Jobserver Implementation

June 16th, 2003    (updated September 26th, 2015)

This paper describes the GNU make “jobserver” implementation: it is meant mainly for people who want to understand the GNU make jobserver, but also for those interesting in a traditionally hairy problem in UNIX programming: how to wait for two different types of events (signals and file descriptors) at the same time.

Job-whatsis now?

GNU make, as I assume you know if you’re reading this, is the GNU implementation of the venerable make program which controls and directs the rebuilding of programs from source in the most efficient way possible. GNU make has a capability not found in too many other implementations of make: it can invoke multiple commands, or “jobs”, in parallel. When GNU make can determine that two commands are completely independent of each other (and when the user has requested it), GNU make will invoke them both at the same time. There are basically three types of parallelism available in GNU make: none (each job is executed serially so that the previous job must complete before the next begins), infinite (GNU make invokes as many jobs as are possible, given the prerequisite information in the makefile), and “at most N”, where GNU make will invoke between 1 and N jobs, but never more than N.

It’s this last type of parallelism that is the most common, for users who use parallelism at all, and it is that type at which the jobserver feature is directed.

What’s the point?

Before we can understand what jobserver is, we need to understand the problem it’s designed to solve. If you consider a simple program with one directory, one makefile, and one instance of make to process it, then it’s easy to see that the GNU make program can always know how many jobs it has outstanding at any given time, and so it can always ensure that as many jobs as possible are running at the same time, without exceeding the limit of N jobs. However, very few programs these days are simple enough to fit into a single directory. Most have a number of subdirectories as well. And most make environments, despite compelling arguments against it, use a traditional recursive build style where a makefile in the toplevel directory invokes a new make in each subdirectory, and those subdirectory makefiles may themselves invoke more sub-makes again in their subdirectories.

In this recursive environment, we can see that no one instance of GNU make has enough information, enough “global vision”, to be able to know how many jobs are being run at any given moment across all the other instances of make. So, GNU make implemented parallelism in a sub-optimal way when recursion was involved: the top-level GNU make would implement parallelism as best as it could, but all the sub-make programs would run all their jobs serially. This ensured that no more than N jobs were running, but it also led to a great deal ofinefficiency where very often fewer (often much fewer) than N jobs were running.

Even though this is a sub-optimal solution, a better solution was not immediately obvious. Coordinating a number of instances of GNU make so that only N jobs were invoked across all the different processes is a tricky problem. Any number of solutions for communicating between these make processes could be envisioned, and all with problems such as complexity, non-portability, etc.

And so it stayed, up until GNU make version 3.78 was released in September 1999, when the jobserver feature was added to GNU make.

It all started …

In February of 1999, Howard Chu <> sent me a patch with the basic idea of the jobserver. Rather than using complex schemes such as a central server, shared memory, sockets, etc. for synchronizing the various instances of make, he suggested we use the simplest, most basic UNIX construct: a pipe. Not only is this easy, but it’s also a relatively portable concept. Most operating systems these days implement some sort of pipe feature, because that paradigm is so useful.

The idea is ingeniously simple: the initial, top-level make creates a pipe and writes N one-byte tokens into the pipe. That pipe is shared between that make and all submakes, and any time any make wants to run a job it first has to read a token from the pipe. Once the job is complete, it writes the token back to the pipe. Since there are only N tokens, you know that you will never invoke more than N jobs.

I spent some time going back and forth with Howard on implementation details, and also convincing myself that reads and writes of one-byte tokens to a pipe were atomic and robust. Then in July 1999 we started hashing out the algorithm in earnest. After some weeks, I enlisted the aid of Paul Eggert <> and Tim Magill <>, to make sure we had a wider set of experience. Paul in particular brings an extremely wide range of knowledge on the idiosyncrasies of various operating systems. Finally, towards the end of July we involved Roland McGrath <>, for his expertise in UNIX, POSIX, libc implementation, and also to make sure we considered the Hurd in any solution we came up with.

The five of us (Howard, Paul, Tim, Roland, and myself) spent a significant portion of July and especially August of 1999 sending email back and forth, dreaming up, testing, and discarding various implementations until finally the “right” implementation was obtained… although there are still issues as you’ll see below.

Jobserver Requirements

As the development went on I evolved a list of features that I deemed critical to the success of the implementation:

  1. The method must be conceptually simple—although some of the
    details might be complex.

  2. The method must be absolutely reliable: it cannot lose tokens
    (leading to deadlock) or otherwise misbehave. An unreliable make is
    no better than no make.

