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The Signal Hook

As promised in the previous article (thanks for all the valuable feedback ‒ I didn’t have the time to act on it yet, but I will), this talks about Unix signal handling.

Long story short, I wasn’t happy about the signal handling story in Rust and this is my attempt at improving it with the signal-hook library.

What is a signal?

If you come from the Windows world or didn’t have the opportunity to play with signals more closely, this is a short intro. I apologise for some omissions, but describing it fully would lead to a complete book, not one article ‒ just think every second sentence ends with „unless you configured it to do it something slightly different“ or „with the exception of this special situation, when it actually does something else“.

Every process can receive so called signals. When a signal is received, a dedicated piece of code is run inside the process. This is an ancient messaging system and allows some really cool uses. But as it is said, Unix gives you enough rope to hang yourself and it is doubly true with signals.

When a signal is delivered to a process (sent by other process or as a consequence of some action, like executing an illegal instruction), the kernel takes a list of threads that didn’t mask the signal (didn’t state they are not interested in it right now), picks one of them, interrupts it and places the designated function on top of that thread’s stack. It lets the function run and once it finishes, it resumes the original thread code.

If there are no such threads at the moment, the signal becomes pending. It is either delivered once the situation changes, or the application can actively „pull“ signals from the queue by various means.

Problems of signals

There are several problems with signals. Some of them are general over languages, some are specific to Rust.

Signals are global unique resource

There’s only one signal handler for each signal number per the whole program. If a new one is installed, the old one is replaced by it. This is somewhat OK if you are the top-level application, but if you’re a library, you want to be able to share the same process with other libraries. The call to install a signal handler returns the old one, so you can chain the functions manually, but not everyone does that and it is tedious and hard to do correctly

If using some means to pull pending signals actively out of the kernel, the first library to come gets the signal and others are out of luck too.

What you can do inside a signal handler is severely limited

A signal handler can happen to you at an arbitrarily bad time. But it runs inside your own thread and your thread won’t continue until it terminates. This is worse than switching threads. Do you hold a mutex when the signal handler runs, one that the signal handler would like to lock too? That’s a cool way to deadlock (or worse). Do you have some data structure in an inconsistent state? See what the signal handler finds in there. And, by the way, the memory allocator has some data structures too. What a fun to debug if this gets damaged.

The POSIX standard defines a list of async-signal-safe functions. These are the only (C) standard library functions you are allowed to use inside a signal handler (there are some synchronous signal handlers, but let’s not go into them now). If you go through the list, you notice there’s very little there ‒ specifically, no memory allocation and no locking.

They are racy and hard to debug

Because signals are not part of the normal flow control, people tend to forget about them. Depending on what you do, it is possible to write the code in a way that loses some signals or waits forever for a new one even when it already came ‒ if you act on the signal and clear a flag in the wrong order and a new signal comes just in between or something like that. Your first try will almost certainly be subtly wrong, but work most of the time.

But you just can’t write a unit test that hits the code in between two specific instructions with a signal. It’ll probably work differently if you put it into a debugger or if you add logging around it, because of timing.

In other words, better write it correctly on the first try, because you won’t be able to fix it later on.

They don’t play well with threads

They were created at times when threads didn’t exist. They have defined interaction with threads today, but that mostly serves to know how bad the situation is. A signal can run in mostly whatever thread it decides. It can run concurrently. It (without reconfiguration) doesn’t run recursively ‒ a second SIGUSR1 will pick a different thread to run on or wait for the first signal handler of SIGUSR1 to finish. But SIGUSR2 still can interrupt that SIGUSR1 signal, or the other way around (even if it might be the same function ‒ if you were thinking about locking by a spin lock inside such signal handler, better forget that too).

We probably want to touch some global state, likely mutate it (there’s not many ways to get any info out of a signal handler ‒ it doesn’t have a return value). We will access it from different threads, possibly concurrently, so we need to synchronize it somehow. But remember, we don’t have mutexes! Channels probably have a locks and an allocation inside them too (the std channels, chan and crossbeam-channel do)

The interaction with Rust is not defined.

