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Process Management in the FreeBSD Operating System

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This chapter from The Design and Implementation of the FreeBSD Operating System, 2nd Edition describes the composition of a process, the method that the system uses to switch between the process’s threads, and the scheduling policy that it uses to promote sharing of the CPU. It also introduces process creation and termination, and details the signal and process-debugging facilities.
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4.1 Introduction to Process Management

A process is a program in execution. A process has an address space containing a mapping of its program’s object code and global variables. It also has a set of kernel resources that it can name and on which it can operate using system calls. These resources include its credentials, signal state, and its descriptor array that gives it access to files, pipes, sockets, and devices. Each process has at least one and possibly many threads that execute its code. Every thread represents a virtual processor with a full context worth of register state and its own stack mapped into the address space. Every thread running in the process has a corresponding kernel thread, with its own kernel stack that represents the user thread when it is executing in the kernel as a result of a system call, page fault, or signal delivery.

A process must have system resources, such as memory and the underlying CPU. The kernel supports the illusion of concurrent execution of multiple processes by scheduling system resources among the set of processes that are ready to execute. On a multiprocessor, multiple threads of the same or different processes may execute concurrently. This chapter describes the composition of a process, the method that the system uses to switch between the process’s threads, and the scheduling policy that it uses to promote sharing of the CPU. It also introduces process creation and termination, and details the signal and process-debugging facilities.

Two months after the developers began the first implementation of the UNIX operating system, there were two processes: one for each of the terminals of the PDP-7. At age 10 months, and still on the PDP-7, UNIX had many processes, the fork operation, and something like the wait system call. A process executed a new program by reading in a new program on top of itself. The first PDP-11 system (First Edition UNIX) saw the introduction of exec. All these systems allowed only one process in memory at a time. When a PDP-11 with memory management (a KS-11) was obtained, the system was changed to permit several processes to remain in memory simultaneously, to reduce swapping. But this change did not apply to multiprogramming because disk I/O was synchronous. This state of affairs persisted into 1972 and the first PDP-11/45 system. True multiprogramming was finally introduced when the system was rewritten in C. Disk I/O for one process could then proceed while another process ran. The basic structure of process management in UNIX has not changed since that time [Ritchie, 1988].

The threads of a process operate in either user mode or kernel mode. In user mode, a thread executes application code with the machine in a nonprivileged protection mode. When a thread requests services from the operating system with a system call, it switches into the machine’s privileged protection mode via a protected mechanism and then operates in kernel mode.

The resources used by a thread are split into two parts. The resources needed for execution in user mode are defined by the CPU architecture and typically include the CPU’s general-purpose registers, the program counter, the processor-status register, and the stack-related registers, as well as the contents of the memory segments that constitute FreeBSD’s notion of a program (the text, data, shared library, and stack segments).

Kernel-mode resources include those required by the underlying hardware such as registers, program counter, and the stack pointer. These resources also include the state required for the FreeBSD kernel to provide system services for a thread. This kernel state includes parameters to the current system call, the current process’s user identity, scheduling information, and so on. As described in Section 3.1, the kernel state for each process is divided into several separate data structures, with two primary structures: the process structure and the thread structure.

The process structure contains information that must always remain resident in main memory, along with references to other structures that remain resident, whereas the thread structure tracks information that needs to be resident only when the process is executing such as its kernel run-time stack. Process and thread structures are allocated dynamically as part of process creation and are freed when the process is destroyed as it exits.


FreeBSD supports transparent multiprogramming: the illusion of concurrent execution of multiple processes or programs. It does so by context switching—that is, by switching between the execution context of the threads within the same or different processes. A mechanism is also provided for scheduling the execution of threads—that is, for deciding which one to execute next. Facilities are provided for ensuring consistent access to data structures that are shared among processes.

Context switching is a hardware-dependent operation whose implementation is influenced by the underlying hardware facilities. Some architectures provide machine instructions that save and restore the hardware-execution context of a thread or an entire process including its virtual-address space. On others, the software must collect the hardware state from various registers and save it, then load those registers with the new hardware state. All architectures must save and restore the software state used by the kernel.

