Creating controllable D state (uninterruptible sleep) processes

tl;dr:

But wait, how can any D state process be "not immune to signal interruption"? Isn't the whole point of D state processes that they are uninterruptible? If you are wondering this, read on, and you will likely find out some new things about how Linux works internally :-)


Imagine you're a system administrator responsible for maintaining containers across production. One day, you encounter a problem: while trying to roll out a new version of a container – and thus first have to stop the old container – the old container will not stop because some of the processes in it are stuck and unresponsive.

These kinds of processes are typically represented with the code "D" in ps, top, and other similar tools. D state (typically written out in full as "uninterruptible sleep") is a process state where a process is forced to sleep and cannot be woken up in userspace. This can be necessary in some cases when it's unsafe for the process to continue execution, and we'll go over some of the cases where it is needed in a moment.

As a real world example, at work several years ago, one of the teams that works on our internal containerisation system, Twine, was checking that their software could properly destroy containers with D state processes present, and needed to produce them on demand as part of their integration tests. I gave them some advice, it was implemented, and I thought that's probably the last I'd ever hear of it.

Moving back to the present, I think I must have seen this request at least four

or five times in the years since. Just as one recent additional example, I recently got asked about this as part of testing for the Meta kernel team's diagnostics tool, which as one of its functions gathers kernel stack traces of D state tasks in order to work out what they are waiting for, in case it's a kernel issue that bears investigating further.

So while this may still be a relatively specialised request, there's clearly a noticeable void in readily accessible knowledge on the subject given the number of times that this has now come up. I will – of course – simply answer the question of how to go about this, but for those who are interested, we will also discuss some interesting Linux arcana, some of the dangers of sharing virtual memory space, and some things you may well not know about D state process internals along the way. :-)

Why would anyone want to test this?

The most common way that processes enter D state is while doing DMA transfers and other hardware interactions, and while waiting for certain kinds of kernel synchronisation primitives. DMA, for example, allows hardware subsystems to access the main system memory for reading/writing independently of the CPU, which is essential for efficient handling of large volumes of data. Because this access is gated as part of the process context itself, programs generally must not be interrupted in the midst of such operations because DMA transfers are not typically designed to accommodate or recover from partial or interrupted reads or writes.

For example, when a program reads or writes from your storage, what is typically really happening is that the storage device's hardware is directly accessing the system's main memory to transfer data. This is achieved through DMA, which bypasses the CPU. Instead of the CPU reading data into memory and then writing it to the disk (or vice versa), DMA allows the storage device to read or write directly to or from the memory. This direct pathway is vastly more efficient than doing this through the CPU, but it also means that we must guard the process from interruption in order to keep this memory pinned for hardware use during the transaction.

These states can become a problem for things like init systems or containerisation platforms, where the unwavering persistence of these stubborn processes may block things like tearing down a container, a user session, or the entire system on shutdown. As such, all systems that implement teardown for groups of processes must implement measures to deal with such issues.

Here's a real example of how that can manifest in a production environment with a container engine.

Let's suppose that there is a job in production that interfaces with hardware. This hardware may – legitimately or less legitimately – take an indefinite time to do DMA transfers. Once a DMA transfer has started, it can't be stopped until the hardware says it's done, and in order to ensure that, the process enters D state.

Imagine that while we are stuck for some indefinite period in D state, the scheduler that decides which jobs should be on which machines (like Kubernetes' scheduler, for example) decides that this container should be evicted from this machine. Normally that's pretty straightforward: ask the container to shut down itself, and if it takes too long, send it SIGKILL. After that, we can do some cleanup for any state we might have had, and we're more or less done.

D states complicate this quite a bit, because they cannot typically be interrupted. In order to preserve system integrity, they typically don't even respond to SIGKILL, the most brutal of signals. This can cause problems: now we still have a process running in this container, and any forward progress is blocked.

In systemd, the way we handle D state processes remaining after the stop timeout has expired is by marking the unit as failed:

% systemctl --user status foo.service
Active: failed (Result: timeout)

[...]

