3. Signals

There is a sometimes useful method for one process to bug another: signals. Basically, one process can "raise" a signal and have it delivered to another process. The destination process's signal handler (just a function) is invoked and the process can handle it.

The devil's in the details, of course, and in actuality what you are permitted to do safely inside your signal hander is rather limited. Nevertheless, signals provide a useful service.

For example, one process might want to stop another one, and this can be done by sending the signal SIGSTOP to that process. To continue, the process has to receive signal SIGCONT. How does the process know to do this when it receives a certain signal? Well, many signals are predefined and the process has a default signal handler to deal with it.

A default handler? Yes. Take SIGINT for example. This is the interrupt signal that a process receives when the user hits ^C. The default signal handler for SIGINT causes the process to exit! Sound familiar? Well, as you can imagine, you can override the SIGINT to do whatever you want (or nothing at all!) You could have your process printf() "Interrupt?! No way, Jose!" and go about its merry business.

So now you know that you can have your process respond to just about any signal in just about any way you want. Naturally, there are exceptions because otherwise it would be too easy to understand. Take the ever popular SIGKILL, signal #9. Have you ever typed "kill -9 nnnn" to kill a runaway process? You were sending it SIGKILL. Now you might also remember that no process can get out of a "kill -9", and you would be correct. SIGKILL is one of the signals you can't add your own signal handler for. The aforementioned SIGSTOP is also in this category.

(Aside: you often use the Unix "kill" command without specifying a signal to send...so what signal is it? The answer: SIGTERM. You can write your own handler for SIGTERM so your process won't respond to a regular "kill", and the user must then use "kill -9" to destroy the process.)

Are all the signals predefined? What if you want to send a signal that has significance that only you understand to a process? There are two signals that aren't reserved: SIGUSR1 and SIGUSER2. You are free to use these for whatever you want and handle them in whatever way you choose. (For example, my cd player program might respond to SIGUSR1 by advancing to the next track. In this way, I could control it from the command line by typing "kill -SIGUSR1 nnnn".)

3.1. Catching Signals for Fun and Profit!

As you can guess the Unix "kill" command is one way to send signals to a process. By sheer unbelievable coincidence, there is a system call called kill() which does the same thing. It takes for its argument a signal number (as defined in signal.h) and a process ID. Also, there is a library routine called raise() which can be used to raise a signal within the same process.

The burning question remains: how do you catch a speeding SIGTERM? You need to call sigaction() and tell it all the gritty details about which signal you want to catch and which function you want to call to handle it.

Here's the sigaction() breakdown:

int sigaction(int sig, const struct sigaction *act,
              struct sigaction *oact);

The first parameter, sig is which signal to catch. This can be (probably "should" be) a symbolic name from signal.h along the lines of SIGINT. That's the easy bit.

The next field, act is a pointer to a struct sigaction which has a bunch of fields that you can fill in to control the behavior of the signal handler. (A pointer to the signal handler function itself included in the struct.)

Lastly oact can be NULL, but if not, it returns the old signal handler information that was in place before. This is useful if you want to restore the previous signal handler at a later time.

We'll focus on these three fields in the struct sigaction:

Signal Description
sa_handler The signal handler function (or SIG_IGN to ignore the signal)
sa_mask A set of signals to block while this one is being handled
sa_flags Flags to modify the behavior of the handler, or 0

What about that sa_mask field? When you're handling a signal, you might want to block other signals from being delivered, and you can do this by adding them to the sa_mask It's a "set", which means you can do normal set operations to manipulate them: sigemptyset(), sigfillset(), sigaddset(), sigdelset(), and sigismember(). In this example, we'll just clear the set and not block any other signals.

Examples always help! Here's one that handled SIGINT, which can be delivered by hitting ^C, called sigint.c:

#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>
#include <unistd.h>
#include <errno.h>
#include <signal.h>

void sigint_handler(int sig)
    write(0, "Ahhh! SIGINT!\n", 14);

int main(void)
    void sigint_handler(int sig); /* prototype */
    char s[200];
    struct sigaction sa;

    sa.sa_handler = sigint_handler;
    sa.sa_flags = 0; // or SA_RESTART

    if (sigaction(SIGINT, &sa, NULL) == -1) {

    printf("Enter a string:\n");

    if (fgets(s, sizeof s, stdin) == NULL)
        printf("You entered: %s\n", s);

    return 0;

This program has two functions: main() which sets up the signal handler (using the sigaction() call), and sigint_handler() which is the signal handler, itself.

What happens when you run it? If you are in the midst of entering a string and you hit ^C, the call to gets() fails and sets the global variable errno to EINTR. Additionally, sigint_handler() is called and does its routine, so you actually see:

Enter a string:
the quick brown fox jum^CAhhh! SIGINT!
fgets: Interrupted system call

And then it exits. Hey—what kind of handler is this, if it just exits anyway?

Well, we have a couple things at play, here. First, you'll notice that the signal handler was called, because it printed "Ahhh! SIGINT!" But then fgets() returns an error, namely EINTR, or "Interrupted system call". See, some system calls can be interrupted by signals, and when this happens, they return an error. You might see code like this (sometimes cited as an excusable use of goto):

    if (some_system_call() == -1) {
        if (errno == EINTR) goto restart;

Instead of using goto like that, you might be able to set your sa_flags to include SA_RESTART. For example, if we change our SIGINT handler code to look like this:

    sa.sa_flags = SA_RESTART;

Then our run looks more like this:

Enter a string:
Hello^CAhhh! SIGINT!
Er, hello!^CAhhh! SIGINT!
This time fer sure!
You entered: This time fer sure!

Some system calls are interruptible, and some can be restarted. It's system dependent.

