How Does Python Handle Signals (on Windows)?

(Background: I’ve recently and less recently worked through a couple of issues with Python’s Ctrl-C handling under Windows. These required me to dig into the corners of Python’s signal-handling mechanism as interpreted on Windows. This post is something of an aide memoire for myself for the next time I have to dig.).

Signals are a Posix mechanism whereby User-space code can be called by Kernel-space code as a result of some event (which might itself have been initiated by other User-space code). At least, that’s the understanding of this ignorant Windows-based developer.

For practical purposes, it means you can set up your code to be called asynchronously by installing a signal handler for a particular signal. Lots more information, of course, over at Wikipedia. Windows (which is not short of native IPC mechanisms, asynchronous and otherwise) offers an emulation of the Posix signals via the C runtime library, and this is what Python mostly uses.

However, as you’ll see from the Python docs Python doesn’t allow arbitrary code to be called directly by the OS. Instead, it keeps track of what handlers you’ve set up via the signal module and then calls them when it’s got a moment. The “when it’s got a moment” means, essentially, that Modules/signalmodule.c:PyErr_CheckSignals is called all over the place, but especially is called via the eval-loop’s pending calls mechanism.

So what does this mean in term’s of Python’s codebase?

* The heart of the signal handling mechanism is in Modules/signalmodule.c

* The signal module keeps track in a Handlers structure of the Python handlers registered via the signal.signal function. When the mechanism fires up, it pulls the appropriate function out of that structure and calls it.

* Python registers Modules/signalmodule.c:signal_handler with the OS as a global signal handler which, when fired by the OS, calls Modules/signalmodule.c:trip_signal which indicates that the corresponding Python signal handler should be called at the next available point.

* The signal can be delivered by the OS (to the internal signal_handler function) at any point but the registered Python handler will only be run when PyErr_CheckSignals is run. This means that, at the very least, the Python signal handlers will not be run while a system call is blocking. It may be that whatever caused the signal will have caused the kernel to abort the blocking call, at which point Python takes over again and can check the signals. (This is what happens at points in the IO read/write loops). But if some uninterruptible device read hangs then Python will not regain control and no signal handler will execute.

* The main eval loop will check for raised signals via its pending calls mechanism, a C-level stack from which a function call can be popped every so often around the loop. The trip_signal function (called by the global signal_handler) adds to the queue of pending functions a wrapped call to PyErr_CheckSignals. This should result in the signals being checked a few moments later during the eval loop.

OK; so much for the whistlestop tour. How about Windows?

Well, for the most part, Windows operates just the same way courtesy of the C runtime library. But the signals which are raised and trapped are limited. And they probably resolve to the more Windows-y Ctrl-C and Ctrl-Break. I’m not going to touch on Ctrl-Break here, but the default Ctrl-C handling in Python is a bit of a mixed bag. We currently have a mixture of three things interacting with each other: the signal handling described above (where the default SIGINT handler raises PyErr_KeyboardInterrupt); the internal wrapper around the C runtime’s implementation of fgets which returns specific error codes if the line-read was interrupted; and some recently-added Windows event-handling which makes it easier to interrupt sleeps and other kernel objects from within Python).

That really was quick and I’ve brushed over a whole load of details; as I say, it’s more to remind me the next time I look at a related issue. But, hopefully it’ll give other interested people a headstart if they want to see how Python does things.(Background: I’ve recently and less recently worked through a couple of issues with Python’s Ctrl-C handling under Windows. These required me to dig into the corners of Python’s signal-handling mechanism as interpreted on Windows. This post is something of an aide memoire for myself for the next time I have to dig.).

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