State 'stop-sigterm' timed out. Killing.
Killing process 1282704 with signal SIGKILL.
Processes still around after final SIGKILL. Entering failed mode.
Failed with result 'timeout'.

This is a fairly passive approach: it's still up to the user to decide what they should do with a "failed" unit, and we don't directly take any action to try to rectify the situation.

Keeping the unit around keeps all the metadata around in one place (like which processes are causing the hold up), which is definitely a positive: it helps not only in debugging, but also helps container engines using systemd units to decide whether it's still safe to start a new service or not given the situation.

More active interventions include (but are not limited to):

  1. Reboot the machine: This is dangerous and is generally not suitable for a generic init system like systemd. Doing this must be decided by the user directly (or a service they have written). Rebooting is very slow and heavyweight, may lose state, reduces fleetwide capacity, and is very cumbersome if the issue happens widely. This method may also hide actual driver or kernel bugs, and definitely needs to be rate limited at the fleet level in terms of number of reboots a second or minute.
  2. Consider the D state processes as no longer part of the failed unit: In this case, resources are still taken by the process in D state, and are now separately accounted for (and potentially are made more difficult to reason about). On some rollouts, that may actively hide issues, or introduce hard to debug new ones. It may also not be safe to start the new container if the old processes are still around because of reasons like resource usage or synchronisation issues.

The right course of action here depends on what's decided by those making the container engine, but the exact choice is not really the point. The more important bit is that once you've made your choice on how to handle this, the next step is to produce a test to make sure that the behaviour you've settled on for this scenario remains stable across versions and configurations, and that requires being able to create and destroy D state processes for testing on demand. Linux actively tries to avoid processes entering uninterruptible sleep whenever possible, as these processes can be particularly troublesome to deal with. For this reason, it's not immediately obvious how to create a process which can reliably enter and exit uninterruptible sleep on demand for testing.

D states outside of I/O context

While D states might immediately bring to mind disk activity, we actually use them for all sorts of things in the kernel. As a general rule, the kernel uses D states to block processes in any situation where it's unsafe to allow the process to proceed further for the time being.

Enter vfork(). vfork() is a specialised system call that is primarily designed to be used as part of the process of creating new processes. Unlike the more widely known fork(), which typically uses copy-on-write and thus must at the very least create new virtual mappings to the physical pages in question, vfork() allows the child process to directly share the parent's virtual address space temporarily without any copying whatsoever. This is much cheaper if you are just going to immediately clobber the child with a new process image using exec, as in the case of process creation, where copying all the pages would be needlessly wasteful.

But how can that be safe? Surely two processes sharing the same virtual memory address space is a recipe for disaster? Well, vfork() suspends the parent application for the period that the child is using its address space, and it suspends it in D state until the child either dies or calls an exec function to replace the process image. As with fork(), vfork()s return code is 0 when running in the child, and the PID of the child when running in the parent, which we can use to determine which we are in when resuming execution.

Once spawned, the child can see and modify everything in the parent's address space. Likewise, once the parent wakes up again, it too will see all and any changes performed in the child. The only safety is that both processes can't run at the same time, but other than that, pretty much all bets are off.

Choreographing a long-lived D state process with vfork() works something like the following:

#include <unistd.h>

__attribute__((noinline)) static void run_child(void)
{
    pause();
    _exit(0);
}

int main(void)
{
    pid_t pid = vfork();

    if (pid == 0) {
        run_child();
    } else if (pid < 0) {
        return 1;
    }

    return 0;
}

This will then reliably enter D state until a terminal signal is sent to the child:

% cc -o dstate dstate.c
% ./dstate & sleep 0.1; ps -o pid,state,cmd -p "$!"
[1] 780629
    PID S CMD
 780629 D ./dstate
% pkill -P "$!"
[1]  + done       ./dstate

$! is the process ID of the last background pipeline, which in this case is ./dstate &. pkill -P kills its child.