The POSIX standard talks only about the C library primitives. So we either have to use things from the libc crate only, or guess and audit the whole code of whatever we use (and hope nobody adds an allocation in the next version ‒ adding an allocation is certainly not considered a breaking change by most authors). But, well, in the light of the above, we want to do as little of work inside the handler as possible anyway.

While it is well defined to call a longjmp out of a signal handler, there’s no such mechanism in Rust. Panicking is somewhat similar, but that would definitely be a panic across FFI boundary and that one is UB.

And, by the way, from the point of view of Rust, signals are definitely not a safe thing ‒ if you can invoke UB by allocating or returning memory. I wonder what other languages do about signals anyway, they probably have to account for them deep down in their VMs.

Why signals

By now I might have persuaded you that you don’t want to touch a signal even by a long pole when wearing a protective suit. But there are some times where you probably have to.

If you write a daemon, you are expected to shut down correctly and gracefully on several signals. You should reload your configuration on SIGHUP and reopen log files.

If you start a subprocess (fork) and the subprocess ends, you’ll get a SIGCHLD. You are expected to pick up that corpse of the process or it becomes a zombie. Unix is a rough world ‒ daemons, zombies, we recently acquired spectres too.

Common patterns

Signal handling is hard to do right, but there are very few things older than signals still in active use. People developed patterns that were proven correct. They usually work by smuggling the information a signal happened out of the signal handler and then doing the needed work outside.

Existing libraries

I didn’t find much. There’s tokio-signal, but it is specific to tokio. Others are either subtly broken (use allocation, mutexes), are very specific to a single use case, don’t allow sharing the signals, etc. In other words, I didn’t find anything I’d like to use except for tokio-signal. But I often don’t use tokio and having it just to handle the signals felt heavy-weight.

I didn’t like writing the same boiler-platy unsafe code again and again, even though I have some experience around signals. It’s both tiresome and risky. Therefore, I decided to write my own library.

Goals for the library

I wanted to solve three problems, once and for all:

The implementation

There’s one global [ArcSwap] with configuration at the very core of the library. The configuration contains list of hooks to be called for each different signal. The load method of ArcSwap is lock-free and doesn’t use any allocation, so it is safe to use from within a signal handler. Provided all the hooks are also safe to call from within the signal handler and that we’ll not ever have to deallocate the configuration from within there, it is OK.

Replacing the configuration is done through an RCU trick ‒ it makes a full copy of the old configuration, modifies it and installs it. But it makes sure to be the last owner of the old configuration so all the deallocation happens outside. This part is protected by a mutex ‒ it could be done without one, but it would be significantly harder, as I want each signal handler registered on the first use and only once. As registration and removal of hooks is more of a setup thing, the performance doesn’t really matter much.

The function to install arbitrary hook is obviously unsafe, because it could put anything inside the signal handler. But the rest of the library contains implementations of several of the above common patterns, with safe interface to install that. So you can put an Arc<AtomicBool> flag inside that’ll magically turn to true whenever a signal is called, or a pipe that would be written into.

There’s also a higher-level API for signals. The structure implements Iterator (actually, three different ones, depending on the exact needs). I’d like to add support for mio and futures as well some time soon (I’ll see what is possible there without binding to specific runtime).

If you know of an useful pattern, you can either suggest it, send a PR to the library or even implement a separate crate that just uses the multiplexer (you save yourself the juggling with signal setup in addition to being able to share the signal with others).

As an example, there’s the other crate I wrote, reopen, which helps with reopening the log files on SIGHUP. Well, it provides more general interface, so other things can be done too, but this is what I had in mind when writing it. The library offers a convenient method to hook into a signal if compiled on Unix-based system (and doesn’t have that method on Windows).


The API is not stable yet. While I don’t plan any specific breaking changes right now (and I don’t see what they could possibly be on the core multiplexer API), I want to get some bit of use and feedback before I commit to a specific API.

Thank you

I want to thank everyone for providing feedback and possibly help. But specifically, I want to give thanks to two people. Martin Mareš, who introduced me to the land of Unix and C and explained all the pitfalls there (that’s one of the bearded Unix Gurus I know) and Alex Crichton, who had done a very similar thing when I sent a pull request to tokio-signal about a year ago. Actually, a lot of inspiration and bits of the code of this library comes directly from there.