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Friday, May 28, 2010

What's the difference between fork() and vfork()?

Some systems have a system call vfork(), which was originally designed as a lower-overhead version of fork(). Since
fork() involved copying the entire address space of the process, and was therefore quite expensive, the vfork() function was
introduced (in 3.0BSD).
However, since vfork() was introduced, the implementation of fork() has improved drastically, most notably with the introduction of `copy-on-write', where the copying of the process address space is transparently faked by allowing both processes to refer to the same physical memory until either of them modify it. This largely removes the justification for vfork(); indeed, a large proportion of systems now lack the original functionality of vfork() completely. For compatibility, though, there may still be a vfork() call present, that simply calls fork() without attempting to emulate all of the vfork() semantics.

As a result, it is very unwise to actually make use of any of the differences between fork() and vfork(). Indeed, it is
probably unwise to use vfork() at all, unless you know exactly why you want to.
The basic difference between the two is that when a new process is created with vfork(), the parent process is temporarily
suspended, and the child process might borrow the parent's address space. This strange state of affairs continues until the child process either exits, or calls execve(), at which point the parent process continues.

This means that the child process of a vfork() must be careful to avoid unexpectedly modifying variables of the parent process. In particular, the child process must not return from the function containing the vfork() call, and it must not call
exit() (if it needs to exit, it should use _exit(); actually, this is also true for the child of a normal fork()).

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