sec, etc.) of the children, and the output published above reflects that.
    • The SIGCHLD handler is invoked 5 times, each in response to some isolated child process finishing up.
poohbear@myth63:$ ./five-children 
Let my five children play while I take a nap.
At least one child still playing, so dad nods off.
Child 1 tires... returns to dad.
Dad wakes up! At least one child still playing, so dad nods off.
Child 2 tires... returns to dad.
Child 3 tires... returns to dad.
Dad wakes up! At least one child still playing, so dad nods off.
Child 4 tires... returns to dad.
Child 5 tires... returns to dad.
Dad wakes up! At least one child still playing, so dad nods off.
Dad wakes up! All children accounted for.  Good job, dad!

Lecture 10: Introduction to Signals

  • Let's advance our understanding of SIGCHLD delivery and handling.
    • The five children all return to dad at the same time, but dad can't tell.
    • Why? Because if multiple signals come in at the same time, the signal handler is only run once.  So, if three SIGCHLD signals are delivered while dad is off the processor, the operating system only records the fact that one or more SIGCHLDs came in! Restated, the OS maintains a Boolean, not a count.
    • When the parent process executed its SIGCHLD handler, it must do so on behalf of the one or more signals that may have been delivered.
    • That means our SIGCHLD handler needs to call waitpid in a loop, as with:
static void reapChildProcesses(int unused) {
  while (true) {
    pid_t pid = waitpid(-1, NULL, 0);
    if (pid < 0) break;

Lecture 10: Introduction to Signals

  • Let's advance our understanding of SIGCHLD delivery and handling even more!
    • The improved reapChildProcesses implementation seemingly fixes the confused-pentuplets program, but it changes the behavior of our original five-children program. Now why is that?
      • When the first child in five-children exits, the other children are still playing.
      • The SIGCHLD handler calls waitpid, and it returns the pid of the first child.
      • The SIGCHLD handler will then loop around and call waitpid a second time.
      • This second call will block until the second child exits three seconds later, preventing dad from returning to his nap.
    • We need to instruct waitpid to only reap children that have exited but to return without blocking, even if there are more children still running. We manage this by including WNOHANG in the third parameter passed to waitpid.

    • If the calling process has no more children, then waitpid returns -1 and sets errno to ECHILD.
static void reapChildProcesses(int unused) {
  while (true) {
    pid_t pid = waitpid(-1, NULL, WNOHANG); // check out the WNOHANG!!!
    if (pid <= 0) {  // note the < is now a <=
      assert(pid == 0 || errno == ECHILD); // pid could be 0 now

Lecture 10: Introduction to Signals

  • All SIGCHLD handlers generally have this while loop structure.
    • Note we changed the if (pid < 0) test to if (pid <= 0).
    • A return value of -1 generally means that there are no child processes left.
    • A return value of 0—that's a new possible return value as of the last slide—means there are other child processes, and we would have normally waited for them to exit, but we’re returning instead because of the WNOHANG in argument 3.
  • Recall the third argument supplied to waitpid can include several flags bitwise-OR'ed together.  That collection of flags now includes WNOHANG.
    • WUNTRACED informs waitpid to block until some child process has either ended or stopped.
    • WCONTINUED informs waitpid to block until some child process has either ended or been continued from a stopped state.
    • WUNTRACED | WCONTINUED | WNOHANG asks that waitpid return information about a child process that has changed state (i.e. exited, crashed, stopped, or continued) but to do so without blocking.

Lecture 10: Introduction to Signals

  • Signal Aside: Software-supplied signals: kill and raise
    • Processes can message other processes using signals via the kill system call.  Processes can even send themselves signals using raise.

      • raise(sig) is programmatically identical to kill(getpid(), sig)
    • The kill system call is analogous to the /bin/kill shell command.
      • It is unfortunately named, since kill implies SIGKILL implies death, and that's not cute. It got its name because the default response to most signals in early UNIX implementations was to just terminate the target process.
      • We generally ignore the return values of kill and raise. Just call it properly.
    • The pid parameter is overloaded to provide more flexible signaling.
      • When pid is a positive number, the target is the process with that pid.
      • When pid is a negative number less than -1, the targets are all processes within the process group abs(pid). We'll rely on this in Assignment 4.
      • pid can also be 0 or -1, but we never rely on those two possibilities in CS110.
int kill(pid_t pid, int sig);
int raise(int sig);

Lecture 10: Introduction to Signals

  • Here's a playful program where parent and child play ping pong using kill and raise.

Lecture 10: Introduction to Signals

  • Sadly, asynchronous signal handling has its drawback!
    • Signal handlers are difficult to use properly, and the consequences can be severe. Many regard signals to be one of the worst parts of Unix’s design.

      • This installment of Ghosts of Unix Past explains why asynchronous signal handling can be such a headache.

      • The article's primary point: The trouble with signal handlers is that they can be invoked at a really, really bad time (e.g. while the main execution flow is in the middle of a malloc call, or accessing a complex data structure).

    • Here's a short program illustrating the dangers.

    • What if I type CTRL-C from the terminal while main execution is in the middle of that for loop? Whatever happens, it will bring sadness.

This slide was written by Ryan Eberhardt and edited by Jerry.

static vector<string> strings;

void handleSIGINT(int sig) {

int main(int argc, char *argv[]) {
  buildStringVector(strings); // assume anything reasonable
  signal(SIGINT, handleSIGINT);
  for (string &s: strings) processString(s);
  return 0;