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Unix Signals


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Signals are a simple Unix mechanism for controlling processes. A signal is a 6-bit message to a process that requires immediate attention. Each signal has a default action associated with it; for some signals, you can change this default action. Signals are generated by exceptions, which include:

A complete list of signals that the kill command can send can be found by executing the command kill -l, or by referring to the man page for signal. For example on Solaris:

# man -s3head signal
You can also obtain the list of the signals for particular flavour of Unix from iether man signal or by viewing sygnal.h system header.  On Solaris the latter is located at /usr/include/signal.h

The system default may be to ignore the signal, to terminate the process receiving the signal (and, optionally, generate a core file), or to suspend the process until it receives a continuation signal. Some signals can be caught—that is, a program can specify a particular function that should be run when the signal is received. As originally designed, Unix supports exactly 31 signals. Most modern flavours of Unix have extended this set to include more signals, typically 63.

 The signals and types are usually listed in the files /usr/include/signal.h and /usr/include/sys/signal.h. For example in Solaris we have (A Primer on Signals in the Solaris OS):

Name Number Default action Description
SIGHUP 1 Exit Hangup (ref termio(7I)).Usually means that the controlling terminal has been disconnected.
SIGINT 2 Exit Interrupt (ref termio(7I)).The user can generate this signal by pressing Ctrl+C or Delete.
SIGQUIT 3 Core Quit (ref termio(7I)). Quits the process and produces a core dump.
SIGILL 4 Core Illegal Instruction
SIGTRAP 5 Core Trace or breakpoint trap
SIGABRT 6 Core Abort
SIGEMT 7 Core Emulation trap
SIGFPE 8 Core Arithmetic exception. Informs a process of a floating-point error.
SIGKILL 9 Exit Kill. Forces the process to terminate. This is a sure kill.
SIGBUS 10 Core Bus error -- actually a misaligned address error
SIGSEGV 11 Core Segmentation fault -- an address reference boundary error
SIGSYS 12 Core Bad system call
SIGPIPE 13 Exit Broken pipe
SIGALRM 14 Exit Alarm clock
SIGTERM 15 Exit Terminated. A gentle kill that gives processes a chance to clean up
SIGUSR1 16 Exit User defined signal 1
SIGUSR2 17 Exit User defined signal 2
SIGCHLD 18 Ignore Child process status changed
SIGPWR 19 Ignore Power fail or restart
SIGWINCH 20 Ignore Window size change
SIGURG 21 Ignore Urgent socket condition
SIGPOLL 22 Exit Pollable event (ref streamio(7I))
SIGSTOP 23 Stop Stop (cannot be caught or ignored)
SIGTSTP 24 Stop Stop (job control, e.g., ^z))
SIGCONT 25 Ignore Continued
SIGTTIN 26 Stop Stopped -- tty input (ref termio(7I))
SIGTTOU 27 Stop Stopped -- tty output (ref termio(7I))
SIGVTALRM 28 Exit Virtual timer expired
SIGPROF 29 Exit Profiling timer expired
SIGXCPU 30 Core CPU time limit exceeded (ref getrlimit(2))
SIGXFSZ 31 Core File size limit exceeded (ref getrlimit(2))
SIGWAITING 32 Ignore Concurrency signal used by threads library
SIGLWP 33 Ignore Inter-LWP signal used by threads library
SIGFREEZE 34 Ignore Checkpoint suspend
SIGTHAW 35 Ignore Checkpoint resume
SIGCANCEL 36 Ignore Cancellation signal used by threads library
SIGLOST 37 Ignore Resource lost
SIGRTMIN 38 Exit Highest priority realtime signal
SIGRTMAX 45 Exit Lowest priority realtime signal

The symbols in the "Key" column of  table above have the following meaning:

Signals are normally used between processes for process control. They are also used within a process to indicate exceptional conditions that should be handled immediately (for example, floating-point overflows).

