signal(2) versus sigaction(2)

Normally, I'm pretty gung-ho about abandoning old API. I don't have head space for every crappy API I've ever come across, so any time there's a chance to clear out useless old junk, I'll take it.

signal(2) and sigaction(2) have been an interesting exception. I've been using the former since the 1980s, and I've been hearing that it's not portable and that I should be using the latter since the 1990s, but it was just the other day, in 2010, that I first had an actual problem. (I also knew that sigaction(2) was more powerful than signal(2), but had never needed the extra power before.) If you've also been in the "there's nothing wrong with signal(2)" camp, here's my story...

The problem

I have a bunch of pthreads, some of which are blocked on network I/O. I want to wake those threads forcibly so I can give them something else to do. I want to do this by signalling them. Their system calls will fail with EINTR, my threads will notice this, check whether this was from "natural causes" or because I'm trying to wake them, and do the right thing. So that the signal I send doesn't kill them, I call signal(2) to set a dummy signal handler. (This is distinct from SIG_IGN: I want my userspace code to ignore the signal, not for the kernel to never send it. I might not have any work to do in the signal handler, but I do want the side-effect of being signalled.)

So imagine my surprise when I don't see EINTR. I check, and the signals are definitely getting sent, but my system calls aren't getting interrupted. I read the Linux signal(2) man page and notice the harsh but vague:
The only portable use of signal() is to set a signal's disposition to
SIG_DFL or SIG_IGN. The semantics when using signal() to establish a
signal handler vary across systems (and POSIX.1 explicitly permits this
variation); do not use it for this purpose.

POSIX.1 solved the portability mess by specifying sigaction(2), which
provides explicit control of the semantics when a signal handler is
invoked; use that interface instead of signal().

It turns out that, on my system, using signal(2) to set a signal handler is equivalent to using the SA_RESTART with sigaction(2). The Open Group documentation for sigaction(2) actually gives an example that's basically the code you'd need to implement signal(2) in terms of sigaction(2).) The SA_RESTART flag basically means you won't see EINTR "unless otherwise specified". (For a probably untrue and outdated list of exceptions on Linux, see "man 7 signal". The rule of thumb would appear to be "anything with a timeout fails with EINTR regardless of SA_RESTART", presumably because any moral equivalent of TEMP_FAILURE_RETRY is likely to lead to trouble in conjunction with any syscall that has a timeout parameter.)

Anyway, switching to sigaction(2) and not using the SA_RESTART flag fixed my problem, and I'll endeavor to use sigaction(2) in future.

Assuming I can't stay the hell away from signals, that is.

Alternative solutions

At this point, you might be thinking I'm some kind of pervert, throwing signals about like that. But here's what's nice about my solution: I use a doubly-linked list of pthreads blocked on network I/O, and the linked list goes through stack-allocated objects, so I've got no allocation/deallocation, and O(1) insert and remove overhead on each blocking I/O call. A close is O(n) in the number of threads currently blocked, but in my system n is currently very small anyway. Often zero. (There's also a global lock to be acquired and released for each of these three operations, of course.) So apart from future scalability worries, that's not a bad solution.

One alternative would be to dump Linux for that alt chick BSD. The internets tell me that at least some BSDs bend over backwards to do the right thing: close a socket in one thread and blocked I/O on that socket fails, courtesy of a helpful kernel. (Allegedly. I haven't seen BSD since I got a job.) Given Linux's passive-aggressive attitude to userspace, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Linux doesn't consider this to be its problem, but changing kernel is probably not an option for most people.

Another alternative would be to use shutdown(2) before close(2), but that has slightly different semantics regarding SO_LINGER, and can be difficult to distinguish from a remote close.

Another alternative would be to use select(2) to avoid actually blocking. You may, like me, have been laboring under the misapprehension that the third fd set, the one for "exceptional conditions", is for reporting exactly this kind of thing. It isn't. (It's actually for OOB data or reporting the failure of a non-blocking connect.) So you either need to use a timeout so that you're actually polling, checking whether you should give up between each select(2), or you need to have another fd to select on, which your close operation can write to. This costs you up to an fd per thread (I'm assuming you try to reuse them, rather than opening and closing them for each operation), plus at least all the bookkeeping from the signal-based solution, plus it doubles the number of system calls you make (not including the pipe management, or writing to the pipe/pipes when closing an fd). I've seen others go this route, but I'd try incest and morris dancing first.

I actually wrote the first draft of this post last August, and the SA_RESTART solution's been shipping for a while. Still, if you have a better solution, I'd love to hear it.