SIGCHLD versus Python: a problem of semantics

August 31, 2006

In the process of looking at my program's code again to write the last entry, I think I may have solved the mystery of how my impossible exception gets generated.

My program does a lot of forking and thus cleanups of now-dead children. The code that it generally dies on is:

def _delip(pid, ip):
  del ipmap[ip][pid]
  if len(ipmap[ip]) == 0:
    del ipmap[ip]

It takes a KeyError on the len(ipmap[ip]) operation and goes down. (Because of previous fun, the main thread forks all the children and waits for them, so this kills the entire program.)

Clearly there is some concurrency problem, but my problem with the exception was that I've never seen where it could come from. The main thread is the only thread that adds or removes things from the ipmap dictionary, and the SIGCHLD handler that reaps children is only active when the thread is idling in select() (partly to avoid just this sort of concurrency issue).

To avoid various problems and just create sanity, Unix SIGCHLD handlers are not reentrant; even if more children die, you won't receive a second SIGCHLD until you return from the signal handler. (This is an interesting source of bugs if you bail out of the signal handler without telling the kernel, and is one reason for the existence of siglongjmp().)

And in thinking about all of this I came to a horrible realization: those are Unix semantics, not Python semantics. Python does not run your Python-level SIGCHLD handler from the actual C level signal handler; it runs them from the regular bytecode interpreter. All the C level SIGCHLD handler does is set a flag telling the interpreter to run your SIGCHLD handler at the next bytecode, where it gets treated pretty much as an ordinary function call.

This would neatly explain my mysterious exceptions. When there are two connections from an IP address and both of them die in short succession, if we are extremely unlucky the SIGCHLD for the second will be processed between _delip's first and second lines and delete the ipmap[ip] dictionary entry out from underneath the first.

I personally believe that this is a bug in the CPython interpreter, but even if I can persuade the Python people of this, I still need to come up with a Python-level workaround for the mean time (ideally one that doesn't involve too much code reorganization).

Written on 31 August 2006.
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Last modified: Thu Aug 31 23:32:37 2006
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