RolfBly RolfBly - 2 months ago 9x
Linux Question

Correct daemon behaviour (from PEP 3143) explained

I have some tasks [for my RPi] in Python that involve a lot of

ing: do something that takes a second or two or three, then go wait for several minutes or hours.
I want to pass control back to the OS (Linux) in that sleep time. For this, I should daemonise those tasks. One way is by using Python's Standard daemon process library.

But daemons aren't so easy to understand. As per the Rationale paragraph of PEP 3143, a well behaved daemon should do the following.

  • Close all open file descriptors.

  • Change current working directory.

  • Reset the file access creation mask.

  • Run in the background.

  • Disassociate from process group.

  • Ignore terminal I/O signals.

  • Disassociate from control terminal.

  • Don't reacquire a control terminal.

  • Correctly handle the following circumstances:

    • Started by System V init process.

    • Daemon termination by SIGTERM signal.

    • Children generate SIGCLD signal.

For a Linux/Unix novice like me, some of this is hardly an explanation. But I want to know why I do what I do. So what is the rationale behind this rationale?


PEP 3142 took these requirements from Unix Network Programming ('UNP') by the late W. Richard Stevens. The explanation below is quoted or summarised from that book. It's not so easily found online, and it may be illegal to download. So I borrowed it from the library. Pages referred to are in the second edition, Volume 1 (1998). (The PEP refers to the first edition, 1990.)

Close all open file descriptors.

"We close any open descriptors inherited from the process that executed the daemon (ie the shell). [..] Some daemons open /dev/null for reading and writing and duplicate the descriptor to standard input, standard output and standard error."

(This 'Howdy World' Python daemon demonstrates this.)

"This guarantees that the common descriptors are open, and a read from any of these descriptors returns 0 (End Of File) and the kernel just discards anything written to any of these three descriptors. The reason for opening these descriptors is so that any library function called by the daemon that assumes it can read from standard input or write to standard output or standard error, will not fail. Alternately, some daemons open a log file that they will write to while running and duplicate its descriptor to standard output and standard error". (UNP p. 337)

Change current working directory

"A printer daemon might change to the printer's spool directory, where it does all its work. [...] The daemon could have been started anywhere in the filesystem, and if it remains there, that filesystem cannot be unmounted." (UNP p 337)

Why would you want to unmount a filesystem? Two reasons:
1. You want to separate (and be able mount and unmount) directories that can fill up with user data from directories dedicated to the OS.
2. If you start a daemon from, say, a USB-stick, you want to be able to unmount that stick without interfering with the daemon.

Reset the file access creation mask.

"So that if the daemon creates its own files, permission bits in the inherited file mode creation mask do not affect the permission bits of the new files." (UNP, p 337)

Run in the background.
By definition,

"a daemon is a process that runs in the background and is independent of control from all terminals". (UNP p 331)

Disassociate from process group.
In order to understand this, you need to understand what a process group is, and that means you need to know what fork does.

What fork does

fork is the only way (in Unix) to create a new process. (in Linux, there is also clone). Key in understanding fork is that it returns twice when called (once): once in the calling process (= parent) with the process ID of the newly created process (= child), and once in the child. "All descriptors known by the parent when forking, are shared with the child when fork returns." (UNP p 102). When a process wants to execute another program, it creates a new process by calling fork, which creates a copy of itself. Then one of them (usually the child) calls the new program. (UNP, p 102)

Why disassociate from process group

The point is that a session leader may acquire a controlling terminal. A daemon should never do this, it must stay in the background. This is achieved by calling fork twice: the parent forks to create a child, the child forks to create a grandchild. Parent and child are terminated, but grandchild remains. But because it's a grandchild, it's not a session leader, and therefor can't acquire a controlling terminal. (Summarised from UNP par 12.4 p 335)

The double fork is discussed in more detail here, and in the comments below.

Ignore terminal I/O signals.

"Signals generated from terminal keys must not affect any daemons started from that terminal earlier". (UNP p. 331)

Disassociate from control terminal and don't reacquire a control terminal.
By now, the reasons are obvious:

"If the daemon is started from a terminal, we want to be able to use that terminal for other tasks at a later time. For example, if we start the daemon from a terminal, log off the terminal, and someone else logs in on that terminal, we do not want any daemon error messages appearing during the next user's terminal session." (UNP p 331)

Correctly handle the following circumstances:

  • Started by System V init process

    • A daemon should be launchable at boot time, obviously.
  • Daemon termination by SIGTERM signal

    • SIGTERM means Signal Terminate. At shutdown, the init process normally sends SIGTERM to all processess, waits usually 5 to 20 seconds to give them time to clean up and terminate. (UNP, p 135) Also, a child can send SIGTERM to its parent, when its parent should stop doing what it's doing. (UNP p 408)
  • Children generate SIGCLD signal

    • Stevens discusses SIGCHLD, not SIGCLD. The difference between them isn't important for understanding daemon behaviour. If a child terminates, it sends SIGCHLD to it's parent. If a parent doesn't catch it, the child becomes a zombie (UNP p 118). Oh what fun.

On a final note, when I started to find answers to my question in UNP, it soon struck me I really should read more of it. It's 900+ (!) pages, from 1998 (!) but I believe the concepts and the explanations in UNP stand the test of time, gloriously. Stevens not only knew very well what he was talking about, he also understood what was difficult about it, and made it easier to understand. That's really rare.