Writing Daemons in Linux

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Bhatnagar Achindra

May 24, 2005, 6:06:50 AM5/24/05
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Linux Daemon Writing HOWTO

Basic Daemon Structure

* 1 Forking The Parent Process
* 2 Changing The File Mode Mask (Umask)
* 3 Opening Logs For Writing
* 4 Creating a Unique Session ID (SID)
* 5 Changing The Working Directory
* 6 Closing Standard File Descriptors
* 7 Initialization
* 8 The Big Loop

Introduction: What is a Daemon?

A daemon (or service) is a background process that is designed to run
autonomously, with little or no user intervention. The Apache web
server http daemon (httpd) is one such example of a daemon. It waits in
the background listening on specific ports, and serves up pages or
processes scripts, based on the type of request.

Creating a daemon in Linux uses a specific set of rules in a given
order. Knowing how they work will help us understand how daemons
operate in user space in Linux, but can operate with calls to the
kernel also. In fact, a few daemons interface with kernel modules that
work with hardware devices, such as external controller boards,
printers,and PDAs. They are one of the fundamental building blocks in
Linux that give it incredible flexibility and power.

Getting Started

First off, we'll need the following packages installed on the Linux
machine to develop daemons, specifically:

* GCC 3.2.2 or higher
* Linux Development headers and libraries

Planning The Daemon

A daemon should do one thing, and do it well. That one thing may be as
complex as managing hundreds of mailboxes on multiple domains, or as
simple as writing a report and calling sendmail to mail it out to an

In any case, we should have a good plan going in what the daemon should
do. If it is going to interoperate with some other daemons that we may
or may not be writing, this is something else to consider as well.

How Much Interaction?

Daemons should never have direct communication with a user through a
terminal. In fact, a daemon shouldn't communicate directly with a user
at all. All communication should pass through some sort of interface,
which can be as complex as a GTK+ GUI, or as simple as a signal set.

Basic Daemon Structure

When a daemon starts up, it has to do some low-level housework to get
itself ready for its real job. This involves a few steps:

* Fork off the parent process
* Change file mode mask (umask)
* Open any logs for writing
* Create a unique Session ID (SID)
* Change the current working directory to a safe place
* Close standard file descriptors
* Enter actual daemon code

***Forking The Parent Process

A daemon is started either by the system itself or a user in a terminal
or script. When it does start, the process is just like any other
executable on the system. To make it truly autonomous, a child process
must be created where the actual code is executed. This is known as
forking, and it uses the fork() function:

pid_t pid;

/* Fork off the parent process */
pid = fork();
if (pid < 0) {
/* If we got a good PID, then
we can exit the parent process. */
if (pid > 0) {

Notice the error check right after the call to fork(). When writing a
daemon, we will have to code as defensively as possible. In fact, a
good percentage of the total code in a daemon consists of nothing but
error checking.

The fork() function returns either the process id (PID) of the child
process (not equal to zero), or -1 on failure. If the process cannot
fork a child, then the daemon should terminate right here.

If the PID returned from fork() did succeed, the parent process must
exit gracefully. This may seem strange to anyone who hasn't seen it,
but by forking, the child process continues the execution from here on
out in the code.

***Changing The File Mode Mask (Umask)

In order to write to any files (including logs) created by the daemon,
the file mode mask (umask) must be changed to ensure that they can be
written to or read from properly. This is similar to running umask from
the command line, but we do it programmatically here. We can use the
umask() function to accomplish this:

/* Change the file mode mask */

By setting the umask to 0, we will have full access to the files
generated by the daemon. Even if we aren't planning on using any files,
it is a good idea to set the umask here anyway, just in case we will be
accessing files on the filesystem.

***Opening Logs For Writing

This part is optional, but it is recommended that we open a log file
somewhere in the system for writing. This may be the only place we can
look for debug information about your daemon.

***Creating a Unique Session ID (SID)

>From here, the child process must get a unique SID from the kernel in
order to operate. Otherwise, the child process becomes an orphan in the
system. The pid_t type, declared in the previous section, is also used
to create a new SID for the child process:

pid_t pid, sid;

/* Create a new SID for the child process */
sid = setsid();
if (sid < 0) {
/* Log any failure */

Again, the setsid() function has the same return type as fork(). We can
apply the same error-checking routine here to see if the function
created the SID for the child process.

***Changing The Working Directory

The current working directory should be changed to some place that is
guaranteed to always be there. Since many Linux distributions do not
completely follow the Linux Filesystem Hierarchy standard, the only
directory that is guaranteed to be there is the root (/). We can do
this using the chdir() function:

/* Change the current working directory */
if ((chdir("/")) < 0) {
/* Log any failure here */

Once again, we can see the defensive coding taking place. The chdir()
function returns -1 on failure, so be sure to check for that after
changing to the root directory within the daemon.

***Closing Standard File Descriptors

One of the last steps in setting up a daemon is closing out the
standard file descriptors (STDIN, STDOUT, STDERR). Since a daemon
cannot use the terminal, these file descriptors are redundant and a
potential security hazard.

The close() function can handle this for us:

/* Close out the standard file descriptors */

It's a good idea to stick with the constants defined for the file
descriptors, for the greatest portability between system versions.

Writing the Daemon Code


At this point, we have basically told Linux that we're a daemon, so now
it's time to write the actual daemon code. Initialization is the first
step here. Since there can be a multitude of different functions that
can be called here to set up our daemon's task, I won't go too deep
into here.

The big point here is that, when initializing anything in a daemon, the
same defensive coding guidelines apply here. Be as verbose as possible
when writing either to the syslog or your own logs. Debugging a daemon
can be quite difficult when there isn't enough information available as
to the status of the daemon.

***The Big Loop

A daemon's main code is typically inside of an infinite loop.
Technically, it isn't an infinite loop, but it is structured as one:

/* Daemon-specific initialization goes here */

/* The Big Loop */
while (1) {
/* Do some task here ... */
sleep(30); /* wait 30 seconds */

This typical loop is usually a while loop that has an infinite
terminating condition, with a call to sleep in there to make it run at
specified intervals.

Think of it like a heartbeat: when our heart beats, it performs a few
tasks, then waits until the next beat takes place. Many daemons follow
this same methodology.

Putting It All Together

***Complete Sample

Listed below is a complete sample daemon that shows all of the steps
necessary for setup and execution. To run this, simply compile using
gcc, and start execution from the command line. To terminate, use the
kill command after finding its PID.

The correct include statements for interfacing with the syslog, which
is recommended at the very least for sending start/stop/pause/die log
statements, in addition to using your own logs with the
fopen()/fwrite()/fclose() function calls has been included.

#include <sys/types.h>
#include <sys/stat.h>
#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>
#include <fcntl.h>
#include <errno.h>
#include <unistd.h>
#include <syslog.h>
#include <string.h>

int main(void) {

/* Our process ID and Session ID */
pid_t pid, sid;

/* Fork off the parent process */
pid = fork();
if (pid < 0) {
/* If we got a good PID, then
we can exit the parent process. */
if (pid > 0) {

/* Change the file mode mask */

/* Open any logs here */

/* Create a new SID for the child process */
sid = setsid();
if (sid < 0) {
/* Log the failure */

/* Change the current working directory */
if ((chdir("/")) < 0) {
/* Log the failure */

/* Close out the standard file descriptors */

/* Daemon-specific initialization goes here */

/* The Big Loop */
while (1) {
/* Do some task here ... */

sleep(30); /* wait 30 seconds */

Add in your own logging (or use the syslog facility),
Code Defensively, Code Defensively, Code Defensively!

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