Shell builtin versions of standard commands have drawbacks

September 29, 2017

I'll start with a specific illustration of the general problem:

bash# kill -SIGRTMIN+22 1
bash: kill: SIGRTMIN+22: invalid signal specification
bash# /bin/kill -SIGRTMIN+22 1

The first thing is that yes, this is Linux being a bit unusual. Linux has significantly extended the usual range of Unix signal numbers to include POSIX.1-2001 realtime signals, and then can vary what SIGRTMIN is depending on how a system is set up. Once Linux had these extra signals (and defined in the way they are), people sensibly added support for them to versions of kill. All of this is perfectly in accord with the broad Unix philosophy; of course if you add a new facility to the system you want to expose it to shell scripts when that's possible.

Then along came Bash. Bash is cross-Unix, and it has a builtin kill command, and for whatever reason the Bash people didn't modify Bash so that on Linux it would support the SIGRTMIN+<n> syntax (some possible reasons for that are contained in this sentence). The results of that are a divergence between the behavior of Bash's kill builtin and the real kill program that have become increasingly relevant now that programs like systemd are taking advantage of the extra signals to allow you to control more of their operations by sending them more signals.

Of course, this is a generic problem with shell builtins that shadow real programs in any (and all) shells; it's not particularly specific to Bash (zsh also has this issue on Linux, for example). There are advantages to having builtins, including builtins of things like kill, but there are also drawbacks. How best to fix or work around them isn't clear.

(kill is often a builtin in shells with job control, Bash included, so that you can do 'kill %<n>' and the like. Things like test are often made builtins for shell script speed, although Unixes can take that too far.)

PS: certainly one answer is 'have Bash implement the union of all special kill, test, and so on features from all Unixes it runs on', but I'm not sure that's going to work in practice. And Bash is just one of several popular shells, all of whom would need to keep up with things (or at least people probably want them to do so).

Written on 29 September 2017.
« More on systemd on Ubuntu 16.04 failing to reliably reboot some of our servers
The origin of POSIX as I learned the story (or mythology) »

Page tools: View Source, Add Comment.
Login: Password:
Atom Syndication: Recent Comments.

Last modified: Fri Sep 29 21:40:28 2017
This dinky wiki is brought to you by the Insane Hackers Guild, Python sub-branch.