Lock Files

Locking a Shared File

A file that can be updated by multiple processes must be locked to

ensure that only a single process can update it at any given time. Lock

files are a simple locking technique that associates a data file with

another file serving as a lock. When the lock file exists, its

associated data file is considered locked and other processes are not

allowed to access it. If the lock file doesn't exist, a process that

wishes to update the data file first creates a lock file and then

updates the data file. When the file updating is completed, that

process deletes the lock file.


Suppose we want to modify the configuration file config.cfg, which

several users may access. Before accessing it, we try to create a lock

as follows:

int fd=open("config.lck", O_WRONLY | O_CREAT | O_EXCL, 0644)

Writing the current pid into the lock file is customary so that other

processes can tell who's holding the lock. The O_CREAT flag indicates

that, if the file doesn't exist, then open() will create it. The O_EXCL

flag ensures that the open() call is atomic. If the file already

exists, open() will fail and set errno to EEXIST. This way you

guarantee that only a single process at a time can hold the lock. The

return status of the open() call is checked as follows:

if (fd<0 && errno==EEXIST)


printf("the file is currently locked; try again later");

return -1;


else if (fd < 0)


printf("an unknown error has occurred");

return -1;


/* if we got here, we own the lock*/

write(fd, getpid(), sizeof(pid_t));

return 0;

Once a process owns the lock, it can update the data file safely. Upon

completion, the said process deletes the lock as follows:


At this moment, the data file is considered unlocked and another

process may access it.

Limitations of Lock Files

This technique isn't bulletproof; if a process doesn't check the lock

before trying to open the data file, multiple processes might update

the file simultaneously. Another problem might occur if a process that

is currently holding the lock is aborted before releasing it. In this

case, the data file remains locked. If the pid stored in the lock file

belongs to a process that is no longer active, you can assume that the

file isn't really locked. However, if another process has received the

same pid in the meantime, the data file will remain locked.

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