Life after exec()

From the “not necessarily big news, but still useful” department.

The situation: for Very Good Reasons™1, you want to replace your current process by calling exec, but you still want to have the chance to do something after the process you exec()ed finishes.

This is a simple technique I just came up with: just before replacing the current process by calling exec(), you fork() a process in the background that will wait for the current process id to disappear from the process list, and then does whatever you want to do.

A simple proof-of-concept I wrote is composed of two bash programs: wrapper and real.

real is really simple: it just waits a few seconds and then prints its process id to the console:

sleep 5

wrapper is the program that handles the situation we want to exercise: it replaces itself with real, but still has the chance to do something after real finishes. In this case, wrapper notifies the user that real finished.


  while ps -p "$real_program_pid" >/dev/null; do
    sleep 0.1s
  notify-send 'real program finished'
) &
exec ./real

One nice property that wrapper explores is that when exec() starts real, it really replaces wrapper, and therefore has the same process id (in this case accessible by bash in the $BASHPID variable). Because of this, the background process that wrapper starts just before the exec() call already knows which process it has to watch for.

The actual code for waiting is not optimal, though. I cannot use waitpid() (the wait builtin in bash), since real is not a child process of wrapper. I went with a brute force approach here, and I am pretty sure there is a cheaper way to wait for a random PID without a busy loop (but that wasn’t the point here).

¹ update: I am aware of the classic fork()/exec() pattern. My Very Good Reasons™ include the fact that I can’t control the flow: I am writing a plugin for a program that calls its plugins in sequence, and after that, calls exec(), but my plugin is interested in doing some work after exec() finishes.