Next Previous Contents

12. Handling of asynchronous events

One wants to be notified of various events, like data that has become available, files that have changed, and signals that have been raised. FreeBSD has the nice kqueue API. Let us discuss the Unix/Linux situation.

It is easy to wait for a single event. Usually one does a (blocking) read(), and that is it.

Many mechanisms exist to wait for any of a set of events, or just to test whether anything interesting happened.


If the open() call that opened a file includes the O_NONBLOCK flag, the file is opened in non-blocking mode. Neither the open() nor any subsequent operations on the returned file descriptor will cause the calling process to wait.

A nonblocking open is useful (i) in order to obtain a file descriptor for subsequent use when no I/O is planned, e.g. for ioctl() calls to get or set properties of a device; especially on device files, an ordinary open might have unwanted side effects, such as a tape rewind etc. (ii) when reading from a pipe: the read will return immediately when no data is available; when writing to a pipe: the write will return immediately (without writing anything) when there are no readers.


An obscure Linux feature is that one can open a file with the O_NOACCESS flag (defined as 3, where O_RDONLY is 0, O_WRONLY is 1 and O_RDWR is 2). In order to open a file with this mode, one needs both read and write permission. This had the same purpose: announce that no reading or writing was going to be done, and only a file descriptor for ioctl use was needed. (Used in LILO, fdformat, and a few similar utilities.)

People would love to have this facility also for directories, so that one could do a fd = open(".", O_NOACCESS), go elsewhere, and return by fchdir(fd). But an O_NOACCESS open fails on directories.

12.2 select

The select() mechanism was introduced in 4.2BSD. The prototype of this system call is

int select(int nfds, fd_set *restrict readfds,
           fd_set *restrict writefds, fd_set *restrict errorfds,
           struct timeval *restrict timeout);
It allows one to specify three sets of file descriptors (as bit masks) and a timeout. The call returns when the timeout expires or when one of the file descriptors in readfds has data available for reading, one of those in writefds has buffer space available for writing, or an error occurred for one of those in errorfds. Upon return, the file descriptor sets and the timeout are rewritten to indicate which file descriptor has the stated condition, and how much time from the timeout is left. (Note that other Unix-type systems do not rewrite the timeout.)

There are two select system calls. The old one uses a parameter block, the new one uses five parameters. Otherwise they are equivalent.

12.3 pselect

The pselect system call was added in Linux 2.6.16 (and was present earlier elsewhere). With only select() it is difficult, almost impossible, to handle signals correctly. A signal handler itself cannot do very much: the main program is in some unknown state when the signal is delivered. The usual solution is to only raise a flag in the signal handler, and test that flag in the main program.

int gotsignal = 0;

void sighand(int x) {
    gotsignal = 1;

int main() {
    signal(SIGINT, sighand);
    while (1) {
        if (gotsignal) ...
Now if one wants to wait for either a signal or some event on a file descriptor, then testing the flag and if it is not set calling select() has a race: maybe the signal arrived just after the flag was tested and just before select was called, and the program may hang in select() without reacting to the signal.

The call pselect() is designed to solve this problem. This function is just like select() but has prototype

int pselect(int nfds, fd_set *restrict readfds,
            fd_set *restrict writefds, fd_set *restrict errorfds,
            const struct timespec *restrict timeout,
            const sigset_t *restrict sigmask);
with a sixth parameter sigmask, and it does the equivalent of
sigset_t origmask;

    sigprocmask(SIG_SETMASK, &sigmask, &origmask);
    ready = select(nfds, &readfds, &writefds, &exceptfds, timeout);
    sigprocmask(SIG_SETMASK, &origmask, NULL);
as an atomic action. Now one can block the signals of interest until the call of pselect() and have a sigmask that unblocks them. If a signal occurs, the call will return with errno set to EINTR.

This function uses a struct timespec (with nanoseconds) instead of a struct timeval (with microseconds), and does not update its value on return.

The self-pipe trick

Before the introduction of pselect() people resorted to obscure tricks to obtain the same effect. Famous is Daniel Bernstein's self-pipe trick: create a non-blocking pipe, and add a file descriptor for reading from this pipe to the readfds argument of select(). In the signal handler, write a byte to the pipe. This works.

The system call

The pselect system call has a 7-parameter prototype (the 7th parameter being the size of the 6th sigmask parameter), but most architectures cannot handle 7-parameter system calls, so there is also a 6-parameter version where the 6th parameter is a pointer to a struct that has the last two parameters. Unlike the POSIX library routine, the system call does return the leftover part of the timeout.

This system call starts changing the signal mask, and ends restoring it. However, if it was interrupted by a signal, this signal should be delivered, while the signal mask might block it. This is solved by the recent TIF_RESTORE_SIGMASK mechanism in the kernel. When the pselect system call returns after being interrupted by a signal, it does not immediately restore the original signal mask, but first runs the user's signal handler, and first upon return from that the original signal mask is restored.

12.4 poll

The poll() system call is rather similar to select(). The prototype is

struct pollfd {
    int   fd;         /* file descriptor */
    short events;     /* requested events */
    short revents;    /* returned events */

int poll(struct pollfd *fds, nfds_t nfds, int timeout);
where the fields events amd revents are bitmasks indicating for what events fd should be watched, and what conditions actually occurred. The timeout is in milliseconds; a negative number means an infinite timeout.