  3. The method should be as portable as possible; although I did
    not require it to work on every operating system that GNU make
    supported, I certainly did want it to work at least on every
    moderately modern UNIX/POSIX-like OS.

The Final Result

In brief, here is how the GNU make jobserver implementation works today. Below I will discuss some of the more hairy details, as well as describe some of the alternatives we considered and dismissed.

  1. The user invokes make with the -j N option, specifying parallel builds with at most N concurrent jobs.
  2. GNU make creates a pipe, and writes N-1 tokens into the pipe.
    • A token is just a one-byte character.
    • All tokens are identical.
    • We write only N-1 tokens because one is considered used up by this top-level instance of make.
  3. The top-level GNU make constructs a special form of the -j option, which specifies the read and write file descriptors (FDs) for the jobserver pipe, and installs it to be passed to any sub-makes so they can also access the jobserver pipe.
  4. Now make processing proceeds normally, to read in makefiles and determine what targets need to be rebuilt.
  5. When GNU make determines that a target needs to be rebuilt, a token is obtained. One of these cases will hold if we are in a non-infinite parallel build:
    • This instance of make has no jobs running. In this case, the job is started without needing a token. Each instance of make has a token that it was started with: that token is a “free” token which can always be used by that make and only that make. So, every recursive invocation of make can always run at least one job at all times.
    • This instance of make has one or more jobs running. In this case, GNU make does a blocking read of one byte on the jobserver pipe. When it returns, usually it means we have a new token we can use for this job.
  6. When a job is finished, one of these cases will hold:
    • This instance of make still has one or more jobs running. In this case, a one-byte token is written back to the jobserver pipe.
    • This was the last job currently being executed by this make. In this case we don’t write a token; this represents the personal token owned by the make process.
  7. If the job to be run is not a sub-make (determined the same way GNU make has always done so: by the absence of both the MAKE variable in the command script and the special prefix + before a line in the command script), then GNU make will close the jobserver pipe file descriptors before invoking the commands. This ensures that no other commands will interrupt the jobserver processing, and it also ensures that (poorly written, but…) commands that expect certain file descriptors to be available will not be disappointed.

    If the makefile is not well-formed and GNU make’s heuristic for detecting sub-makes is not successful, then the sub-make will find the special form of the -j option. When it tries to access the jobserver file descriptors, it will fail since the parent has closed them before invoking the sub-make. In that case, GNU make generates an informative message and proceeds in a serial fashion (as if it had been invoked without -j).

Then it gets ugly …

The above algorithm seems simple, but it dances around a very tricky problem. In a normal, serial invocation GNU make will invoke a command script, then wait for it to complete before proceeding with the next command. In a parallel invocation, we usually need to wait on one of two different events: either a job we already invoked completes, or a new token is made available on the jobserver pipe.

The former event is heralded (in an asynchronous fashion, which we require in this situation) by subscribing for, and receiving, a SIGCHLD signal. The latter event, obviously, means that data is ready to be read on a file descriptor. Unfortunately, in UNIX it is quite difficult to write a program which can both wait for a signal and wait for data on a file descriptor simultaneously. Solving this problem in as portable and reliable a manner as possible is what took us all that time: the rest of the algorithm was quite simple to write.

Here I describe how GNU make manages this, and below I discuss some other options we considered, and discarded. Most of these are quite respectable solutions: I decided they were not ideal for the purposes of GNU make, which are quite specific, but they may well be the best for other situations. The precise implementation details may be slightly different in the current version of GNU make, but this is the general outline of the solution:

  1. We install a signal handler for SIGCHLD. This signal handler will close the duplicate file descriptor created in the first step.
  2. We set the SA_RESTART flag on this signal handler. This ensures that any system calls that are in progress when the signal handler is invoked will be automatically restarted by the kernel. Without this, we would have to check every system call in GNU make to see if it returned EINTR, and restart it by hand. Given the number of system calls, and user library functions that invoke system calls, in GNU make, this is an almost impossible task. SA_RESTART saves us from that work. Or so we thought…
  3. GNU make continues on until it decides it needs to run a job. If it is not currently running any jobs, then it simply invokes the job (this is the single “free” token alloted to every make).
  4. If GNU make is already running one or more jobs and wants to invoke another, then we need to get a token from the jobserver pipe. This needs to be done very carefully to ensure that it’s reliable.
    1. We use dup to create a duplicate of the read side of the jobserver pipe. Note that we might already have a duplicate file descriptor from a previous run: if so we don’t re-dup it.
    2. We reap all child processes which have died but not been reaped. For each job completed, if we still have at least one outstanding job we write a token to the jobserver pipe to represent the completed job. If it is the only job we had invoked it represents our “free” token, so we don’t write a token to the pipe for that.
    3. If we now have no jobs running, we can use the “free” token so we’re done.
    4. We still need to get a token from the jobserver pipe. First we disable SA_RESTART on the SIGCHLD signal. This will allow the blocking read to be interrupted if a child process dies.
    5. Then, we perform a blocking read of one byte on the duplicate jobserver file descriptor. This read could return in exactly one of these ways:
      Returns 0:

      This means someone closed the write end of the pipe. This actually cannot happen, because we never close the write end of the pipe. So we don’t worry about this.

