A Weird Imagination

Child process not in ps?

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A buggy program#

Consider the following (contrived) program1 which starts a background process to create a file and then waits while the background process is still running before checking to see if the file exists:


# Make sure file doesn't exist.
rm -f file

# Create file in a background process.
touch file &
# While there is a touch process running...
while ps -C "touch" > /dev/null
    # ... wait one second for it to complete.
    sleep 1
# Check if file was created.
if [ -f file ]
    echo "Of course it worked."
    echo "Huh? File wasn't created."
    # Wait for background tasks to complete.
    if [ -f file ]
        echo "Now it's there!"
        echo "File never created."

# Clean up.
rm -f file

Naturally, it will always output "Of course it worked.", right? Run it in a terminal yourself to confirm this. But I claimed this program is buggy; there's more going on.

Breaking the program#

Now put your system under load. The yes command is great for using up CPU. Running a few instances of it should be enough to keep your processor(s) busy. Try that script a few more times or use

while true; do ./test.sh; done | uniq

to run it over and over again. Add a -c to uniq if you want to see how often it fails. You should see something like

$ while true; do ./test.sh; done | uniq -c
      9 Of course it worked.
      1 Huh? File wasn't created.
      1 Now it's there!
     17 Of course it worked.
      1 Huh? File wasn't created.
      1 Now it's there!
    103 Of course it worked.
      1 Huh? File wasn't created.
      1 Now it's there!

What happened? The process always completes eventually, so why does the initial check not find it sometimes?

Fixing the program#

If we replace the while condition with

while jobs -r | grep -qF "touch"

and change the first line of the script to


then the file will always get created before checking for it, so jobs clearly knows about the process, why doesn't ps?

The bug#

The answer is that we're asking the wrong question. Let's print out some debug information just after the background task is started to see what is going on:


touch file &
cat /proc/$(jobs -rp)/cmdline 2>/dev/null | tr '\0' ' '

What this new script is doing is starting the background task and then using jobs -rp to get the PID of the task2 and using the /proc filesystem to get the command-line of that process according to the OS3. The tr and echo are there just to make the output more human-readable because /proc/$PID/cmdline has null characters between the arguments and has no newline at the end.

Once again, run it in a loop with uniq because most of the results will be boring:

$ while true; do ./test.sh; done | uniq -c
      1 touch file 
      1 /bin/bash ./test.sh

Most of the lines are blank, probably due to the subprocess having already completed. Once we get the command line of the subprocess, as we would expect if it hasn't finished yet. And once we get /bin/bash ./test.sh. We didn't run any job with that command-line. How did that happen? At least that explains why ps sometimes didn't find the subprocess by the name touch.

What happens when we create a subprocess?#

Creating a subprocess is actually a two step operation called fork-exec after the two system calls fork() which copies a process returning the child's PID in parent and exec() which executes a program in the current process. There's three different outputs because there's three different ways for the child and parent processes to interleave:

  1. cat runs after touch completes. The output is empty because the child process has already exited.
  2. cat runs after exec(), during the execution of touch. The output is touch file because exec() is what changes the value of cmdline.
  3. cat runs before exec() but after fork(). At that point in time, the child still has the parent's cmdline which is the command-line used to run the script, which is /bin/bash ./test.sh.

There is no fourth option of cat running before fork() because cat occurs after fork() returns in the parent process.

The Linux debugging utility strace can be used to watch those fork() and exec() syscalls (specifically the clone() and execve() variants on my system according to the man pages for fork() and exec()). The -f option will include subprocesses:

strace -f -e clone,execve ./test.sh

Frustratingly, it turns out, like many race conditions, this is a heisenbug: I was unable to record a trace of a failing run using strace. This isn't terribly surprising as the failure mode required a very specific interleaving.


While this may have been an informative foray into how subprocesses work on Linux and debugging methods, the actual takeaway is that ps shouldn't be used to manage subprocesses. The shell's job control support is the proper way to do so.

  1. This program is based on an actual bug one of my officemates had, although it, of course, has been simplified to the point of absurdity. Notably, the original while loop implemented a timeout mechanism which has been omitted for simplicity. Furthermore, this StackOverflow answer gives a cleaner timeout implementation for background tasks in a shell script. 

  2. A simpler way to get the PID of a just started job is $!. I'm using jobs -rp here to show the jobs builtin is actually listing the PID

  3. I tried to use ps -p to list the process information, but it never showed the process. 


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