Tutorial :How do I reliably track child/grandchild processes on a POSIX system?


I have an interesting (at least to me) problem: I can't manage to find a way to reliably and portably get information on grandchildren processes in certain cases. I have an application, AllTray, that I am trying to get to work in certain strange cases where its subprocess spawns a child and then dies. AllTray's job is essentially to dock an application to the task tray, which is (usually) specified as a command line for AllTray to invoke (i.e., alltray xterm would start xterm, and manage it in AllTray).

Most GUI software runs just fine under it. It sets the _NET_WM_PID property on its window (or a widget library does) and all's well, because _NET_WM_PID == fork()ed child. However, in some cases (such as when running oowriter, or software written to run under KDE such as K3b), the child process that AllTray runs is a wrapper, be it a shell script (as in OO.o's case) or a strange program that fork()s and exec()s itself and effectively backgrounds itself, since the parent process dies very early.

I had the idea to not reap my child processes, so as to preserve in the process table the parent process ID for my grandchildren, so that I could link them back to me by traversing the family tree from bottom-to-top. That doesn't work, though: once my child process dies and turns into a zombie, the system considers my grandchild process to be an orphan, and init adopts it. This appears to be the case on at least Linux 2.6 and NetBSD; I'd presume it's probably the norm, and POSIX doesn't seem to specify that to be the case, so I was hoping for the opposite.

Since that approach won't work, I thought about using LD_PRELOAD and intercepting my child process' call to fork(), and passing information back to my parent process. However, I'm concerned that won't be as portable as the ideal solution, because different systems have different rules on how the dynamic linker does things like LD_PRELOAD. It won't work for setuid/setgid GUI applications either without the helper library also being setuid or setgid, at least on Linux systems. Generally, it smells like a bad idea to me, and feels quite hackish.

So, I'm hoping that someone has an idea on how to do this, or if the idea of relying on a mechanism like LD_PRELOAD is really the only option I have short of patching kernels (which is not going to happen).


You could investigate the possibility of using process groups to keep track of, well, process groups. A process group is a property (just a number) which you can set before forking, and child processes then inherit it automatically.

AllTray can create a new process group for each application started with it. You can the send signals to all members of the process group. I suppose the most useful signals here would be TERM and KILL, in order to kill an application managed in AllTray.

I'm not sure if there is a convenient way to figure out if all members of the process group have already exited or not. You may have to resort to going through the entire process list and call getpgid for each process to see if there are any left in the process group.

Note that process groups won't work for applications which create new process groups themselves. But that's relatively rare and you probably don't need to worry about such applications.

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