__attribute__((noinline)) is a good idea in order to make sure that the stack space used in the child is separate from the stack space used by the parent. By preventing inlining, we ensure that the function creates a distinct stack frame on entry, and in the context of the vfork()ed child, this means that any stack manipulation occurs neatly in a separate frame, and not in the parent's stack frame. Without it, the compiler may perform optimisations that result in interleaved data between the parent and child, which could result in stack corruption when the parent resumes. We'll go a little more into how exactly that works and why it's necessary very shortly.

The goal here is to keep the child alive for as long as we want to have our parent in D state. pause() here waits until a terminal signal is sent, and can be modified to suit whatever needs you happen to have. For example, if your test involves sending signals and so you want to ignore those, you can instead wait for the text "EXIT" on stdin:

#include <assert.h>
#include <signal.h>
#include <stdio.h>
#include <string.h>
#include <unistd.h>

#define EXIT_STRING "EXIT\n"

__attribute__((noinline)) static void run_child(void)
{
    char input[sizeof(EXIT_STRING)];

    while (1) {
        if (fgets(input, sizeof(input), stdin) == NULL) {
            if (ferror(stdin)) {
                fprintf(stderr,
                        "Error reading stdin in child\n");
            }
            if (feof(stdin)) {
                fprintf(stderr,
                        "EOF waiting for exit string\n");
            }
            break;
        }
        if (strcmp(input, EXIT_STRING) == 0) {
            break;
        }
        if (strlen(input) == sizeof(input) - 1 &&
            input[strlen(input) - 1] != '\n') {
            /* Partial line read, clear it */
            int c;
            while ((c = getchar()) != '\n' && c != EOF)
                ;
        }
    }

    _exit(0);
}

int main(void)
{
    pid_t pid;
    sigset_t set;

    sigfillset(&set);
    assert(sigprocmask(SIG_BLOCK, &set, NULL) == 0);

    pid = vfork();

    if (pid == 0) {
        run_child();
    } else if (pid < 0) {
        return 1;
    }

    return 0;
}

Here's an example of its use, showing that it can't simply be terminated by Ctrl-C:

% ./dstate
^C^C^C^C^C^C
EXIT
%

Wait, that's illegal

I'm sure that some people reading the code I provided above are wondering whether it's legal or not, given the fact that we are sharing the parent's memory space. Here's what the POSIX spec, which Linux generally tries to somewhat adhere to has to say about vfork():

The vfork() function shall be equivalent to fork(), except 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 successfully calling _exit() or one of the exec family of functions.

vfork definition from POSIX.1-2004

It makes sense that access to the parent's memory – and thus doing basically anything other than exec (which replaces the process entirely) or _exit() (which is really just a syscall) – is not POSIX-legal in the child forked by vfork(), because the parent cannot reasonably have its internal state mutated under it without its knowledge. But wait, didn't we just call a function? That's certainly going to make use of the stack, which will later be visible to the parent, right?

The good news it that in reality (or at least for some version of reality on Linux with any real libc), things are not that dire. Just as one example, CPython – which is used and tested with far more diversity than the vast majority of software in use today – uses it in much the same way:

Py_NO_INLINE static pid_t do_fork_exec(/* ... */)
{
    pid_t pid;
    PyThreadState *vfork_tstate_save;

    /* ... */

    vfork_tstate_save = PyEval_SaveThread();
    pid = vfork();
    if (pid != 0) {
        /* Not in the child process, reacquire the GIL. */
        PyEval_RestoreThread(vfork_tstate_save);
        return pid;
    }

    /* Child process. */

    if (preexec_fn != Py_None) {
        PyOS_AfterFork_Child();
    }

    child_exec(exec_array, argv, envp, cwd,
               /* ... */);
    _exit(255);
    return 0;
}
_posixsubprocess.c from CPython 3.12.1

As you can see, in their case, it's used as part of a vastly more complex process of forking children which is also guaranteed to push to stack by calling child functions. I think it would be safe to say that, despite some POSIX book banging and semantics discussion, the world has not collapsed into a fiery pit yet as a result.

