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3.5. Signals

Signals are a simple form of ``interruption'' in the Unix-like OS world, and are an ancient part of Unix. A process can set a ``signal'' on another process (say using kill(1) or kill(2)), and that other process would receive and handle the signal asynchronously. For a process to have permission to send an arbitrary signal to some other process, the sending process must either have root privileges, or the real or effective user ID of the sending process must equal the real or saved set-user-ID of the receiving process. However, some signals can be sent in other ways. In particular, SIGURG can be delivered over a network through the TCP/IP out-of-band (OOB) message.

Although signals are an ancient part of Unix, they've had different semantics in different implementations. Basically, they involve questions such as ``what happens when a signal occurs while handling another signal''? The older Linux libc 5 used a different set of semantics for some signal operations than the newer GNU libc libraries. Calling C library functions is often unsafe within a signal handler, and even some system calls aren't safe; you need to examine the documentation for each call you make to see if it promises to be safe to call inside a signal. For more information, see the glibc FAQ (on some systems a local copy is available at /usr/doc/glibc-*/FAQ).

For new programs, just use the POSIX signal system (which in turn was based on BSD work); this set is widely supported and doesn't have some of the problems that some of the older signal systems did. The POSIX signal system is based on using the sigset_t datatype, which can be manipulated through a set of operations: sigemptyset(), sigfillset(), sigaddset(), sigdelset(), and sigismember(). You can read about these in sigsetops(3). Then use sigaction(2), sigprocmask(2), sigpending(2), and sigsuspend(2) to set up an manipulate signal handling (see their man pages for more information).

In general, make any signal handlers very short and simple, and look carefully for race conditions. Signals, since they are by nature asynchronous, can easily cause race conditions.

A common convention exists for servers: if you receive SIGHUP, you should close any log files, reopen and reread configuration files, and then re-open the log files. This supports reconfiguration without halting the server and log rotation without data loss. If you are writing a server where this convention makes sense, please support it.

Michal Zalewski [2001] has written an excellent tutorial on how signal handlers are exploited, and has recommendations for how to eliminate signal race problems. I encourage looking at his summary for more information; here are my recommendations, which are similar to Michal's work:

  • Where possible, have your signal handlers unconditionally set a specific flag and do nothing else.

  • If you must have more complex signal handlers, use only calls specifically designated as being safe for use in signal handlers. In particular, don't use malloc() or free() in C (which on most systems aren't protected against signals), nor the many functions that depend on them (such as the printf() family and syslog()). You could try to ``wrap'' calls to insecure library calls with a check to a global flag (to avoid re-entry), but I wouldn't recommend it.

  • Block signal delivery during all non-atomic operations in the program, and block signal delivery inside signal handlers.



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