[Mongrel] Why not ignore stale PID files?

Hongli Lai hongli at plan99.net
Tue Jun 10 19:25:41 EDT 2008

Zed A. Shaw wrote:
 > That would be the ideal situation, but Ruby doesn't have good enough
 > process management APIs to do this portably.

Erik Hetzner:
 > ... but not the edge case where a process is running, with
 > the same owner, but is no longer a mongrel process.

I feel obligated to reply. :) PID files suck. I think it's really stupid 
that modern operating systems don't provide some kind of mechanism to 
automatically delete a file when a process exits (even when it exits 

Anyway, I've written a fair share of daemons in the past. What I tend to 
do is to combine PID files with a number of lock files:
- foo.pid. This is obviously the PID file.
- foo.lock. This is a lock file whose lock is acquired during the life 
time of the daemon. If the daemon exits, whether normally or abnormally, 
the lock on that file is released. To check whether foo.pid is stale, we 
simply check whether foo.lock is locked.

The only way to check whether foo.lock is locked, is to lock it with the 
non-blocking parameter. If locking fails then it means it's already 
locked, meaning that the PID file is not stale. However, this could 
result in a racing condition. Suppose that you are starting a daemon, 
while simultaneously checking whether the daemon is already started:
1. The checker acquires a non-blocking lock on foo.lock. This succeeds, 
so it knows that the PID file is stale. It prints "stale PID file 
detected" on screen, and is about to release the lock on foo.lock.
2. All of a sudden, before the lock is released, a context switch 
occurs. The daemon that is being started tries to acquire a lock on 
foo.lock. This fails because the checker still has the lock, so the 
daemon thinks that there's already a daemon running, and exits.

So we need another lock file to serialize all PID file related actions:
- foo.global.lock

So the code for checking whether the daemon's running is something like 
   def check():
      if try_lock(foo.lock):
         # Locking succeeded, so we have a stale PID file here.
         return nil
         # Locking failed. Process is still running.
         pid = read_pid_file(foo.pid)   # Of course, your code should 
also check whether the PID file actually exist.
         return pid

Daemon code:



NOTE: lock() creates the lock file if it doesn't already exist.

This works great, even on Windows. The only gotchas are:
- flock() doesn't work over NFS. You'll have to use some kind of fcntl() 
call to lock files over NFS, but I'm not sure whether Ruby provides an 
API for that.
- foo.global.lock is never deleted. You cannot safely delete it without 
creating some kind of racing condition.

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