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Locking files for shared access

© March 2011 Anthony Lawrence

Multiple users having access to the same data usually requires some sort of mechanism to give exclusive access to all or part of the data for some period of time. Locking is an extensive subject, which would need far more space than we have here, but overall there are two basic concepts: advisory locking (enforced by cooperating processes) and mandatory locking (enforced by the kernel).

Don't panic: this doesn't have to be hard.

Advisory Locking

Advisory locking does involve the kernel: the lockf() and fcntl() system calls are really the same function ;early BSD had a more limited flock(). But the kernel only restricts processes that specifically use the lockf() or fcntl() calls: any other process can read or write at will.

It's trivial to demonstrate advisory locking with Perl:

while (1) {
open(LOCKF, ">yourlockfile");
print "I'm waiting for the other guy\n";
flock LOCKF,2;
print "All set!  Go ahead and type.\n";
flock LOCKF,8;
close LOCKF;

If you run that code, you'll see this on your screen:

I'm waiting for the other guy
All set!  Go ahead and type.

Don't type anything (well, don't press ENTER). Switch to another screen and run the script again. This time you'll only see the "I'm waiting for the other guy". It will sit there waiting until you go back to the first instance and press ENTER.

You can fire up even more instances of this - ONE and only one of them will acquire the lock each time you press ENTER at one of the others.

In real use, of course, you'd have two or more entirely different scripts, but they'd all share the locking code:

open(LOCKF, ">yourlockfile");
flock LOCKF,2;
# code in here
flock LOCKF,8;
close LOCKF;

Mandatory locking

Mandatory locking is interesting because it is enabled by a hack of setting a file's set-group-id on and turning group execute off:

[root@mail root]# chmod 2760 t
[root@mail root]# ls -l t
-rwxrwS---    1 root     root          550 Dec  5 09:12 

That odd "S" is the result of this otherwise senseless combination,

Mandatory locking can be surprising though: Stevens points out that it can be circumvented by unlinking and then opening a new version of the file.

See also:

Who locked that file?
Mac OS X Invisible and Locked Files
Race conditions
Controlling concurrent runs with Perl

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Inexpensive and informative Apple related e-books:

Take Control of Upgrading to El Capitan

Sierra: A Take Control Crash Course

Take Control of the Mac Command Line with Terminal, Second Edition

Take Control of Preview

Take Control of iCloud, Fifth Edition

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