3.2. The Handler is not Omnipotent

You have to be careful when you make function calls in your signal handler. Those functions must be "async safe", so they can be called without invoking undefined behavior.

You might be curious, for instance, why my signal handler, above, called write() to output the message instead of printf(). Well, the answer is that POSIX says that write() is async-safe (so is safe to call from within the handler), while printf() is not.

The library functions and system calls that are async-safe and can be called from within your signal handlers are (breath):

_Exit(), _exit(), abort(), accept(), access(), aio_error(), aio_return(), aio_suspend(), alarm(), bind(), cfgetispeed(), cfgetospeed(), cfsetispeed(), cfsetospeed(), chdir(), chmod(), chown(), clock_gettime(), close(), connect(), creat(), dup(), dup2(), execle(), execve(), fchmod(), fchown(), fcntl(), fdatasync(), fork(), fpathconf(), fstat(), fsync(), ftruncate(), getegid(), geteuid(), getgid(), getgroups(), getpeername(), getpgrp(), getpid(), getppid(), getsockname(), getsockopt(), getuid(), kill(), link(), listen(), lseek(), lstat(), mkdir(), mkfifo(), open(), pathconf(), pause(), pipe(), poll(), posix_trace_event(), pselect(), raise(), read(), readlink(), recv(), recvfrom(), recvmsg(), rename(), rmdir(), select(), sem_post(), send(), sendmsg(), sendto(), setgid(), setpgid(), setsid(), setsockopt(), setuid(), shutdown(), sigaction(), sigaddset(), sigdelset(), sigemptyset(), sigfillset(), sigismember(), sleep(), signal(), sigpause(), sigpending(), sigprocmask(), sigqueue(), sigset(), sigsuspend(), sockatmark(), socket(), socketpair(), stat(), symlink(), sysconf(), tcdrain(), tcflow(), tcflush(), tcgetattr(), tcgetpgrp(), tcsendbreak(), tcsetattr(), tcsetpgrp(), time(), timer_getoverrun(), timer_gettime(), timer_settime(), times(), umask(), uname(), unlink(), utime(), wait(), waitpid(), and write().

Of course, you can call your own functions from within your signal handler (as long they don't call any non-async-safe functions.)

But wait—there's more!

You also cannot safely alter any shared (e.g. global) data, with one notable exception: variables that are declared to be of storage class and type volatile sig_atomic_t.

Here's an example that handles SIGUSR1 by setting a global flag, which is then examined in the main loop to see if the handler was called. This is sigusr.c:

#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>
#include <unistd.h>
#include <errno.h>
#include <signal.h>

volatile sig_atomic_t got_usr1;

void sigusr1_handler(int sig)
    got_usr1 = 1;

int main(void)
    struct sigaction sa;

    got_usr1 = 0;

    sa.sa_handler = sigusr1_handler;
    sa.sa_flags = 0;

    if (sigaction(SIGUSR1, &sa, NULL) == -1) {

    while (!got_usr1) {
        printf("PID %d: working hard...\n", getpid());

    printf("Done in by SIGUSR1!\n");

    return 0;

Fire it it up in one window, and then use the kill -USR1 in another window to kill it. The sigusr program conveniently prints out its process ID so you can pass it to kill:

$ sigusr
PID 5023: working hard...
PID 5023: working hard...
PID 5023: working hard...

Then in the other window, send it the signal SIGUSR1:

$ kill -USR1 5023

And the program should respond:

PID 5023: working hard...
PID 5023: working hard...
Done in by SIGUSR1!

(And the response should be immediate even if sleep() has just been called—sleep() gets interrupted by signals.)

3.3. What about signal()

ANSI-C defines a function called signal() that can be used to catch signals. It's not as reliable or as full-featured as sigaction(), so use of signal()is generally discouraged.

3.4. Some signals to make you popular

Here is a list of signals you (most likely) have at your disposal:

Signal Description
SIGABRT Process abort signal.
SIGALRM Alarm clock.
SIGFPE Erroneous arithmetic operation.
SIGHUP Hangup.
SIGILL Illegal instruction.
SIGINT Terminal interrupt signal.
SIGKILL Kill (cannot be caught or ignored).
SIGPIPE Write on a pipe with no one to read it.
SIGQUIT Terminal quit signal.
SIGSEGV Invalid memory reference.
SIGTERM Termination signal.
SIGUSR1 User-defined signal 1.
SIGUSR2 User-defined signal 2.
SIGCHLD Child process terminated or stopped.
SIGCONT Continue executing, if stopped.
SIGSTOP Stop executing (cannot be caught or ignored).
SIGTSTP Terminal stop signal.
SIGTTIN Background process attempting read.
SIGTTOU Background process attempting write.
SIGBUS Bus error.
SIGPOLL Pollable event.
SIGPROF Profiling timer expired.
SIGSYS Bad system call.
SIGTRAP Trace/breakpoint trap.
SIGURG High bandwidth data is available at a socket.
SIGVTALRM Virtual timer expired.
SIGXCPU CPU time limit exceeded.
SIGXFSZ File size limit exceeded.

Each signal has its own default signal handler, the behavior of which is defined in your local man pages.

3.5. What I have Glossed Over

Nearly all of it. There are tons of flags, realtime signals, mixing signals with threads, masking signals, longjmp() and signals, and more.

Of course, this is just a "getting started" guide, but in a last-ditch effort to give you more information, here is a list of man pages with more information:

Handling signals: sigaction() sigwait() sigwaitinfo() sigtimedwait() sigsuspend() sigpending()

Delivering signals: kill() raise() sigqueue()

Set operations: sigemptyset() sigfillset() sigaddset() sigdelset() sigismember()

Other: sigprocmask() sigaltstack() siginterrupt() sigsetjmp() siglongjmp() signal()