Unix Signals and the kill Command

The Unix superuser can use the kill command to terminate any process on the system. One of the most common uses of the kill command is to kill a "runaway" process that is consuming CPU and memory for no apparent reason. You may also want to kill the processes belonging to an intruder.

Despite its name, the kill command can be used for more than simply terminating processes. The kill command can send any signal to any process. Although some signals do indeed result in processes being terminated, others can cause a process to stop, restart, or perform other functions.

The syntax of the kill command is:

kill [-signal] process-IDs

The kill command allows signals to be specified by number or name. To send a hangup to process #1, for example, type:

# kill -HUP 1

With some older versions of Unix, signals could be specified only by number; all versions of the kill command still accept this syntax as well:

# kill -1 1

The superuser can kill any process; other users can kill only their own processes. You send sygnalk to several processes by listing all of their PIDs on the command line:

# kill -HUP 1023 3421 3221

By default, kill sends SIGTERM (signal 15), the process-terminate signal.

Killing Multiple Processes at the Same Time

Modern Unix systems allow you to send a signal to multiple processes at the same time with the kill command:

Catching Signals

Many signals, including SIGTERM, can be caught by programs. When catching a signal, a programmer has three choices of what to do with the signal:

Signal handling gives Unix programs a lot of flexibility. For example, some programs catch SIGINT (signal 2), sent when the user types Ctrl-C, to save their temporary files before exiting; other programs perform the default action and simply exit.

There are two signals that cannot be caught: SIGKILL (signal 9) and SIGSTOP (signal 17). SIGKILL terminates a program, no questions asked. SIGSTOP causes a program to stop execution dead in its tracks.

One signal that is very often sent is SIGHUP (signal 1), which simulates a hangup on a modem. Because having a modem accidentally hung up was once a common occurrence, many programs catch SIGHUP and perform a clean shutdown. Standard practice when killing a process is to send signal 1 (hangup) first; if the process does not terminate, then send it signal 15 (software terminate), and finally signal 9 (sure kill).

Many system programs catch SIGHUP and use it as a signal to re-read their configuration files. This has become a common programming convention, particularly in programs that don't expect to interact with a modem, such as network daemons.

Killing Rogue or Questionable Processes

Sometimes simply killing a rogue process is the wrong thing to do: you can learn more about a process by stopping it and examining it with some of Unix's debugging tools than by "blowing it out of the water." Sending a process a SIGSTOP will stop the process but will not destroy the process's memory image. This will allow you to examine the process.

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[Oct 25, 2017] How to modify scripts behavior on signals using bash traps -

Oct 25, 2017 |

Trap syntax is very simple and easy to understand: first we must call the trap builtin, followed by the action(s) to be executed, then we must specify the signal(s) we want to react to:

trap [-lp] [[arg] sigspec]
Let's see what the possible trap options are for.

When used with the -l flag, the trap command will just display a list of signals associated with their numbers. It's the same output you can obtain running the kill -l command:

$ trap -l
1) SIGHUP        2) SIGINT       3) SIGQUIT      4) SIGILL       5) SIGTRAP
6) SIGABRT       7) SIGBUS       8) SIGFPE       9) SIGKILL     10) SIGUSR1
11) SIGSEGV     12) SIGUSR2     13) SIGPIPE     14) SIGALRM     15) SIGTERM
16) SIGSTKFLT   17) SIGCHLD     18) SIGCONT     19) SIGSTOP     20) SIGTSTP
21) SIGTTIN     22) SIGTTOU     23) SIGURG      24) SIGXCPU     25) SIGXFSZ
26) SIGVTALRM   27) SIGPROF     28) SIGWINCH    29) SIGIO       30) SIGPWR
31) SIGSYS      34) SIGRTMIN    35) SIGRTMIN+1  36) SIGRTMIN+2  37) SIGRTMIN+3
It's really important to specify that it's possible to react only to signals which allows the script to respond: the SIGKILL and SIGSTOP signals cannot be caught, blocked or ignored.

