The Open Group Base Specifications Issue 6
IEEE Std 1003.1, 2004 Edition
Copyright © 2001-2004 The IEEE and The Open Group, All Rights reserved.
A newer edition of this document exists here


fork - create a new process


#include <unistd.h>

pid_t fork(void);


The fork() function shall create a new process. The new process (child process) shall be an exact copy of the calling process (parent process) except as detailed below:

All other process characteristics defined by IEEE Std 1003.1-2001 shall be the same in the parent and child processes. The inheritance of process characteristics not defined by IEEE Std 1003.1-2001 is unspecified by IEEE Std 1003.1-2001.

After fork(), both the parent and the child processes shall be capable of executing independently before either one terminates.


Upon successful completion, fork() shall return 0 to the child process and shall return the process ID of the child process to the parent process. Both processes shall continue to execute from the fork() function. Otherwise, -1 shall be returned to the parent process, no child process shall be created, and errno shall be set to indicate the error.


The fork() function shall fail if:

The system lacked the necessary resources to create another process, or the system-imposed limit on the total number of processes under execution system-wide or by a single user {CHILD_MAX} would be exceeded.

The fork() function may fail if:

Insufficient storage space is available.

The following sections are informative.






Many historical implementations have timing windows where a signal sent to a process group (for example, an interactive SIGINT) just prior to or during execution of fork() is delivered to the parent following the fork() but not to the child because the fork() code clears the child's set of pending signals. This volume of IEEE Std 1003.1-2001 does not require, or even permit, this behavior. However, it is pragmatic to expect that problems of this nature may continue to exist in implementations that appear to conform to this volume of IEEE Std 1003.1-2001 and pass available verification suites. This behavior is only a consequence of the implementation failing to make the interval between signal generation and delivery totally invisible. From the application's perspective, a fork() call should appear atomic. A signal that is generated prior to the fork() should be delivered prior to the fork(). A signal sent to the process group after the fork() should be delivered to both parent and child. The implementation may actually initialize internal data structures corresponding to the child's set of pending signals to include signals sent to the process group during the fork(). Since the fork() call can be considered as atomic from the application's perspective, the set would be initialized as empty and such signals would have arrived after the fork(); see also <signal.h>.

One approach that has been suggested to address the problem of signal inheritance across fork() is to add an [EINTR] error, which would be returned when a signal is detected during the call. While this is preferable to losing signals, it was not considered an optimal solution. Although it is not recommended for this purpose, such an error would be an allowable extension for an implementation.

The [ENOMEM] error value is reserved for those implementations that detect and distinguish such a condition. This condition occurs when an implementation detects that there is not enough memory to create the process. This is intended to be returned when [EAGAIN] is inappropriate because there can never be enough memory (either primary or secondary storage) to perform the operation. Since fork() duplicates an existing process, this must be a condition where there is sufficient memory for one such process, but not for two. Many historical implementations actually return [ENOMEM] due to temporary lack of memory, a case that is not generally distinct from [EAGAIN] from the perspective of a conforming application.

Part of the reason for including the optional error [ENOMEM] is because the SVID specifies it and it should be reserved for the error condition specified there. The condition is not applicable on many implementations.

IEEE Std 1003.1-1988 neglected to require concurrent execution of the parent and child of fork(). A system that single-threads processes was clearly not intended and is considered an unacceptable "toy implementation" of this volume of IEEE Std 1003.1-2001. The only objection anticipated to the phrase "executing independently" is testability, but this assertion should be testable. Such tests require that both the parent and child can block on a detectable action of the other, such as a write to a pipe or a signal. An interactive exchange of such actions should be possible for the system to conform to the intent of this volume of IEEE Std 1003.1-2001.

The [EAGAIN] error exists to warn applications that such a condition might occur. Whether it occurs or not is not in any practical sense under the control of the application because the condition is usually a consequence of the user's use of the system, not of the application's code. Thus, no application can or should rely upon its occurrence under any circumstances, nor should the exact semantics of what concept of "user" is used be of concern to the application writer. Validation writers should be cognizant of this limitation.

There are two reasons why POSIX programmers call fork(). One reason is to create a new thread of control within the same program (which was originally only possible in POSIX by creating a new process); the other is to create a new process running a different program. In the latter case, the call to fork() is soon followed by a call to one of the exec functions.

The general problem with making fork() work in a multi-threaded world is what to do with all of the threads. There are two alternatives. One is to copy all of the threads into the new process. This causes the programmer or implementation to deal with threads that are suspended on system calls or that might be about to execute system calls that should not be executed in the new process. The other alternative is to copy only the thread that calls fork(). This creates the difficulty that the state of process-local resources is usually held in process memory. If a thread that is not calling fork() holds a resource, that resource is never released in the child process because the thread whose job it is to release the resource does not exist in the child process.

When a programmer is writing a multi-threaded program, the first described use of fork(), creating new threads in the same program, is provided by the pthread_create() function. The fork() function is thus used only to run new programs, and the effects of calling functions that require certain resources between the call to fork() and the call to an exec function are undefined.

The addition of the forkall() function to the standard was considered and rejected. The forkall() function lets all the threads in the parent be duplicated in the child. This essentially duplicates the state of the parent in the child. This allows threads in the child to continue processing and allows locks and the state to be preserved without explicit pthread_atfork() code. The calling process has to ensure that the threads processing state that is shared between the parent and child (that is, file descriptors or MAP_SHARED memory) behaves properly after forkall(). For example, if a thread is reading a file descriptor in the parent when forkall() is called, then two threads (one in the parent and one in the child) are reading the file descriptor after the forkall(). If this is not desired behavior, the parent process has to synchronize with such threads before calling forkall().

While the fork() function is async-signal-safe, there is no way for an implementation to determine whether the fork handlers established by pthread_atfork() are async-signal-safe. The fork handlers may attempt to execute portions of the implementation that are not async-signal-safe, such as those that are protected by mutexes, leading to a deadlock condition. It is therefore undefined for the fork handlers to execute functions that are not async-signal-safe when fork() is called from a signal handler.

When forkall() is called, threads, other than the calling thread, that are in functions that can return with an [EINTR] error may have those functions return [EINTR] if the implementation cannot ensure that the function behaves correctly in the parent and child. In particular, pthread_cond_wait() and pthread_cond_timedwait() need to return in order to ensure that the condition has not changed. These functions can be awakened by a spurious condition wakeup rather than returning [EINTR].




alarm(), exec(), fcntl(), posix_trace_attr_getinherited(), posix_trace_trid_eventid_open(), pthread_atfork(), semop(), signal(), times(), the Base Definitions volume of IEEE Std 1003.1-2001, <sys/types.h>, <unistd.h>


First released in Issue 1. Derived from Issue 1 of the SVID.

Issue 5

The DESCRIPTION is changed for alignment with the POSIX Realtime Extension and the POSIX Threads Extension.

Issue 6

The following new requirements on POSIX implementations derive from alignment with the Single UNIX Specification:

The following changes were made to align with the IEEE P1003.1a draft standard:

The description of CPU-time clock semantics is added for alignment with IEEE Std 1003.1d-1999.

The description of tracing semantics is added for alignment with IEEE Std 1003.1q-2000.

IEEE Std 1003.1-2001/Cor 1-2002, item XSH/TC1/D6/17 is applied, adding text to the DESCRIPTION and RATIONALE relating to fork handlers registered by the pthread_atfork() function and async-signal safety.

End of informative text.

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