So why is this okay enough to make it into codebases like CPython's? Well, let's come back to an elided form of our code from earlier:

__attribute__((noinline)) static void run_child(void)
{
    char input[sizeof(EXIT_STRING)];
    int c;

    /* ... */

    _exit(0);
}

int main(void)
{
    pid_t pid;
    sigset_t set;

    /* ... */

    pid = vfork();

    if (pid == 0) {
        run_child();
    } else if (pid < 0) {
        return 1;
    }

    return 0;
}

When the parent process continues its operation, additional stack data is simply going to end up in what is – from the parent's perspective, at least – the unallocated portion of the stack. It doesn't know that its stack pointer is pointing to the return address for run_child(), from its perspective, whatever is at that memory is semantically meaningless.

This happens because even though vfork() shares the address space, it does not share registers between the child and parent. Importantly, this means that the parent's stack pointer and frame pointer registers are still independent of those in the child. This independence extends to all registers, including the instruction pointer register (which stores the next instruction to execute), and this is how the parent resumes at vfork() instead of trying to continue from what the child has already done when it wakes up.

While there might be some more stuff on the stack, the parent doesn't care: from its perspective what's contained in those addresses is meaningless and can be ignored or overwritten at will, and as such things just continue about their merry way.

All in all, despite standards ire, the whole thing is pretty safe.

Why do we block signals in both the parent and child?

In the example above, one might typically visualise our intention as being to satisfy some condition in the child (like writing "EXIT" in our second example) in order to unblock the parent. However, you may also notice that in this code example, signals are blocked not only in the child, but also the parent. But surely that's not necessary since the parent is in D state anyway, right? Well, let's try it without the signals blocked in the parent:

% ./dstate & sleep 0.1; ps -o pid,state,cmd -p "$!"; kill "$!"
[1] 866239
    PID S CMD
 866239 D ./dstate
[1]  + terminated  ./dstate

Wait, what? How come we were able to terminate a D state process?

My experience is that most system administrators and Linux users are not aware of the fact that a D state process doesn't actually have to be uninterruptible. All a D state process represents is a process which cannot execute any more userspace instructions, but blocking all signals is only one interpretation of how to achieve that, and it's not necessary in all circumstances.

To see what I mean, let's look at the kernel source to see how vfork() is implemented. Depending on your libc and version, the vfork() that you call from your application is likely either a thin wrapper around the clone() or vfork() syscalls. They do the same thing behind the scenes – vfork() calls into the clone() code path kernel_clone():

SYSCALL_DEFINE0(vfork)
{
    struct kernel_clone_args args = {
        .flags       = CLONE_VFORK | CLONE_VM,
        .exit_signal = SIGCHLD,
    };

    return kernel_clone(&args);
}
kernel/fork.c from Linux 6.7

This is the definition of the vfork() syscall, with no ("0") arguments, hence SYSCALL_DEFINE0(vfork). kernel_clone() is the kernel path that handles clone(), which itself is a generic syscall for creating new processes.

Setting kernel_clone()'s flags to CLONE_VFORK and CLONE_VM requests the traditional vfork() behaviour: share the virtual memory space, and suspend the parent process until the child has completed. That is, the effects of running vfork() or clone() with the appropriate flags in a program are effectively the same.

In kernel_clone(), we see the following code:

if (clone_flags & CLONE_VFORK) {
    if (!wait_for_vfork_done(p, &vfork))
        ptrace_event_pid(PTRACE_EVENT_VFORK_DONE, pid);
}
kernel/fork.c from Linux 6.7

Okay, so what does wait_for_vfork_done() do?

static int wait_for_vfork_done(struct task_struct *child,
                               struct completion *vfork)
{
    unsigned int state = TASK_UNINTERRUPTIBLE |
                         TASK_KILLABLE | TASK_FREEZABLE;
    int killed;

    /* ... */

    killed = wait_for_completion_state(vfork, state);

    /* ... */

    return killed;
}
kernel/fork.c from Linux 6.7

TASK_KILLABLE is a state that Matthew introduced in 2.6.25. It was created because, while in some cases we do actually need to shield the process from any signal interaction at all, in some cases it's fine as long as we know the process will terminate with no more userspace instructions executed. For example, in this vfork() case, we have to block to avoid both tasks accessing the same address space, but there's no reason for us to continue to wait if the next thing we're going to do is simply terminate – it's a waste of time and of a process.