      Returns 1:

      This means we actually got a token, so we now have a license to start a job and we’re done.

      Returns -1, and errno == EINTR:

      This means we got a SIGCHLD, so one of our currently running jobs completed. So, we go back to step 3.

      Returns -1, and errno == EBADF:

      This is the tricky one. This means that the file descriptor was closed, by the SIGCHLD signal handler so again a child has died and again to handle this we go back to step 3.

Obviously, the tricky bits here are the dup of the read file descriptor and the signal handler. It’s critical to this algorithm that we can never enter into the blocking read in step 4e with any children that have died but not been reaped. If that can happen, then we could enter a deadlock situation: because that child is outstanding, the token that would have been freed by that child is never released. Because the token is never released and written to the pipe, the read might not return. If no other children die to interrupt the read with a SIGCHLD, and no other instances of make exist or they enter into the same situation and don’t write tokens back to the pipe, then deadlock occurs. Because of certain features of the algorithm, like the “free” token, etc. this would actually have to happen in at least two instances of make, but it’s possible.

In the above algorithm there is a race condition: no matter how soon after the loop to reap children in step 4b we perform the read in step 4e, there is a gap between the instant we check for exited child processes and the instant we start the read. If a child dies in that gap, it will not be noticed.

The tricky bits serve to fill that gap: if a child dies the SIGCHLD handler will close the file descriptor. In that case, when we get to the read in step 4e, it will immediately return with a EBADF. This tells make that a child died after we last checked (really, after we ran the dup) and before the read started, eliminating the race condition.


This is all very well, but problems began to arise. After some debugging it turns out that not all operating systems that supposedly support SA_RESTART actually do support it properly. Operating systems as common as Solaris do not properly restart common system calls like stat upon receiving signals, even if the SA_RESTART flag is properly set. This is extremely unfortunate, as the POSIX standard is fairly clear on this point: if a system call can return with EINTR, then it must implement the SA_RESTART semantics properly. Solaris, and a number of other operating systems, fail to do so. GNU/Linux, I’m happy to say, as far as I can tell does properly implement SA_RESTART.

Because of this I was forced to add special code back into GNU make to handle situations where system calls might return with EINTR, even in areas where I know that SA_RESTART will always be set. This is highly unfortunate and, due to the difficulty I’m sure there are places which are not properly protected. In the latest versions of GNU make I’ve done all the obvious and common cases, but it must be admitted that until the vendors properly implement the POSIX spec, there is an outside chance that using GNU make’s jobserver feature will lead to unexpected behavior on those operating systems.

Other Options

As I’ve mentioned, the above algorithm grew out of a long conversation, with many twists and turns. It looks significantly different in the details from the original algorithm proposed by Howard. Along the way we examined and discarded a number of alternatives.


Obviously one idea is to use threads. It’s common to have a separate thread for dealing with signals and combining threads with semaphores, etc. would allow GNU make to wait on two different types of asynchronous events simultaneously. This was rejected because so far GNU make was single-threaded, and requiring multi-threading was deemed too much of a price to pay.

Internal Pipe with select

Another common way to handle this problem, without threading, is to create another, internal pipe. Each instance of GNU make will create its own extra internal pipe, and will not share it with other processes. In this algorithm the SIGCHLD signal handler will write a byte to the internal pipe when it is invoked. Now, two different types of asynchronous event (signals and file descriptor reads) are reduced to one: file descriptor reads–but on different file descriptors (one for the jobserver and one for the internal pipe). Waiting on multiple file descriptors is quite easy with select. This was rejected mainly because select is surprisingly difficult to use in portable code: it has different prototypes, etc. It is also reduced portability. Also, the internal pipe needed to be protected by making sure it was marked for close on exec, and other similar complications. Also, of course, this doesn’t solve the issues involved with SA_RESTART since we still need a SIGCHLD signal handler. I considered the algorithm we did choose to be simpler, more portable, and just as reliable as this one.

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