Apart from signals, traps can also react to some pseudo-signal such as EXIT, ERR or DEBUG, but we will see them in detail later. For now just remember that a signal can be specified either by its number or by its name, even without the SIG prefix.

About the -p option now. This option has sense only when a command is not provided (otherwise it will produce an error). When trap is used with it, a list of the previously set traps will be displayed. If the signal name or number is specified, only the trap set for that specific signal will be displayed, otherwise no distinctions will be made, and all the traps will be displayed:

$ trap 'echo "SIGINT caught!"' SIGINT
We set a trap to catch the SIGINT signal: it will just display the "SIGINT caught" message onscreen when given signal will be received by the shell. If we now use trap with the -p option, it will display the trap we just defined:
$ trap -p
trap -- 'echo "SIGINT caught!"' SIGINT
By the way, the trap is now "active", so if we send a SIGINT signal, either using the kill command, or with the CTRL-c shortcut, the associated command in the trap will be executed (^C is just printed because of the key combination):
^CSIGINT caught!
Trap in action We now will write a simple script to show trap in action, here it is:
#!/usr/bin/env bash
# A simple script to demonstrate how trap works
set -e
set -u
set -o pipefail

trap 'echo "signal caught, cleaning..."; rm -i linux_tarball.tar.xz' SIGINT SIGTERM

echo "Downloading tarball..."
wget -O linux_tarball.tar.xz &> /dev/null
The above script just tries to download the latest linux kernel tarball into the directory from what it is launched using wget . During the task, if the SIGINT or SIGTERM signals are received (notice how you can specify more than one signal on the same line), the partially downloaded file will be deleted.

In this case the command are actually two: the first is the echo which prints the message onscreen, and the second is the actual rm command (we provided the -i option to it, so it will ask user confirmation before removing), and they are separated by a semicolon. Instead of specifying commands this way, you can also call functions: this would give you more re-usability. Notice that if you don't provide any command the signal(s) will just be ignored!

This is the output of the script above when it receives a SIGINT signal:

$ ./
Downloading tarball...
^Csignal caught, cleaning...
rm: remove regular file 'linux_tarball.tar.xz'?
A very important thing to remember is that when a script is terminated by a signal, like above, its exist status will be the result of 128 + the signal number . As you can see, the script above, being terminated by a SIGINT, has an exit status of 130 :
$ echo $?
Lastly, you can disable a trap just by calling trap followed by the - sign, followed by the signal(s) name or number:
The signals will take back the value they had upon the entrance to shell. Pseudo-signals As already mentioned above, trap can be set not only for signals which allows the script to respond but also to what we can call "pseudo-signals". They are not technically signals, but correspond to certain situations that can be specified: EXIT When EXIT is specified in a trap, the command of the trap will be execute on exit from the shell. ERR This will cause the argument of the trap to be executed when a command returns a non-zero exit status, with some exceptions (the same of the shell errexit option): the command must not be part of a while or until loop; it must not be part of an if construct, nor part of a && or || list, and its value must not be inverted by using the ! operator. DEBUG This will cause the argument of the trap to be executed before every simple command, for , case or select commands, and before the first command in shell functions RETURN The argument of the trap is executed after a function or a script sourced by using source or the . command.

Hour 19 Dealing with Signals How Are Signal Represented

Dealing with Signals

Signals are software interrupts sent to a program to indicate that an important event has occurred. The events can vary from user requests to illegal memory access errors. Some signals, such as the interrupt signal, indicate that a user has asked the program to do something that is not in the usual flow of control.

Because signals can arrive at any time during the execution of a script, they add an extra level of complexity to shell scripts. Scripts must account for this fact and include extra code that can determine how to respond appropriately to a signal regardless of what the script was doing when the signal was received.

In this chapter you will look at the following topics:

How Are Signal Represented?

Getting a List of Signals

Delivering Signals

Default Actions

Each type of event is represented by a separate signal. Each signal is only a small positive integer. The signals most commonly encountered in shell script programming are given in Table 19.1. All the listed signals are available on all versions of UNIX.

