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Linux Processes: Structure, Hangs and Core Dumps

Efficient and effective resolution practices

Process core dumps are initiated by the process receiving a signal. Signals are similar to hardware interrupts. As with interrupts, a signal causes a task to branch from its normal execution, handling a routine and returning to the point of interruption. Normal executing threads encounter signals throughout their life cycles. However, there are a finite number of signal types that result in a core dump, whereas other signal types result in process termination. A process can receive a signal from three sources: the user, the process, or the kernel.

From the User
A user can send a signal in two ways: either using an external command such as kill or within a controlling tty, typing Ctrl+c to send a sigint as defined by stty -a. (Note that by definition, daemons do not have a controlling tty and therefore cannot be signaled in this manner.)

# stty -a
speed 9600 baud; rows 41; columns 110; line = 0;
intr = ^C; quit = ^\; erase = ^?; kill = ^U; eof = ^D; eol = <undef>;
eol2 = <undef>; start = ^Q; stop = ^S;

From the Program
From a program, you can perform the raise() or alarm() system call, allowing a program to signal itself. Consider this example: a ten-second sleep without using the sleep call.


From the Kernel
The kernel can send a signal, such as SIGSEGV, to a process when it attempts an illegal action, such as accessing memory that it does not own or that is outside of its address range.

Linux supports two types of signals: standard and real-time. A complete overview of signals is outside the scope of this chapter; however, there are a few key differences to note. Standard signals have predefined meanings, whereas real-time signals are defined by the programmer. Additionally, only one standard signal of each type can be queued per process, whereas real-time signals can build up. An example of this was shown earlier in this chapter when a process was blocked on I/O. A kill -9 sigkill was sent to the process and placed in SigPnd.

SigPnd: 0000000000000100 <- A signal waiting to be processed, in this case sigkill

In troubleshooting a process, a user might want to force a process to dump core. As stated, this is accomplished by sending the appropriate signal to the process. Sometimes after this step is taken, the dump does not follow because the process has not returned from an interrupt due to some other issue. The result is a pending signal that needs to be processed. Because the signals that result in a core are standard signals, sending the same signal multiple times does not work because subsequent signals are ignored until the pending signal has been processed. The pending signals are processed after the program returns from the interrupt but before proceeding to user space. This fact is illustrated in the entry.S source file, as shown in the following:

     jsr do_signal ; arch/cris/kernel/signal.c

It is also possible to have difficulty achieving the dump because signals are being blocked (masked), caught, or ignored. An application might have signal handlers that catch the signal and perform their own actions. Signal blocking prevents the delivery of the signal to the process. Ignoring a signal just means that the process throws it away upon delivery. Additionally, the signal structure of a process is like any other structure in that the child inherits the parent's configuration. That being stated, if a signal is blocked for the parent, the child of that process has the same signals blocked or masked. However, some signals cannot be masked or ignored, as detailed in the man page on signal. Two such signals are sigkill and sigstop.

The user can obtain a list of signals from the kill command. This yields a list of signals that the user can send to a process. Possible signals include the following (note that this is not a complete list):

$ kill -l

As mentioned earlier and illustrated next, the man page on signal details the signals that produce a core file.
$ man 7 signal

Signal Value Action Comment
SIGHUP 1 Term Hangup detected on controlling terminal
or death of controlling process
SIGINT 2 Term Interrupt from keyboard
SIGQUIT 3 Core Quit from keyboard
SIGILL 4 Core Illegal Instruction
SIGABRT 6 Core Abort signal from abort(3)
SIGFPE 8 Core Floating point exception
The source code on signal also provides this list as illustrated next:

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James Kirkland is the advocate for Red Hat's initiatives and solutions for the Internet of Things(IoT) and is the architect of its three-tier strategy for IoT deployments. For the past five years, James has been focused on IoT solutions for the transportation and energy sectors. A frequent public speaker and writer on a wide range of technical topics, James is also the co-author of Linux Troubleshooting for System Administrators and Power Users (ISBN: 0131855158) published by Prentice Hall PTR. He has been working with UNIX and Linux variants over the course of 20 years in his positions at Red Hat, and in previous roles at Racemi and Hewlett-Packard.

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Chris Tinker began his career in computers while working as a Unix System Administrator for Lockheed Martin in Marietta, Georgia. Chris joined Hewlett-Packard in 1999. Chris's primary role at HP is as a senior software business recovery specialist and has participated in HP World, taught several classes in Unix/Linux and Disk Array technology, and obtained various certifications including certifications in Advanced Clusters, SAN, and Linux.

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Linux News Desk 07/13/06 04:59:25 PM EDT

Troubleshooting a Linux process follows the same general methodology as that used with traditional UNIX systems. In both systems, for process hangs, we identify the system resources being used by the process and attempt to identify the cause for the process to stop responding. With application core dumps, we must identify the signal for which the process terminated and proceed with acquiring a stack trace to identify system calls made by the process at the time it died. There exists neither a 'golden' troubleshooting path nor a set of instructions that can be applied for all cases. Some conditions are much easier to solve than others, but with a good understanding of the fundamentals, a solution is not far from reach.

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