VFORK(2) Linux Programmer's Manual VFORK(2)
vfork - create a child process and block parent
Feature Test Macro Requirements for glibc (see feature_test_macros(7)):
Since glibc 2.12:
(_XOPEN_SOURCE >= 500) && ! (_POSIX_C_SOURCE >= 200809L)
|| /* Since glibc 2.19: */ _DEFAULT_SOURCE
|| /* Glibc versions <= 2.19: */ _BSD_SOURCE
Before glibc 2.12:
_BSD_SOURCE || _XOPEN_SOURCE >= 500
(From POSIX.1) The vfork() function has the same effect as fork(2), ex-
cept that the behavior is undefined if the process created by vfork()
either modifies any data other than a variable of type pid_t used to
store the return value from vfork(), or returns from the function in
which vfork() was called, or calls any other function before success-
fully calling _exit(2) or one of the exec(3) family of functions.
vfork(), just like fork(2), creates a child process of the calling
process. For details and return value and errors, see fork(2).
vfork() is a special case of clone(2). It is used to create new pro-
cesses without copying the page tables of the parent process. It may
be useful in performance-sensitive applications where a child is cre-
ated which then immediately issues an execve(2).
vfork() differs from fork(2) in that the calling thread is suspended
until the child terminates (either normally, by calling _exit(2), or
abnormally, after delivery of a fatal signal), or it makes a call to
execve(2). Until that point, the child shares all memory with its par-
ent, including the stack. The child must not return from the current
function or call exit(3) (which would have the effect of calling exit
handlers established by the parent process and flushing the parent's
stdio(3) buffers), but may call _exit(2).
As with fork(2), the child process created by vfork() inherits copies
of various of the caller's process attributes (e.g., file descriptors,
signal dispositions, and current working directory); the vfork() call
differs only in the treatment of the virtual address space, as de-
Signals sent to the parent arrive after the child releases the parent's
memory (i.e., after the child terminates or calls execve(2)).
Under Linux, fork(2) is implemented using copy-on-write pages, so the
only penalty incurred by fork(2) is the time and memory required to du-
plicate the parent's page tables, and to create a unique task structure
for the child. However, in the bad old days a fork(2) would require
making a complete copy of the caller's data space, often needlessly,
since usually immediately afterward an exec(3) is done. Thus, for
greater efficiency, BSD introduced the vfork() system call, which did
not fully copy the address space of the parent process, but borrowed
the parent's memory and thread of control until a call to execve(2) or
an exit occurred. The parent process was suspended while the child was
using its resources. The use of vfork() was tricky: for example, not
modifying data in the parent process depended on knowing which vari-
ables were held in a register.
4.3BSD; POSIX.1-2001 (but marked OBSOLETE). POSIX.1-2008 removes the
specification of vfork().
The requirements put on vfork() by the standards are weaker than those
put on fork(2), so an implementation where the two are synonymous is
compliant. In particular, the programmer cannot rely on the parent re-
maining blocked until the child either terminates or calls execve(2),
and cannot rely on any specific behavior with respect to shared memory.
Some consider the semantics of vfork() to be an architectural blemish,
and the 4.2BSD man page stated: "This system call will be eliminated
when proper system sharing mechanisms are implemented. Users should
not depend on the memory sharing semantics of vfork() as it will, in
that case, be made synonymous to fork(2)." However, even though modern
memory management hardware has decreased the performance difference be-
tween fork(2) and vfork(), there are various reasons why Linux and
other systems have retained vfork():
* Some performance-critical applications require the small performance
advantage conferred by vfork().
* vfork() can be implemented on systems that lack a memory-management
unit (MMU), but fork(2) can't be implemented on such systems.
(POSIX.1-2008 removed vfork() from the standard; the POSIX rationale
for the posix_spawn(3) function notes that that function, which pro-
vides functionality equivalent to fork(2)+exec(3), is designed to be
implementable on systems that lack an MMU.)
* On systems where memory is constrained, vfork() avoids the need to
temporarily commit memory (see the description of /proc/sys/vm/over-
commit_memory in proc(5)) in order to execute a new program. (This
can be especially beneficial where a large parent process wishes to
execute a small helper program in a child process.) By contrast,
using fork(2) in this scenario requires either committing an amount
of memory equal to the size of the parent process (if strict over-
committing is in force) or overcommitting memory with the risk that
a process is terminated by the out-of-memory (OOM) killer.
The child process should take care not to modify the memory in unin-
tended ways, since such changes will be seen by the parent process once
the child terminates or executes another program. In this regard, sig-
nal handlers can be especially problematic: if a signal handler that is
invoked in the child of vfork() changes memory, those changes may re-
sult in an inconsistent process state from the perspective of the par-
ent process (e.g., memory changes would be visible in the parent, but
changes to the state of open file descriptors would not be visible).
When vfork() is called in a multithreaded process, only the calling
thread is suspended until the child terminates or executes a new pro-
gram. This means that the child is sharing an address space with other
running code. This can be dangerous if another thread in the parent
process changes credentials (using setuid(2) or similar), since there
are now two processes with different privilege levels running in the
same address space. As an example of the dangers, suppose that a mul-
tithreaded program running as root creates a child using vfork(). Af-
ter the vfork(), a thread in the parent process drops the process to an
unprivileged user in order to run some untrusted code (e.g., perhaps
via plug-in opened with dlopen(3)). In this case, attacks are possible
where the parent process uses mmap(2) to map in code that will be exe-
cuted by the privileged child process.
Fork handlers established using pthread_atfork(3) are not called when a
multithreaded program employing the NPTL threading library calls
vfork(). Fork handlers are called in this case in a program using the
LinuxThreads threading library. (See pthreads(7) for a description of
Linux threading libraries.)
A call to vfork() is equivalent to calling clone(2) with flags speci-
CLONE_VM | CLONE_VFORK | SIGCHLD
The vfork() system call appeared in 3.0BSD. In 4.4BSD it was made syn-
onymous to fork(2) but NetBSD introduced it again; see
<http://www.netbsd.org/Documentation/kernel/vfork.html>. In Linux, it
has been equivalent to fork(2) until 2.2.0-pre6 or so. Since
2.2.0-pre9 (on i386, somewhat later on other architectures) it is an
independent system call. Support was added in glibc 2.0.112.
Details of the signal handling are obscure and differ between systems.
The BSD man page states: "To avoid a possible deadlock situation, pro-
cesses that are children in the middle of a vfork() are never sent
SIGTTOU or SIGTTIN signals; rather, output or ioctls are allowed and
input attempts result in an end-of-file indication."
clone(2), execve(2), _exit(2), fork(2), unshare(2), wait(2)
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