Just like pselect is a version of select that allows safe handling of signals, ppoll is such a version of poll. The prototype is

int ppoll(struct pollfd *fds, nfds_t nfds,
          const struct timespec *timeout, const sigset_t *sigmask);

12.5 epoll

When the number of file descriptors becomes very large, the select() and poll() mechanisms become inefficient. With N descriptors, O(N) information must be copied from user space to kernel and vice versa, and loops of length O(N) are needed to test the conditions.

Solaris introduced the /dev/poll mechanism (see poll(7d) on Solaris), where the idea is that one does the copy from user space to kernel only once (by writing an array of struct pollfd's to /dev/poll) and gets only interesting information back (via an ioctl on this device that copies the interesting struct pollfd back to userspace).

Linux tries something similar using the three system calls epoll_create, epoll_ctl, epoll_wait (added in 2.5.44, see epoll(7)). Benchmarks seem to indicate that the performance is comparable to that of select and poll until one has thousands of descriptors, only a small fraction of which is ready. (And then epoll is clearly better.) In most tests, the FreeBSD kqueue wins.

For a discussion of these and several other mechanisms, especially for the context of web servers, see the C10K site.


Just like pselect and ppoll are versions of select and poll, there is (since 2.6.19) a epoll_pwait version of epoll_wait that includes a signal mask.

12.6 dnotify

The above was about notification about file descriptors that become ready for I/O. A different type of notification is that about file system events. In 2.4.0-test9 the dnotify feature was introduced. Today it is obsoleted by inotify (see below). See Documentation/dnotify.txt and fs/dnotify.c.

The idea was that one could register interest in changes in a directory dir using fd = open(dir, O_RDONLY) followed by fcntl(fd, F_NOTIFY, ...). Notification occurs via delivery of a signal.

/* dnotify demo, basically from Documentation/dnotify.txt */
#define _GNU_SOURCE
#include <fcntl.h>
#include <signal.h>
#include <stdio.h>
#include <unistd.h>

static volatile int dir_fd;

/* A very weak interface: we report that something changed, but
   the only info is in which directory, but not what the change is. */
static void handler(int sig, siginfo_t *si, void *data) {
        dir_fd = si->si_fd;

int main(void) {
        struct sigaction act;
        int fd;

        act.sa_sigaction = handler;
        act.sa_flags = SA_SIGINFO;
        sigaction(SIGRTMIN + 1, &act, NULL);

        fd = open(".", O_RDONLY);
        fcntl(fd, F_SETSIG, SIGRTMIN + 1);
        fcntl(fd, F_NOTIFY,

        while (1) {
                printf("Got some event on fd=%d\n", dir_fd);

There are many problems with this interface. It can only watch directories. If one wants to watch many directories, it takes many file descriptors. Moreover, the open file pins the filesystem so that it cannot be unmounted. When something happens it is unknown what, and a stat() on all files of interest is needed. The communication mechanism, signals, is unfortunate. Dnotify is obsolete now.

12.7 inotify

(Since 2.6.13.) Inotify is implemented using three new system calls and the usual read(), poll(), close() calls:

int inotify_init(void);
int inotify_add_watch (int fd, const char *pathname, int mask);
int inotify_rm_watch (int fd, int wd);
The first returns a file descriptor: fd = inotify_init(). The second tells what to watch, and what to watch for, and returns a watch descriptor: wd = inotify_add_watch(fd, "/home/aeb", IN_CREATE | IN_DELETE). The file descriptor fd can be used in a read() call, and then returns an array of struct inotify_event's. One can use select() and poll() on it. A watch is removed by inotify_rm_watch(fd,wd). The inotify instance is closed by close(fd).

An inotify_event is defined by

struct inotify_event {
        int      wd;       /* Watch descriptor */
        uint32_t mask;     /* Mask of events */
        uint32_t cookie;   /* Unique cookie associating related
                              events (for rename(2)) */
        uint32_t len;      /* Size of 'name' field */
        char     name[];   /* Optional null-terminated name */
The name field defines the file involved, when one is watching a directory.

There is a /proc interface with settable limits:

% ls /proc/sys/fs/inotify/
max_queued_events  max_user_instances  max_user_watches
% cat $_/*

Applications are inotify-tools, gamin and Beagle.

/* inotify demo, mimicking the above dnotify one */
#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>
#include <unistd.h>
#include <sys/select.h>
#include <sys/inotify.h>

#define BUFSZ   16384

static void errexit(char *s) {
        fprintf(stderr, "%s\n", s);

int main(void) {
        int ifd, wd, i, n;
        char buf[BUFSZ];

        ifd = inotify_init();
        if (ifd < 0)
                errexit("cannot obtain an inotify instance");

        wd = inotify_add_watch(ifd, ".", IN_MODIFY|IN_CREATE|IN_DELETE);
        if (wd < 0)
                errexit("cannot add inotify watch");

        while (1) {
                n = read(ifd, buf, sizeof(buf));
                if (n <= 0)
                        errexit("read problem");

                i = 0;
                while (i < n) {
                        struct inotify_event *ev;

                        ev = (struct inotify_event *) &buf[i];
                        if (ev->len)
                                printf("file %s %s\n", ev->name,
                                       (ev->mask & IN_CREATE) ? "created" :
                                       (ev->mask & IN_DELETE) ? "deleted" :
                                printf("unexpected event - wd=%d mask=%d\n",
                                       ev->wd, ev->mask);

                        i += sizeof(struct inotify_event) + ev->len;

Next Previous Contents