Table 19.1 Important Signals for Shell Scripts

Name Value Description
SIGHUP 1 Hang up detected on controlling terminal or death of controlling process
SIGINT 2 Interrupt from keyboard
SIGQUIT 3 Quit from keyboard
SIGKILL 9 Kill signal
SIGALRM 14 Alarm Clock signal (used for timers)
SIGTERM 15 Termination signal

In addition to the signals listed in Table 19.1, you might occasionally see a reference to signal 0, which is more of a shell convention than a real signal. When a shell script exits either by using the exit command or by executing the last command in the script, the shell in which the script was running sends itself a signal 0 to indicate that it should terminate.

Getting a List of Signals

All the signals understood by your system are listed in the C language header file signal.h. The location of this file varies between UNIX flavors. Some common locations are

Some vendors provide a man page for this file which you can view with one of the following commands:

Another way that your system can understand a list of signals is to use the -l option of the kill command. For example on a Solaris system the output is:

$ kill -l 
1) SIGHUP       2) SIGINT       3) SIGQUIT      4) SIGILL 
 5) SIGTRAP      6) SIGABRT      7) SIGEMT       8) SIGFPE 
 9) SIGKILL     10) SIGBUS      11) SIGSEGV     12) SIGSYS 
13) SIGPIPE     14) SIGALRM     15) SIGTERM     16) SIGUSR1 
17) SIGUSR2     18) SIGCHLD     19) SIGPWR      20) SIGWINCH 
21) SIGURG      22) SIGIO       23) SIGSTOP     24) SIGTSTP 
25) SIGCONT     26) SIGTTIN     27) SIGTTOU     28) SIGVTALRM 
29) SIGPROF     30) SIGXCPU     31) SIGXFSZ     32) SIGWAITING 
33) SIGLWP      34) SIGFREEZE   35) SIGTHAW     36) SIGCANCEL 

The actual list of signals varies between Solaris, HP-UX, and Linux.

Default Actions

Every signal, including those listed in Table 19.1, has a default action associated with it. The default action for a signal is the action that a script or program performs when it receives a signal.

Some of the possible default actions are

The default action for the signals that you should be concerned about is to terminate the process. Later in this chapter you will look at how you can change the default action performed by a script with a signal handler .

Delivering Signals

There are several methods of delivering signals to a program or script. One of the most common is for a user to type CONTROL-C or the INTERRUPT key while a script is executing. In this case a SIGINT is sent to the script and it terminates.

The other common method for delivering signals is to use the kill command as follows:

kill -signal pid

Here signal is either the number or name of the signal to deliver and pid is the process ID that the signal should be sent to.


In previous chapters you looked at the kill command without the signal argument. By default the kill command sends a TERM or terminates a signal to the program running with the specified pid. Recall from Chapter 6, "Processes," that a PID is the process ID given by UNIX to a program while it is executing. Thus the commands

kill pid 
kill -s SIGTERM pid 

are equivalent.

Now look at a few examples of using the kill command to deliver other signals.


The following command

$ kill -s SIGHUP 1001

sends the HUP or hang-up signal to the program that is running with process ID 1001. You can also use the numeric value of the signal as follows:

$ kill -1 1001

This command also sends the hang-up signal to the program that is running with process ID 1001. Although the default action for this signal calls for the process to terminate, many UNIX programs use the HUP signal as an indication that they should reinitialize themselves. For this reason, you should use a different signal if you are trying to terminate or kill a process.


If the default kill command cannot terminate a process, you can try to send the process either a QUIT or an INT (interrupt) signal as follows:

$ kill -s SIGQUIT 1001


$ kill -s SIGINT 1001

One of these signals should terminate a process, either by asking it to quit (the QUIT signal) or by asking it to interrupt its processing (the INT signal).


Some programs and shell scripts have special functions called signal handlers that can ignore or discard these signals. To terminate such a program, use the kill signal:

$ kill -9 1001

Here you are sending the kill signal to the program running with process ID 1001. In this case you are using the numeric value of the signal, instead of the name of the signal. By convention, the numeric value of the kill signal, 9, is always used for it.

