Signal handling in concurrent apps with Ruby and Polyphony


In the last few weeks I’ve been writing about different aspects of Polyphony, a library for writing fiber-based concurrent apps in Ruby. Polyphony makes it easy for developers to use stock Ruby core and stdlib classes and APIs in a highly-concurrent environment in order to create scalable, high-performance apps.

In order for provide a solid developer experience, Polyphony reimplements different parts of the Ruby runtime functionality, which are adjusted so developers will see a consistent and reliable behaviour. In this article I’ll discuss how Polyphony implements signal handling. For the sake of brevity, I’ll assume the reader is familiar with POSIX signals and has some knowledge of how signals are handled in Ruby.

What happens when a signal is trapped

In order to get a clear picture of how signal traps work, here’s the relevant passage from the Linux sigreturn manpage:

If the Linux kernel determines that an unblocked signal is pending for a process, then, at the next transition back to user mode in that process (e.g., upon return from a system call or when the process is rescheduled onto the CPU), it creates a new frame on the user-space stack where it saves various pieces of process context (processor status word, registers, signal mask, and signal stack settings).

The kernel also arranges that, during the transition back to user mode, the signal handler is called, and that, upon return from the handler, control passes to a piece of user-space code commonly called the “signal trampoline”. The signal trampoline code in turn calls sigreturn().

… Using the information that was earlier saved on the user-space stack sigreturn() restores the process’s signal mask, switches stacks, and restores the process’s context (processor flags and registers, including the stack pointer and instruction pointer), so that the process resumes execution at the point where it was interrupted by the signal.

From the point of view of the developer, when a signal occurs, it’s as if control of your program has been momentarily hijacked and a special bit of code-the signal handler block-is executed. Once the block has finished running, control is returned to your program, which continues running normally as if nothing happened, unless the signal handler has raised an exception. In that case, the exception will be raised by the Ruby runtime in the signal trampoline.

By default, Ruby traps the INT and TERM signals by raising Interrupt and SystemExit exceptions, respectively. Other signals cause a SignalException to be raised. Normally, such exceptions will cause the program to exit, unless they are rescued. The following block will gracefully handle pressing ctrl-C in the terminal:

  puts 'going to sleep...'
rescue => Interrupt
  puts 'got Interrupt, waking up.'

In addition there are some operations that are not allowed in Ruby signal handlers, namely acquiring mutexes (which is needed for doing buffered I/O) and joining threads. If you need to do that in your program, you’ll need to implement your own mechanisms for handling signals asynchronously, that is, outside of the signal handler block. Sidekiq, for example, implements a mechanism for handling signals asynchronously by writing to a pipe.

However, when your program switches constantly between multiple fibers, a signal may occur in the context of any fiber, and if a signal exception is raised, it might be raised in the context of any fiber. This might lead to a situation where the exception terminates some worker fiber, and this may prevent the graceful handling of the signal.

Making signals work with structured concurrency

Polyphony’s implementation of structured concurrency assures developers that any exception occuring in any fiber will bubble up the fiber hierarchy if it is not rescued locally. How can we make signal exceptions work in an multi-fiber environment, and furthermore how can we make any signal handler work when we don’t know in what fiber the signal will occur?

Polyphony’s answer to that is actually quite simple: it runs the signal handler block on a new raw fiber (“raw” meaning it’s not bound by Polyphony’s rules of structured concurrency.) This out-of-band fiber is priority-scheduled by putting it at the head of the runqueue, causing it to be run immediately once the currently running fiber has yielded control. Any uncaught exception raised in the signal handler will be propagated to the main fiber, which will also be priority-scheduled:

module FiberControlClassMethods
  def schedule_priority_oob_fiber(&block)
    # Setup raw fiber
    oob_fiber = do
    rescue Exception => e
      # Transfer uncaught exception to the main fiber by scheduling with the
      # exception as the resume value.
      Thread.current.schedule_and_wakeup(Thread.main.main_fiber, e)
    # Thread#schedule_and_wakeup schedules the fiber at the head of the runqueue.
    Thread.current.schedule_and_wakeup(oob_fiber, nil)

The Thread#schedule_and_wakeup method schedules the given fiber with priority:

VALUE Thread_fiber_schedule_and_wakeup(VALUE self, VALUE fiber, VALUE resume_obj) {
  if (fiber != Qnil) {
    Thread_schedule_fiber_with_priority(self, fiber, resume_obj);

  if (Backend_wakeup(rb_ivar_get(self, ID_ivar_backend)) == Qnil) {

  return self;

Backend_wakeup will return true if the Polyphony backend is currently polling for completions (or for events if using libev instead of io_uring). If that was the case, there’s no need to take any further action, the signal handling fiber will be switched to as soon as the polling is done (that is, right after the signal trap has returned). If not, we call Thread_switch_fiber which will immediately switch to the signal handling fiber.

In this manner, signal handling becomes asynchronous, but any received signal is handled as soon as possible, without interfering with the work of any fiber in your Ruby process. As a consequence, there’s no more limits on what you can do in the signal handler block provided to Kernel#trap.

Finally, in order to transparently handle the setting of signal traps, Polyphony monkey-patches Kernel#trap:

module Kernel
  # The actual code for this method is a bit more involved
  def trap(sig, &block)
    orig_trap(sig) do

Signal handling patterns

There are some useful patterns you can employ when dealing with signals. In general, Polyphony shies away from callbacks. Almost the entire Polyphony API is exclusively synchronous and blocking. But when installing a signal trap, you actually provide a callback that will be called asynchronously sometime in the future. With Polyphony, it’s easy to turn this into a blocking API.

def await_signal(sig)
  this_fiber = Fiber.current
  trap(sig) { this_fiber.schedule }

# We do work in a separate fiber
spin { do_some_work }

# On the main fiber we wait for a signal
puts 'Got INT, quitting.'

If the signal handling logic is something that can happen multiple times, we can use fiber messaging to serialize the receipt of signals:

worker = spin { do_some_work }
signal_watcher = spin_loop do
  sig = receive
  case sig
  when 'USR1'
  when 'TERM'
  when 'INT'

  .each { |sig| trap(sig) { signal_watcher << sig } }


In this article we have explored how POSIX signals can be handled in a safe and consistent manner in a fiber-based concurrent environment such as Polyphony. Other interesting aspects of the behaviour of multi-fiber Ruby programs, such as forking and exception handling, will be addressed in future articles. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions about this article or Polyphony in general.