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4.8 Process Groups and Sessions

A process group is a collection of related processes, such as a shell pipeline, all of which have been assigned the same process-group identifier. The process-group identifier is the same as the PID of the process group's initial member; thus process-group identifiers share the name space of process identifiers. When a new process group is created, the kernel allocates a process-group structure to be associated with it. This process-group structure is entered into a process-group hash table so that it can be found quickly.

A process is always a member of a single process group. When it is created, each process is placed into the process group of its parent process. Programs such as shells create new process groups, usually placing related child processes into a group. A process can change its own process group or that of a child process by creating a new process group or by moving a process into an existing process group using the setpgid system call. For example, when a shell wants to set up a new pipeline, it wants to put the processes in the pipeline into a process group different from its own so that the pipeline can be controlled independently of the shell. The shell starts by creating the first process in the pipeline, which initially has the same process-group identifier as the shell. Before executing the target program, the first process does a setpgid to set its process-group identifier to the same value as its PID. This system call creates a new process group, with the child process as the process-group leader of the process group. As the shell starts each additional process for the pipeline, each child process uses setpgid to join the existing process group.

In our example of a shell creating a new pipeline, there is a race condition. As the additional processes in the pipeline are spawned by the shell, each is placed in the process group created by the first process in the pipeline. These conventions are enforced by the setpgid system call. It restricts the set of process-group identifiers to which a process may be set to either a value equal its own PID or a value of another process-group identifier in its session. Unfortunately, if a pipeline process other than the process-group leader is created before the process-group leader has completed its setpgid call, the setpgid call to join the process group will fail. As the setpgid call permits parents to set the process group of their children (within some limits imposed by security concerns), the shell can avoid this race by making the setpgid call to change the child's process group both in the newly created child and in the parent shell. This algorithm guarantees that, no matter which process runs first, the process group will exist with the correct process-group leader. The shell can also avoid the race by using the vfork variant of the fork system call that forces the parent process to wait until the child process either has done an exec system call or has exited. In addition, if the initial members of the process group exit before all the pipeline members have joined the group—for example, if the process-group leader exits before the second process joins the group, the setpgid call could fail. The shell can avoid this race by ensuring that all child processes are placed into the process group without calling the wait system call, usually by blocking the SIGCHLD signal so that the shell will not be notified yet if a child exits. As long as a process-group member exists, even as a zombie process, additional processes can join the process group.

There are additional restrictions on the setpgid system call. A process may join process groups only within its current session (discussed in the next section), and it cannot have done an exec system call. The latter restriction is intended to avoid unexpected behavior if a process is moved into a different process group after it has begun execution. Therefore, when a shell calls setpgid in both parent and child processes after a fork, the call made by the parent will fail if the child has already made an exec call. However, the child will already have joined the process group successfully, and the failure is innocuous.


Just as a set of related processes are collected into a process group, a set of process groups are collected into a session. A session is a set of one or more process groups and may be associated with a terminal device. The main uses for sessions are to collect together a user's login shell and the jobs that it spawns and to create an isolated environment for a daemon process and its children. Any process that is not already a process-group leader may create a session using the setsid system call, becoming the session leader and the only member of the session. Creating a session also creates a new process group, where the process-group ID is the PID of the process creating the session, and the process is the process-group leader. By definition, all members of a process group are members of the same session.

A session may have an associated controlling terminal that is used by default for communicating with the user. Only the session leader may allocate a controlling terminal for the session, becoming a controlling process when it does so. A device can be the controlling terminal for only one session at a time. The terminal I/O system (described in Chapter 10) synchronizes access to a terminal by permitting only a single process group to be the foreground process group for a controlling terminal at any time. Some terminal operations are restricted to members of the session. A session can have at most one controlling terminal. When a session is created, the session leader is dissociated from its controlling terminal if it had one.

A login session is created by a program that prepares a terminal for a user to log into the system. That process normally executes a shell for the user, and thus the shell is created as the controlling process. An example of a typical login session is shown in Figure 4.9.

04fig09.gifFigure 4.9 A session and its processes. In this example, process 3 is the initial member of the session—the session leader—and is referred to as the controlling process if it has a controlling terminal. It is contained in its own process group, 3. Process 3 has spawned two jobs: One is a pipeline composed of processes 4 and 5, grouped together in process group 4, and the other one is process 8, which is in its own process group, 8. No process-group leader can create a new session; thus, processes 3, 4, or 8 could not start its own session, but process 5 would be allowed to do so.