The kill signal has the special property that it cannot be caught, thus any process receiving this signal terminates immediately "with extreme prejudice." This means that a process cannot cleanly exit and might leave data it was using in a corrupted state. You should only use this signal to terminate a process when all the other signals fail to do so.

[Mar 03, 2011] A Primer on Signals in the Solaris OS by Jim Mauro

2001 | Sun/Oracle

Signals are used to notify a process or thread of a particular event. Many engineers compare signals with hardware interrupts, which occur when a hardware subsystem such as a disk I/O interface (an SCSI host adapter, for example) generates an interrupt to a processor as a result of a completed I/O. This event in turn causes the processor to enter an interrupt handler, so subsequent processing can be done in the operating system based on the source and cause of the interrupt.

UNIX guru W. Richard Stevens, however, aptly describes signals as software interrupts. When a signal is sent to a process or thread, a signal handler may be entered (depending on the current disposition of the signal), which is similar to the system entering an interrupt handler as the result of receiving an interrupt.

There is quite a bit of history related to signals, design changes in the signal code, and various implementations of UNIX. This was due in part to some deficiencies in the early implementation of signals, as well as the parallel development work done on different versions of UNIX, primarily BSD UNIX and AT&T System V. W. Richard Stevens, James Cox, and Berny Goodheart (see Resources) cover these details in their respective books. What does warrant mention is that early implementations of signals were deemed unreliable. The unreliability stemmed from the fact that in the old days the kernel would reset the signal handler to its default if a process caught a signal and invoked its own handler, and the reset occurred before the handler was invoked. Attempts to address this issue in user code by having the signal handler first reinstall itself did not always solve the problem, as successive occurrences of the same signal resulted in race conditions, where the default action was invoked before the user-defined handler was reinstalled. For signals that had a default action of terminating the process, this created severe problems. This problem (and some others) were addressed in 4.3BSD UNIX and SVR3 in the mid-'80s.

The implementation of reliable signals has been in place for many years now, where an installed signal handler remains persistent and is not reset by the kernel. The POSIX standards provided a fairly well-defined set of interfaces for using signals in code, and today the Solaris Operating Environment implementation of signals is fully POSIX-compliant. Note that reliable signals require the use of the newer sigaction(2) interface, as opposed to the traditional signal(3C) call.

The occurrence of a signal may be synchronous or asynchronous to the process or thread, depending on the source of the signal and the underlying reason or cause. Synchronous signals occur as a direct result of the executing instruction stream, where an unrecoverable error (such as an illegal instruction or illegal address reference) requires an immediate termination of the process. Such signals are directed to the thread whose execution stream caused the error. Because an error of this type causes a trap into a kernel trap handler, synchronous signals are sometimes referred to as traps. Asynchronous signals are external to (and in some cases unrelated to) the current execution context. One obvious example is the sending of a signal to a process from another process or thread, via a kill(2), _lwp_kill(2), or sigsend(2) system call, or a thr_kill(3T), pthread_kill(3T), or sigqueue(3R) library invocation. Asynchronous signals are also referred to as interrupts.

Every signal has a unique signal name, an abbreviation that begins with SIG (SIGINT for interrupt signal, for example) and a corresponding signal number. Additionally, for all possible signals, the system defines a default disposition, or action to take when a signal occurs. There are four possible default dispositions:

A signal's disposition within a process's context defines what action the system will take on behalf of the process when a signal is delivered. All threads and LWPs (lightweight processes) within a process share the signal disposition, which is processwide and cannot be unique among threads within the same process. The table below provides a complete list of signals, along with a description and default action.

