We previously discussed issues with using PIDfiles.

One issue we encountered was that we need a way to handle multiple processes.

Process groups

If you've ever started a program in the background in a shell you might have noticed it gave you a "Job ID" to refer to it rather than a process ID.

This is not just to give you a memorable number for each task, but because jobs may contain multiple processes, which is how a pipeline of multiple processes may be a single job.

This is accomplished in Linux and traditional UNIXes with the setpgrp(2) system call which assigns a new process group to a process which will be inherited by its subprocesses.

This entire process group may be killed by passing the negation of the process group ID to the kill(2) system call.

A process may only be part of one process group though, so if you have processes that may call setpgrp(2) themselves then it is not possible to use process groups to manage terminating a whole process tree of a service.

UNIX Sessions

You may be wondering how anything can possibly work if you can't use process groups to track a user's processes.

The answer to this is that UNIX has a concept of sessions.

Every process is a part of a session, and each session has a "controlling TTY", which can be accessed via /dev/tty.

When a process creates a new session with setsid(2) it becomes the session leader.

If the session leader process is terminated then the entire session receives the SIGHUP signal, which by default terminates the process.

The controlling tty was traditionally a virtual terminal which emulates the old teletype terminals on modern computers. Terminal windows in graphical interfaces use pseudo terminals, which could be used to use sessions for grouping processes that don't belong to a device.

This is typically done by getty and login(1), terminal emulator or sshd, which also update utmp(5) to include the controlling TTY and session ID, to track the current active sessions.

There are a number of issues with using UNIX sessions for tracking processes.

  1. utmp(5) is an awkward interface, requiring multiple processes to access a single file without trampling over each other, requiring file range locking, which can't be done portably and in a thread-safe manner.

    I consider this to be analogous to /etc/mtab, which was an old, manually maintained file, which had to be replaced with a more reliable, kernel-provided interface.

  2. setsid(2) describes sessions and process groups as a strict two-level hierarchy.

    The implication of this is that any process can escape with setsid(2), so bypassing mtab and inspecting the contents of the sessionid flie in /proc won't work.

  3. Escaping session cleanup is by necessity a well-documented procedure, since traditional daemons are started by detaching from the current session rather than asking the init process to start the daemon.

    See nohup(1) for details about how to escape session cleanup.


The traditional UNIX system calls came from a time when it was believed you could trust programs to be well written and benign.

We do not live in this world, so we need a better approach to track which processes we run on our computers, which we will discuss in a future article.