The data structures used to support sessions and process groups in FreeBSD are shown in Figure 4.10. This figure parallels the process layout shown in Figure 4.9. The pg_members field of a process-group structure heads the list of member processes; these processes are linked together through the p_pglist list entry in the process structure. In addition, each process has a reference to its process-group structure in the p_pgrp field of the process structure. Each process-group structure has a pointer to its enclosing session. The session structure tracks per-login information, including the process that created and controls the session, the controlling terminal for the session, and the login name associated with the session. Two processes wanting to determine whether they are in the same session can traverse their p-pgrp pointers to find their process-group structures and then compare the pg_session pointers to see whether the latter are the same.

04fig10.gifFigure 4.10 Process-group organization.

Job Control

Job control is a facility first provided by the C shell [Joy, 1994] and today provided by most shells. It permits a user to control the operation of groups of processes termed jobs. The most important facilities provided by job control are the abilities to suspend and restart jobs and to do the multiplexing of access to the user's terminal. Only one job at a time is given control of the terminal and is able to read from and write to the terminal. This facility provides some of the advantages of window systems, although job control is sufficiently different that it is often used in combination with window systems. Job control is implemented on top of the process group, session, and signal facilities.

Each job is a process group. Outside the kernel, a shell manipulates a job by sending signals to the job's process group with the killpg system call, which delivers a signal to all the processes in a process group. Within the system, the two main users of process groups are the terminal handler (Chapter 10) and the interprocess-communication facilities (Chapter 11). Both facilities record process-group identifiers in private data structures and use them in delivering signals. The terminal handler, in addition, uses process groups to multiplex access to the controlling terminal.

For example, special characters typed at the keyboard of the terminal (e.g., control-C or control-\) result in a signal being sent to all processes in one job in the session; that job is in the foreground, whereas all other jobs in the session are in the background. A shell may change the foreground job by using the tcsetpgrp() function, implemented by the TIOCSPGRP ioctl on the controlling terminal. Background jobs will be sent the SIGTTIN signal if they attempt to read from the terminal, normally stopping the job. The SIGTTOU signal is sent to background jobs that attempt an ioctl system call that would alter the state of the terminal, and, if the TOSTOP option is set for the terminal, if they attempt to write to the terminal.

The foreground process group for a session is stored in the t_pgrp field of the session's controlling terminal tty structure (see Chapter 10). All other process groups within the session are in the background. In Figure 4.10, the session leader has set the foreground process group for its controlling terminal to be its own process group. Thus, its two jobs are in the background, and the terminal input and output will be controlled by the session-leader shell. Job control is limited to processes contained within the same session and to the terminal associated with the session. Only the members of the session are permitted to reassign the controlling terminal among the process groups within the session.

If a controlling process exits, the system revokes further access to the controlling terminal and sends a SIGHUP signal to the foreground process group. If a process such as a job-control shell exits, each process group that it created will become an orphaned process group: a process group in which no member has a parent that is a member of the same session but of a different process group. Such a parent would normally be a job-control shell capable of resuming stopped child processes. The pg_jobc field in Figure 4.10 counts the number of processes within the process group that have the controlling process as a parent. When that count goes to zero, the process group is orphaned. If no action were taken by the system, any orphaned process groups that were stopped at the time that they became orphaned would be unlikely ever to resume. Historically, the system dealt harshly with such stopped processes: They were killed. In POSIX and FreeBSD, an orphaned process group is sent a hangup and a continue signal if any of its members are stopped when it becomes orphaned by the exit of a parent process. If processes choose to catch or ignore the hangup signal, they can continue running after becoming orphaned. The system keeps a count of processes in each process group that have a parent process in another process group of the same session. When a process exits, this count is adjusted for the process groups of all child processes. If the count reaches zero, the process group has become orphaned. Note that a process can be a member of an orphaned process group even if its original parent process is still alive. For example, if a shell starts a job as a single process A, that process then forks to create process B, and the parent shell exits; then process B is a member of an orphaned process group but is not an orphaned process.

To avoid stopping members of orphaned process groups if they try to read or write to their controlling terminal, the kernel does not send them SIGTTIN and SIGTTOU signals, and prevents them from stopping in response to those signals. Instead, attempts to read or write to the terminal produce an error.

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