A signal is a software interrupt delivered to notify a process or thread of a particular event. The operating system uses signals to report exceptional situations to an executing program. Some signals report errors such as references to invalid memory addresses; others report asynchronous events, such as disconnection of a phone line.
The lifetime of a signal is the interval between its generation and its delivery. A signal that has been generated but not yet delivered is said to be pending. There may be considerable time between signal generation and signal delivery. The process must be running on a processor at the time of signal delivery.
Many computer science researchers compare signals with hardware interrupts, which occur when a hardware subsystem, such as a disk I/O (input/output) interface, generates an interrupt to a processor when the I/O completes. This event in turn causes the processor to enter an interrupt handler, so subsequent processing can be done in the operating system based on the source and cause of the interrupt. When a signal is sent to a process or thread, a signal handler may be entered (depending on the current disposition of the signal), which is similar to the system entering an interrupt handler as the result of receiving an interrupt.
What causes a Signal ?
Let us see some of the events that can cause (or generate, or raise) a signal:
- A program error such as dividing by zero or issuing an address outside the valid range.
- A user request to interrupt or terminate the program. Most environments are set up to let a user suspend the program by typing Ctrl-z, or terminate it with Ctrl-c. Whatever key sequence is used, the operating system sends the proper signal to interrupt the process.
- The termination of a child process.
- Expiration of a timer or alarm.
- A call to kill or raise system calls by the same process.
- A call to kill from another process. Signals are a limited but useful form of interprocess communication.
- An attempt to perform an I/O operation that cannot be done. Examples are reading from a pipe that has no writer, and reading or writing to a terminal in certain situations.
Signals may be generated synchronously or asynchronously. A synchronous signal pertains to a specific action in the program, and is delivered (unless blocked) during that action. Most errors generate signals synchronously, and so do explicit requests by a process to generate a signal for that same process. On some machines, certain kinds of hardware errors (usually floating-point exceptions) are not reported completely synchronously, but may arrive a few instructions later.
Asynchronous signals are generated by events outside the control of the process that receives them. These signals arrive at unpredictable times during execution. External events generate signals asynchronously, and so do explicit requests that apply to some other process. One obvious example would be the sending of a signal to a process from another process or thread via a kill system call. Asynchronous signals are also aptly referred to as interrupts.
A given type of signal is either typically synchronous or typically asynchronous. For example, signals for errors are typically synchronous because errors generate signals synchronously. But any type of signal can be generated synchronously or asynchronously with an explicit request.
How Signals Are Delivered ?
When a signal is generated, it becomes pending. Normally it remains pending for just a short period of time and then is delivered to the process that was signaled. However, if that kind of signal is currently blocked, it may remain pending indefinitely—until signals of that kind are unblocked. Once unblocked, it will be delivered immediately.
When the signal is delivered, whether right away or after a long delay, the specified action for that signal is taken. For certain signals, such as SIGKILL and SIGSTOP, the action is fixed, but for most signals, the program has a choice. Possible default dispositions are
Term Default action is to terminate the process.The program can also specify its own way of handling the signals (signal handlers). We sometimes say that a handler catches the signal. While the handler is running, that particular signal is normally blocked.
Ign Default action is to ignore the signal.
Core Default action is to terminate the process
and dump core.
Stop Default action is to stop the process.
Cont Default action is to continue the process
if it is currently stopped.
1. Libc Manual