The fork() system call

24 March, 2017 | santosh

As we know system calls take us from the user-land to the kernel-land. As mentioned earlier this article will describe even the very obvious details, so pardon the gory details. The different things that happen in the kernel during the start up of a process is what we will discuss in this section.

As seen in the last code listing, the shell does a fork() and calls exec family of system calls to overlay the command image onto the newly created child process’ address space. Once the fork() system call is called, the kernel creates a copy of the executing process, during which the following happens:

  • fork() creates a new stack, and copies shared resources such as open file descriptors.
  • the kernel checks for resource limit of the calling process. The resource limits, like if the number of process created has exceeded the system set limit for a user (ulimit)
  • resets the process statistics such as execution times
  • The process is given a new process ID and starts executing the newly created process.

In this context there is a copy-on-write policy. Ideally the child process and the parent process (which had called fork()) should have different data areas. But Linux for efficiency does not create a new data area for the child, but uses the same area of the parent’s until one of the processes start writing to it. Since this paper is not a kernel commentary, I have intentionally left out some functions that are called internally by the kernel.

The state now is shown in the following diagram. As it is shown, fork returns twice, once in the parent with return value of the child process PID and once in the child with a return value of zero.

The newly created process is uniquely identified by the process ID (PID). This process belongs to the same process group as the parent. The group ID is is used for job control in shells. There is also another kind of ID called the session ID. All processes in the same group will, generally be in the same session ID unless the process calls setsid() system call. The current process ID and its parent process ID can be found using the ps command.

ps -e
$ ps -f
santosh   3939 15592  0 Apr17 pts/3    00:00:03 bash
santosh  25841  3939  0 07:17 pts/3    00:00:00 ps -f

The parent process of all commands executed in a shell is the shell itself. So far, our to be process, the code written above, has not yet come into our big picture.

Continue reading other posts in the series, "Life of a process"

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