The disposition of a signal can be changed from its default, and a process can arrange to catch a signal and invoke a signal handling routine of its own, or ignore a signal that may not have a default disposition of Ignore. The only exceptions are SIGKILL and SIGSTOP, whose default dispositions cannot be changed. The interfaces for defining and changing signal disposition are the signal(3C) and sigset(3C) libraries, and the sigaction(2) system call. Signals can also be blocked, which means the process has temporarily prevented delivery of a signal. The generation of a signal that has been blocked will result in the signal remaining pending to the process until it is explicitly unblocked, or the disposition is changed to Ignore. The sigprocmask(2) system call will set or get a process's signal mask, the bit array that is inspected by the kernel to determine if a signal is blocked or not. thr_setsigmask(3T) and pthread_sigmask(3T) are the equivalent interfaces for setting and retrieving the signal mask at the user-threads level.

I mentioned earlier that a signal may originate from several different places, for a variety of different reasons. The first three signals listed in the table above - SIGHUP, SIGINT, and SIGQUIT - are generated by a keyboard entry from the controlling terminal (SIGINT and SIGHUP), or they are generated if the control terminal becomes disconnected (SIGHUP - use of the nohup(1) command makes processes "immune" from hangups by setting the disposition of SIGHUP to Ignore). Other terminal I/O-related signals include SIGSTOP, SIGTTIN, SIGTTOU, and SIGTSTP. For the signals that originate from a keyboard command, the actual key sequence that generates the signals, usually Ctrl-C, is defined within the parameters of the terminal session, typically via stty(1), which results in a SIGINT being sent to a process, and has a default disposition of Exit.

Signals generated as a direct result of an error encountered during instruction execution start with a hardware trap on the system. Different processor architectures define various traps that result in an immediate vectored transfer of control to a kernel trap-handling function. The Solaris kernel builds a trap table and inserts trap-handling routines in the appropriate locations based on the architecture specification of the processors that Solaris supports: SPARC V7 (early Sun-4 architectures), SPARC V8 (SuperSPARC - Sun-4m and Sun-4d architectures), SPARC V9 (UltraSPARC), and x86 (in Intel parlance they're called interrupt descriptor tables or IDTs; on SPARC, they're called trap tables). The kernel-installed trap handler will ultimately generate a signal to the thread that caused the trap. The signals that result from hardware traps are SIGILL, SIGFPE, SIGSEGV, SIGTRAP, SIGBUS, and SIGEMT.

In addition to terminal I/O and error trap conditions, signals can originate from sources such as an explicit send programmatically via kill(2) or thr_kill(3T), or from a shell issuing a kill(1) command. Parent processes are notified of status change in a child process via SIGCHLD. The alarm(2) system call sends a SIGALRM when the timer expires. Applications can create user-defined signals as a somewhat crude form of interprocess communication by defining handlers for SIGUSR1 or SIGUSR2 and then sending those signals between processes. The kernel sends SIGXCPU if a process exceeds its processor time resource limit or SIGXFSZ if a file write exceeds the file size resource limit. A SIGABRT is sent as a result of an invocation of the abort(3C) library. If a process is writing to a pipe and the reader has terminated, SIGPIPE is generated.

These examples of signals generated as a result of events beyond hard errors and terminal I/O do not represent the complete list, but rather provide you with a well-rounded set of examples of the process-induced and external events that can generate signals. You can find a complete list in any number of texts on UNIX programming.

In terms of actual implementation, a signal is represented as a bit in a data structure (several data structures, actually, as you'll see shortly). More succinctly, the posting of a signal by the kernel results in a bit getting set in a structure member at either the process or thread level. Because each signal has a unique signal number, a structure member of sufficient width is used, which allows every signal to be represented by simply setting the bit that corresponds to the signal number of the signal you wish to post (for example, setting the 17th bit to post signal 17, SIGUSR1).

Because Solaris includes more than 32 possible signals, a long or int data type is not sufficiently wide to represent each possible signal as a unique bit, so a data structure is required. The k_sigset_t data structure defined in /usr/include/signal.h is used in several of the process data structures to store the posted signal bits. It's an array of two unsigned long data types (array members 0 and 1), providing a bit width of 64 bits.

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Last modified: December, 26, 2017