TASK_KILLABLE was introduced to solve these kinds of cases. Instead of being fully uninterruptible, when we receive a signal we check if the signal is fatal (that is, it's either a non-trappable fatal signal, or the program has no userspace handler for a signal with a default terminal disposition), and if it is, we terminate the process without allowing it to execute any more userspace instructions.

We use TASK_KILLABLE pretty widely in the kernel nowadays where possible:

linux % git grep -ihc _killable | paste -sd+ | bc
539

As such, you may well find that some of the D states that processes enter on your system actually are terminable after all.

How can I survive SIGKILL, then?

While the above approach is self-contained and serves most use cases for testing, its major downside is that it doesn't survive a SIGKILL, as SIGKILL is always a deadly signal, and cannot be caught in userspace. In order to survive that, we need to find a way from userspace to enter a state which sets TASK_UNINTERRUPTIBLE without TASK_KILLABLE.

Those of you who have worked in the storage space may also know about disk and filesystem snapshots. Linux has, over time, added support for these kinds of things through LVM and other mechanisms. LVM in particular adds more sophisticated management of disk space and filesystems on top of existing Unix paradigms, like the capability to resize filesystems, manage multiple disks as one, and most importantly for this discussion, they introduced the ability to do disk snapshotting, where you take a snapshot of a filesystem at a particular moment in time.

There are also other mechanisms which make use of some of the LVM infrastructure in order to do things like snapshots in an external context. One of those mechanisms that we can leverage here is fsfreeze.

From the manual page for fsfreeze:

fsfreeze suspends and resumes access to a filesystem. fsfreeze halts new access to the filesystem and creates a stable image on disk. fsfreeze is intended to be used with hardware RAID devices that support the creation of snapshots.

fsfreeze manual page from util-linux 2.39

This freeze is implemented by (among other things) indefinitely taking exclusive write access over the filesystem's superblock. The filesystem superblock contains much of the high level, mission-critical information for the filesystem, and taking exclusive write access over it is tantamount to denying any modification to the filesystem.

This is implemented in freeze_super(), which implements its freezing via an array of per-CPU read-write semaphores within the superblock structure:

static void sb_wait_write(struct super_block *sb, int level)
{
    percpu_down_write(sb->s_writers.rw_sem + level - 1);
}

int freeze_super(struct super_block *sb,
                 enum freeze_holder who)
{
    /* ... */

    sb_wait_write(sb, SB_FREEZE_WRITE);
    sb_wait_write(sb, SB_FREEZE_PAGEFAULT);
    sb_wait_write(sb, SB_FREEZE_FS);

    /* ... */
}
fs/super.c from Linux 6.7

Importantly, we need to acquire the writer side of one of these semaphores when modifying files or directories in order to safely queue changes to the superblock. For our needs, per-CPU read-write locks in the kernel have a useful property: when the lock takes the slow path (i.e. the lock is held in such a way that we cannot acquire it right now), it puts the process requesting it in TASK_UNINTERRUPTIBLE without TASK_KILLABLE. This means that our process will survive a SIGKILL while in D state, and the only way out is to unfreeze the filesystem.

For example, here is the kernel stack we get trapped in trying to acquire the writer-locked semaphore when trying to do a mkdir on a frozen filesystem:

% cat /proc/21135/stack
[<0>] percpu_rwsem_wait+0x116/0x140
[<0>] mnt_want_write+0x8f/0xc0
[<0>] filename_create+0x7c/0x1b0
[<0>] do_mkdirat+0x5f/0x180
[<0>] __x64_sys_mkdir+0x49/0x70
[<0>] do_syscall_64+0x61/0xe0
[<0>] entry_SYSCALL_64_after_hwframe+0x6e/0x76

No amount of killing will unblock this for now – the filesystem must be unfrozen to make forward progress. As you can see, it still exists even after a kill -9:

