Python Fork() Exit Status

Most computer programs return an exit code to the operating system’s shell. Shell scripting tools can use the exit status of a program to indicate if the program exited normally or abnormally. In either case, the shell script can react depending on the outcome of the child process.

Python programs can use os.fork() to create child processes. Since the child process is a new instance of the program, it can be useful in some cases to inspect if the child process exited normally or not. For example, a GUI program may spawn a child process and notify the user if the operation completed successfully or not.

This post shows an example program taken from Programming Python: Powerful Object-Oriented Programming that demonstrates how a parent process can inspect a child process’ exit code. I added comments to help explain the workings of the program.


import os

exitstat = 0

# Function that is executed after os.fork() that runs in a new process
def child():
    global exitstat
    exitstat += 1
    print('Hello from child', os.getpid(), exitstat)
    # End this process using os._exit() and pass a status code back to the shell

# This is the parent process code
def parent():
    while True:
        # Fork this program into a child process
        newpid = os.fork()
        # newpid is 0 if we are in the child process
        if newpid == 0:
            # Call child()
        # otherwise, we are still in the parent process
            # os.wait() returns the pid and status and status code
            # On unix systems, status code is stored in status and has to
            # be bit-shifted
            pid, status = os.wait()
            print('Parent got', pid, status, (status >> 8))
            if input() == 'q':

if __name__ == '__main__':


This program is pretty basic. We have two functions, parent() and child(). When the program starts on line 38, it calls parent() to enter the parent() function. The parent() function enters and infinite loop that forks this program on line 20. The result of os.fork() is stored in the newpid variable.

Our program is executing in the child process when newpid is zero. If that case, we call our child() function. The child() function prints a message to the console on line 10 and then exits by calling os._exit() on line 13. We pass the exitstat variable to os._exit() whose value becomes the exit code for this process.

The parent process continues in the meantime. On line 32, we use os.wait() to return the pid and status of the child process. The status variable also containes the exitstat value passed to os._exit() in the child process, but to get this code, we have to perform a bit shift operation by eight bits. The following line prints the pid, status, and the child process’ exit code to the console. When the user presses ‘q’, the parent process ends.


Lutz, Mark. Programming Python. Beijing, OReilly, 2013.


Python Console Streams

Programs on all major operating systems are connected to input and output streams (and usually an error stream). When run from the commandline without a redirect operator, a program is normally connnected to the shells standard input stream (where a user can type commands into the program) and the standard output stream (which prints output back on the console).

However, we aren’t limited to such streams. It’s perfectly possible to use the contents of a file as a program’s input stream or even use the output of one program and link it’s output to another program’s input stream. Such chaining of streams allows for powerful OS scripting.

This isn’t really a Python feature, but here is an example found in Programming Python: Powerful Object-Oriented Programming that demonstraes connecting the output of one OS stream to the input stream of a Python program. I added some comments that help explain the program.

def interact():
    print('Hello stream world')
    while True:
            # Input normally reads from the keyboard because our program
            # is connected to that input stream. However, if we execute this program
            # in a way that connects the program's input to some other stream,
            # the input command reads from there instead!
            reply = input('Enter a number => ')
        except EOFError:
            # We have reached the end of our input stream (for example user entered ctrl+c at the shell)
            # So we exit the looop
            num = int(reply)
            print("%d squared is %d" % (num, num ** 2))

if __name__ == '__main__':

When this program is run on it’s own, it will collect input from the keyboard until we press ctrl+c. That’s not the part that we are demonstrating here. Let’s suppose we have a text file that has the following contents.



Now when we run our program with a redirect operator, we get the following output.

Patricks-MacBook-Pro:Streams stonesoup$ python  1 squared is 1
Enter a number => 2 squared is 4
Enter a number => 3 squared is 9
Enter a number => 4 squared is 16
Enter a number => 5 squared is 25
Enter a number => 6 squared is 36
Enter a number => 7 squared is 49
Enter a number => 8 squared is 64
Enter a number => 9 squared is 81
Enter a number => 10 squared is 100
Enter a number => Bye

Notice the unix redirect operator. This program was run python < input.txt. That < input.txt connects the contents of input.txt to the script. Thus, when input is called, the function simply collects the next line in input.txt rather than waiting for the keyboard.