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PID file safety

There are some instances where we need to use the old-style PID files in order to signal a daemon process (typically sending it a SIGHUP to ask it to re-read its configuration files or a SIGTERM to ask the daemon to exit). We can get our of the business of managing daemons with things like systemd but in the cases when we still have to deal with PID files, we should be careful.

Typically we have opened a PID file for a hypothetical daemon, food:

FILE *f = fopen("/var/run/food.pid", "r");
if (f) {
    /* Daemon may be running. */

We then need to read in the PID (we expect the file to contain just a number) so we can send that daemon a signal. This can be as simple as:

pid_t pid;
if (fscanf(f, "%" SCNiMAX, &pid) == 1) {
    /* We probably read a PID */

It’s very important that we check the result of fscanf(3) as we only want to proceed if we read something that looks like a number. kill(2) is very dangerous depending on what we do with it and what our privileges are on the system. For instance, the pid argument to kill implies:

The data type for a PID is pid_t which in the GNU standard C library is an int. We should probably check that the PID at least looks like something sane:

pid_t pid;
if (fscanf(f, "%" SCNiMAX, &pid) == 1 && pid > 1 && pid != getpid()) {
    /* We probably read a PID and it seems sane */

Depending on the application, we may also use getppid(2) to make sure the PID is not the one for our own parent process.

We can then try to check if someone is running with that PID. Traditionally that is done by sending a 0 signal (a 0 signal means that no signal is actually sent but error checking is still performed).


if (kill(pid, 0) == -1) {
    if (errno == ESRCH) {
        /* Nothing with that PID seems to exist
           (or the process is a zombie) */
    } else if (errno == EPERM) {
        /* We don't have permissions to send a signal
           to this process */
} else {
    /* We can send signals to this PID, proceed,
       for example: */
    if (kill(pid, SIGHUP)) {
        fprintf(stderr, "Couldn't signal %d: %m", pid);

Finally, if we need to implement the daemon side (double-forking, closing file descriptors, optionally creating PID files, and so on) please consider linking against libdaemon rather than writing the code yourself (see the testd.c example for usage).

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