% kill -9 21135
% ps -o pid,state,cmd -p 21135
  PID S CMD
21135 D mkdir /tmp/tmp.dBgYmOjJOO/dir

To understand why this is, it helps to know that on Linux, signal delivery is not instantaneous and is instead handled by what's called a "signal queue". D state processes without TASK_KILLABLE receive pending signals when they transition out of D state, so this SIGKILL will still be properly delivered, but only when the filesystem that mkdir is acting upon is unfrozen. You can see these signals in SigPnd (signals pending) in /proc/pid/status:

% grep SigPnd: /proc/21135/status
SigPnd:	0000000000000100

It's important to understand that while in the D state, these processes are not "ignoring" the signals – rather, the kernel defers signal handling until the process is in a safe state to receive them. This is a mechanism to ensure system stability, especially during sensitive operations like DMA, where interrupting or prematurely terminating a process could lead to unsound behaviour.

This is also part of why I wrote the article "Signals in prod: dangers and pitfalls". Signals are fire and forget, and this means they are ironically not a very good way to signal processes in many cases, compared to other options that actually do communicate success, failure, or timeout.

Here's how we can reproduce this reliably as a script. This example is in bash, but of course, you can more or less write this in any language that suits your needs.

#!/bin/bash -e

src=$(mktemp)
dest=$(mktemp -d)

if (( EUID != 0 )); then
    echo 'You need to be root.' >&2
    exit 1
fi

# fsfreeze needs a supported filesystem. ext4 is
# one, but you can use others, see FILESYSTEM
# SUPPORT in `man 8 fsfreeze'.
fallocate -l 8M -- "$src"
mkfs.ext4 -q -- "$src"

mount -o loop -- "$src" "$dest"

fsfreeze -f -- "$dest"

unfreeze() {
    fsfreeze -u -- "$dest"
    umount -- "$dest"
    rm "$src"
}
trap unfreeze EXIT

mkdir "$dest"/dir &
d_pid=$!

i=0
while true; do
    read -r _ _ state _ < /proc/"$d_pid"/stat
    if [[ $state == D ]]; then
        break
    fi
    if (( ++i % 1000 == 0 )); then
        printf 'Waiting for %d to enter D state...\n' \
            "$d_pid" >&2
    fi
done

printf 'PID %d is now in D state. ' "$d_pid"
printf 'Press <Enter> to unfreeze and clean up.'
read

Run this script as root, and you should get a process which is now in D state, with the PID for that process in the output. Press Enter to tear down the filesystem and take the process out of D state.

% sudo ./dstate-fsfreeze
PID 33088 is now in D state. Press <Enter> to unfreeze and clean up.

While slightly less self-contained than the vfork() method, since it requires creating a filesystem and having elevated privileges, this method is the way you likely want to go if you need a non-TASK_KILLABLE D state.

Other approaches

There are a few other "controllable" (i.e. you can enter and exit D state on demand) ways to do this. Here are some of them I've seen people suggest over the years with some assessments:

  1. Dropping NFS traffic: It seems this is the tool that a lot of people reach for, maybe because it's so reliable at producing D states during normal operation ;-) The basic premise involves running an NFS client and server on a single host, and then using iptables or BPF to drop packets on demand. However, this requires quite a bit of setup, and it's not very reliable since what exactly will happen and for how long depends a lot on client and server configuration, and some amount of blind luck.
  2. Writing a kernel module: Of course, one can also just write a kernel module to do whatever one wants. This is easily the most complicated option to maintain long term, especially in a testing pipeline. It requires elevated privileges, and you have the extra bonus of potentially screwing up scheduling entirely depending on how you go about it.

All in all, the simplicity and flexibility of the vfork() and fsfreeze approaches make them ideal for most use cases. They don't require complex setup, are controllable and reliable, and can easily be modified to be suitable for different testing conditions.

Many thanks to Johannes, Matthew, Sam, Tejun, Yonghong, Javier, and my wife Lin for reviewing this post and providing suggestions.