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Aug 17, 2017 • 8 min read

File Descriptors During fork() and exec()

In the previous blog posts, we examined the relationship between files, file names, file descriptors, and open file descriptions. This time we look at what happens to file descriptors when we start a new program by calling fork() and exec().

Opening a File

As in previous examples, let’s open a file on the file system.

int fd0 = open("/home/joe_user/my_file.txt", O_RDWR|O_CREAT, S_IRUSR|S_IWUSR|S_IRGRP);

This creates a file descriptor, an open file description, and a file buffer. The following graph illustrates this, highlighting the per-process structures in light blue color. A previous blog post describes the open procedure in detail.

Data structures after opening `/home/joe_user/my_file.txt` once.

File Descriptors and Process Creation

Right now there’s only one Unix process in our example. New processes are created by a call to fork(). Invoking fork() duplicates the calling process, such that the new process is a copy of the caller.

What happens to the file descriptors during a fork? They are part of the process, so they are copied for the new process. So is the file-descriptor table.

Let’s call fork() in our example process.


We now have two processes and each has its own file descriptors and file-descriptor table.

Data structures after calling `fork()`.

The process-specific data structures of the original process are still displayed in a light blue color. The new process’ data structures are displayed in orange color. The file descriptor has been duplicated and refers to the new process’ file-descriptor table. The file descriptor table itself is part of the pre-process state and has also been copied by the call to fork().

An important detail of the design of Unix is that the open file description and the file buffer are are kernel data structures. Therefore they are not duplicate by fork(). Consequently, whenever one of the processes reads from or writes to it’s local file descriptor, the effects in the open file description and file buffer are seen by the other process.

On the other hand, operations that work solely on file descriptors, such as close() or dup() don’t effect the other process. So if either process closes its file descriptor, the other process doesn’t notice.

Executing a Different Program

After a call to fork(), both the original and the new process continue execution at the next instruction after fork(). To really execute a different program, a process invokes execl().

The execl() system call instructs the kernel to replace the user-space program of a process with the program stored in an executable file. A call to execl() takes the path of the executable file and a list of command-line arguments for the new program.

Let’s call execl() in the new process that we just created with fork().

execl("/bin/my_executable", NULL);

Our new process will now abandon the original program and execute the program stored in /bin/my_executable.

What does this mean for the process’ file descriptors and file-descriptor table? Nothing! They are still in place and working as before. Remember that the user-space file descriptor is really just an integer index into the file-descriptor table. If the new program reads and writes using the existing file-descriptor value, it reads and writes the file opened by the old program. So even after executing a new program, our diagram looks as before.

Data structures after calling `fork()`.

The good thing about this is that it’s a nice, generic way of communicating between programs. For example, when starting a new program from the Unix terminal, the terminal sets up the program’s default input and output file descriptors to refer to what the terminal itself uses; let’s say keyboard and text screen. If instead the terminal uses a serial port for input and output, a new program started from the terminal also uses the serial port. This way the new program inherits these settings from the terminal. And likewise, as a user we can direct a program’s default input and output file descriptors to anything that looks like a file, such as pipes, sockets or regular files.

Unfortuantely, there is also one major drawback of this whole design. It’s too easy to leak file descriptors into a newly executed program. That’s what happened here.

The only standardized file descriptors are those for default input and output, and the one for error reporting. They are the file descriptors 0, 1 and 2 respectively. The newly executed program does not know about any other file descriptors opened by the process’ old program.

This is bad for two reasons. First of all it unnecessarily consumes resources. The maximum number of file descriptors per process is limited; typically to 1024. A program can run out of available file descriptors quickly if it doesn’t close file descriptors after their final use.

An even more sever problem is that the old program can leak information into the new program that the new program is not supposed to see. A file descriptor might refer to a file with sensitive data that only the original program was supposed to access. After the call to execl() the new program would be able to read this data as well.

To prevent this, file descriptors have to be closed before the new program gets loaded by the kernel. Fortunately, there’s a simple way of ensuring this constraint: the O_CLOEXEC flag.

At the very beginning of this blog entry, we opened a file with the following code fragment.

int fd0 = open("/home/joe_user/my_file.txt", O_RDWR|O_CREAT, S_IRUSR|S_IWUSR|S_IRGRP);

By or-ing O_CLOEXEC into the flags argument, the returned file descriptor will be closed before the process, or any forked process, starts executing a new program.

int fd0 = open("/home/joe_user/my_file.txt", O_RDWR|O_CREAT|O_CLOEXEC, S_IRUSR|S_IWUSR|S_IRGRP);

How would our example look if we opened the file like this? During the fork the file descriptor and file-descriptor table are copied into the new process. The file descriptor carries the O_CLOEXEC flag in its entry in the file-descriptor table, but nothing else changed.

The big change comes when the new process executes execl(). Before loading the new program into the process, the kernel goes through the process’ file-descriptor table and closes all file descriptors that have the O_CLOEXEC flag set. Afterwards the resulting file data structures look like this.

Data structures after calling `execl()` with `O_CLOEXEC` set.

The O_CLOEXEC flag can also be set and cleared with a call to fstat() fcntl()1 after the file descriptor has been created. But setting it later creates the possibility of meanwhile calling execl() and leaking file descriptors.

In practice, the safest strategy is to always set O_CLOEXEC when a new file descriptor gets created; and explictly clear the flag right before the call to execl() for those file descriptors that are supposed to be handed over to the new program.


In this blog post, we examined the behavior of Unix file-I/O data structures during fork() and execl().

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  1. Edit: The text originally said that fstat() updates a file descriptor’s O_CLOEXEC flag. The correct function is fcntl(). The command parameter is named FD_CLOEXEC

Post by: Thomas Zimmermann

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