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Chapter 3. Process Management

The process is one of the fundamental abstractions in Unix operating systems[1]. A process is a program (object code stored on some media) in execution. Processes are, however, more than just the executing program code (often called the text section in Unix). They also include a set of resources such as open files and pending signals, internal kernel data, processor state, an address space, one or more threads of execution, and a data section containing global variables. Processes, in effect, are the living result of running program code.

[1] The other fundamental abstraction is files.

Threads of execution, often shortened to threads, are the objects of activity within the process. Each thread includes a unique program counter, process stack, and set of processor registers. The kernel schedules individual threads, not processes. In traditional Unix systems, each process consists of one thread. In modern systems, however, multithreaded programsthose that consist of more than one threadare common. As you will see later, Linux has a unique implementation of threads: It does not differentiate between threads and processes. To Linux, a thread is just a special kind of process.

On modern operating systems, processes provide two virtualizations: a virtualized processor and virtual memory. The virtual processor gives the process the illusion that it alone monopolizes the system, despite possibly sharing the processor among dozens of other processes. Chapter 4, "Process Scheduling," discusses this virtualization. Virtual memory lets the process allocate and manage memory as if it alone owned all the memory in the system. Virtual memory is covered in Chapter 11, "Memory Management." Interestingly, note that threads share the virtual memory abstraction while each receives its own virtualized processor.

A program itself is not a process; a process is an active program and related resources. Indeed, two or more processes can exist that are executing the same program. In fact, two or more processes can exist that share various resources, such as open files or an address space.

A process begins its life when, not surprisingly, it is created. In Linux, this occurs by means of the fork() system call, which creates a new process by duplicating an existing one. The process that calls fork() is the parent, whereas the new process is the child. The parent resumes execution and the child starts execution at the same place, where the call returns. The fork() system call returns from the kernel twice: once in the parent process and again in the newborn child.

Often, immediately after a fork it is desirable to execute a new, different, program. The exec*() family of function calls is used to create a new address space and load a new program into it. In modern Linux kernels, fork() is actually implemented via the clone() system call, which is discussed in a following section.

Finally, a program exits via the exit() system call. This function terminates the process and frees all its resources. A parent process can inquire about the status of a terminated child via the wait4()[2] system call, which enables a process to wait for the termination of a specific process. When a process exits, it is placed into a special zombie state that is used to represent terminated processes until the parent calls wait() or waitpid().

[2] The kernel implements the wait4() system call. Linux systems, via the C library, typically provide the wait(),waitpid(),wait3() , and wait4() functions. All these functions return status about a terminated process, albeit with slightly different semantics.

Another name for a process is a task. The Linux kernel internally refers to processes as tasks. In this book, I will use the terms interchangeably, although when I say task I am generally referring to a process from the kernel's point of view.

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