Context switching is done frequently, so increasing the speed of a context switch noticeably decreases time spent in the kernel and provides more time for execution of user applications. Since most of the work of a context switch is expended in saving and restoring the operating context of a thread or process, reducing the amount of the information required for that context is an effective way to produce faster context switches.


Fair scheduling of threads and processes is an involved task that is dependent on the types of executable programs and on the goals of the scheduling policy. Programs are characterized according to the amount of computation and the amount of I/O that they do. Scheduling policies typically attempt to balance resource utilization against the time that it takes for a program to complete. In FreeBSD’s default scheduler, which we shall refer to as the timeshare scheduler, a process’s priority is periodically recalculated based on various parameters, such as the amount of CPU time it has used, the amount of memory resources it holds or requires for execution, etc. Some tasks require more precise control over process execution called real-time scheduling. Real-time scheduling must ensure that threads finish computing their results by a specified deadline or in a particular order. The FreeBSD kernel implements real-time scheduling using a separate queue from the queue used for regular timeshared processes. A process with a real-time priority is not subject to priority degradation and will only be preempted by another thread of equal or higher real-time priority. The FreeBSD kernel also implements a queue of threads running at idle priority. A thread with an idle priority will run only when no other thread in either the real-time or timeshare-scheduled queues is runnable and then only if its idle priority is equal to or greater than all other runnable idle-priority threads.

The FreeBSD timeshare scheduler uses a priority-based scheduling policy that is biased to favor interactive programs, such as text editors, over long-running batch-type jobs. Interactive programs tend to exhibit short bursts of computation followed by periods of inactivity or I/O. The scheduling policy initially assigns a high execution priority to each thread and allows that thread to execute for a fixed time slice. Threads that execute for the duration of their slice have their priority lowered, whereas threads that give up the CPU (usually because they do I/O) are allowed to remain at their priority. Threads that are inactive have their priority raised. Jobs that use large amounts of CPU time sink rapidly to a low priority, whereas interactive jobs that are mostly inactive remain at a high priority so that, when they are ready to run, they will preempt the long-running lower-priority jobs. An interactive job, such as a text editor searching for a string, may become compute-bound briefly and thus get a lower priority, but it will return to a high priority when it is inactive again while the user thinks about the result.

Some tasks, such as the compilation of a large application, may be done in many small steps in which each component is compiled in a separate process. No individual step runs long enough to have its priority degraded, so the compilation as a whole impacts the interactive programs. To detect and avoid this problem, the scheduling priority of a child process is propagated back to its parent. When a new child process is started, it begins running with its parent’s current priority. As the program that coordinates the compilation (typically make) starts many compilation steps, its priority is dropped because of the CPU-intensive behavior of its children. Later compilation steps started by make begin running and stay at a lower priority, which allows higher-priority interactive programs to run in preference to them as desired.

The system also needs a scheduling policy to deal with problems that arise from not having enough main memory to hold the execution contexts of all processes that want to execute. The major goal of this scheduling policy is to minimize thrashing—a phenomenon that occurs when memory is in such short supply that more time is spent in the system handling page faults and scheduling processes than in user mode executing application code.

The system must both detect and eliminate thrashing. It detects thrashing by observing the amount of free memory. When the system has little free memory and a high rate of new memory requests, it considers itself to be thrashing. The system reduces thrashing by marking the least recently run process as not being allowed to run, allowing the pageout daemon to push all the pages associated with the process to backing store. On most architectures, the kernel also can push to backing store the kernel stacks of all the threads of the marked process. The effect of these actions is to cause the process and all its threads to be swapped out (see Section 6.12). The memory freed by blocking the process can then be distributed to the remaining processes, which usually can then proceed. If the thrashing continues, additional processes are selected to be blocked from running until enough memory becomes available for the remaining processes to run effectively. Eventually, enough processes complete and free their memory that blocked processes can resume execution. However, even if there is not enough memory, the blocked processes are allowed to resume execution after about 20 seconds. Usually, the thrashing condition will return, requiring that some other process be selected for being blocked (or that an administrative action be taken to reduce the load).

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