Jan 16, 2023

Investigating Signal Handling in Node.js

#programming #node.js #unix

I spent an exorbitant amount of time trying to write some code where two processes comunicate with each other through unix signals in Node.js, and I seem to have hit a dead end. But I feel really good, because I've learned a thing or two.

I've written before about using unix signals to trigger recursion. Since then, I've been noodling with the idea of using this to trigger side effects in build tools. Specifically, using signals to notify a parent process that some milestone has been reached. For example, if my program starts a dev server in a subprocess, the dev server could send a signal to its parent when the server is ready and listening. The parent could then react to this signal by pointing another process at it (like a test script). In practical terms, the code would look like this:

// parent.mjs
import process from "process";
import { execa } from "execa";

function sideEffects() {
console.log("triggering downstream work of child")

process.on("SIGUSR1", () => sideEffects);

// IIFE that launches a child process
function launchChild() {
// could have used child process, I didn't want to
const { stdout, stderr } = execa("node", ["./child.mjs"]);


while(true) {
// keep alive
import process from "process";
import os from "os";

function main() {
consoe.log("do some work, then send the parent a signal");
process.kill(process.ppid, os.constants.signals.SIGUSR1);

// Every 1 second, do the work
setInterval(main, 1000)

The cool thing about this approach is that the parent doesn't need to know what "done" means for the childβ€”it can expect a standardized notification.

But as I worked on this code above, I realized an important issue. In order to make this useful, the parent process needed to know which child process was sending the signal. That's how it would know what to do when the child was "done" or "ready" or whatever.

And so the rabbit hole began.

First I looked in the Node.js documentation for process and os.constants.signals. I was looking for anything that might tell me how to access the process ID (i.e. the "pid") of the child process that was sending the signal. Sadly, I wasn't able to find anything.

Then, I helplessly searched the internet for "unix signals" on DuckDuckGo, becuase I didn't know what to look for. Then I got a little smarter, and searched for "unix signal send data", "unix signal get sender information", and "how to send data from child to parent process in linux". I tried appending "node.js" to these search queries, but that made search results worse.

Finally, I landed at this StackOverflow answer that answered the question "How can I tell in Linux which process sent my process a signal". Although I didn't really understand the answer, it pointed to the documentation for something called sigaction(2), which then took me to the docs for signal(7). It took me a few times, but after reading parts of these pages, I understood that sigaction is a system call that can register a function handler for signals. And if I register this function handle Just Right, I can get access to the PID of the process that sent the signal. Why this doesn't just always happen, I don't know!

Next, I needed to see if Node.js's process.on() implementation registers this callback Just Right. Since the documentation doesn't say1, I cloned nodejs/node to search. I searched blindly for filenames that included process and signal in the src/ directory, but didn't know how to recognize the implementation code for the Node.js API. It wasn't as straightforward as searching for process.on.

Then I remembered that Ethan had recently tweeted asking for advice about how to read through the Node.js codebase. I checked the replies and Colin recommended reading src/README.md, which, DUH...2. This README states:

The other major dependency of Node.js is libuv, providing the event loop and other operation system abstractions to Node.js.

So onto the libuv codebase3. I cloned that and found what I was looking for:

static int uv__signal_register_handler(int signum, int oneshot) {
/* When this function is called, the signal lock must be held. */
struct sigaction sa;

/* XXX use a separate signal stack? */
memset(&sa, 0, sizeof(sa));
if (sigfillset(&sa.sa_mask))
sa.sa_handler = uv__signal_handler;
sa.sa_flags = SA_RESTART;
if (oneshot)
sa.sa_flags |= SA_RESETHAND;

/* XXX save old action so we can restore it later on? */
if (sigaction(signum, &sa, NULL))
return UV__ERR(errno);

return 0;


The sigaction docs say that to get the sender PID,

  • sa_flags must include SA_SIGINFO
  • sa_sigaction rather than sa_handler must be set

As you can see in the code above, in the libuv implementation, neither of these things are true. Rather, sa_handler is set, and sa_flags only includes SA_RESTART.

So what next?

I searched the Node.js Issues for sigaction, and came across this Pull Request that attempts to add the SA_SIGINFO flag. It patches a totally different file than what I was looking at, but regardless, the PR was abandoned a couple years ago.

I stopped here, because I think I have a good understanding of what needs to happen, and I also feel confident that the child process isn't available for my prototype (I was thinking it may be available somewhere else other than the arguments for the signal handler I registered with process.on).

I've filed an issue in the Node.js Help repository to get an understanding of how I would "make it work" locally, if I needed to.

If you are reading this and know Node.js and/or Unix, please tell me if you have more information about any of this!


  1. I later looked briefly at Rust and Golang implementations, and found that a popular Rust library in Rust does document that it uses sigaction under the hood. So I felt validated that Node.js docs could have mentioned this also.
  2. To be fair, the src/ directory is quite large, and I didn't scroll down enough on Github to even realize there was a README file in there.
  3. Turns out all of libuv is embedded in the Node.js codebase in the deps/uv directory, so I could have found it there.

If you like this post, please share it on Twitter. You can also email me email me or subscribe to my RSS feed.