Runtime.exec : vfork() concerns and a fix proposal

Thomas Stüfe thomas.stuefe at
Tue Sep 11 17:51:56 UTC 2018

Hi all,

I wanted to gauge opinions on the following issue:

Runtime.exec, on Linux, uses vfork(2) by default. It gives us better
performance compared with fork() and robustness in constrained memory

But as we know vfork() can be dangerous if used incorrectly. In the
child process before exec'ing, we live in the memory of the parent
process. If we are not very careful we can influence or crash the
parent process.

According to POSIX pretty much the only thing the child process is
allowed to do after vfork(2) is to exec(3) immediately; if that fails,
you must call _exit(2).

However, in the openjdk we do a number of things beyond that:

- stdin,out,err pipe handling business
- closing all file descriptors
- we change the working directory
- we may actually modify errno manually
- in case exec fails, we communicate the error back to the parent using pipe.

This involves calling a number of libc functions beyond exec(), namely
read, close, dup2, opendir/readdir, write, chdir... It also needs a
bit of stack, since we assemble path names.


I was curious whether there were any real issues, so I tested (on
Ubuntu 16.4) and found:

1) A crash - any crash - in the child process before exec() will kill
the parent jvm dead. Weirdly enough, we do not even enter our error
handling, but seem to die instantly with the default "Segmentation

2) Signals received by the child process before exec() influence the
parent process. For example:
 - SIGINT set to the child ends both parent and child, immediately
 - SIGABRT aborts both child and parent
 - any error signal sent to the child lead to the behavior described at (1)

3) A stack overflow in the child before exec() also kills the parent.
Unsurprising, since guard page hit -> segfault -> see (1).

4) more amusing, setting errno in the child before exec() changes the
errno in the parent process. propagates to the parent process.
But since errno is thread local and the thread in the parent process
is waiting in vfork() and will, upon return, not look at errno (after
all, vfork succeeded) this causes no trouble.

There may be more issues, but these were the ones I tested.

In all cases I counter-tested with fork() instead of vfork() and as
expected  with fork() the parent process stays unaffected as it should


Whether you think these issues are worth solving is an open question.

All these cases may happen in the wild (well, apart from
crash-by-programming-error if one assumes the program to be really bug
free) albeit with a very small probability. But once these bugs occur,
they can be very difficult to analyse. So fixing this may be

At SAP, we opted for robustness, so we changed the Runtime.exec()
implementation to deal with vfork() issues. Basically, we employ the
exec-twice technique:

- in the child, after the vfork(), we immediately exec() into a little
bootstrap binary ("forkhelper").
- Now we are safe in the sense that we do not share memory with the
parent process anymore
- Then, parent process communicates with the child via pipes and gives
it all information needed to do the "real" exec: environ, current dir,
arguments... .
- Now the child exec's a second time, this time into the real target binary.

The point of this technique is that we minimize the window in the
child between vfork and the first exec. In fact, we are now fully
POSIX compliant. This solves the described pathological cases.

It has some other advantages too, e.g. allowing for better error
handling and tracing in the Runtime.exec() area. Performance-wise it
depends: we exec twice, so we pay twice. However, since the parent
continues execution after the first exec, it spends less time waiting
on the child process, which can make a difference if there are many
file descriptors open.


Checking opinions here. Do you think we are okay with our current
implementation or would a change as described above be welcome in the
OpenJDK too?

Thanks, and Best Regards, Thomas

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