Supervisors and Init Systems: Part 6

This post is the sixth in my series about supervisors. I’ll spare you the recap since it’s getting silly at this point. This post is about readiness protocols.

Readiness Protocols

Before I dive in, a word about terminology. I personally am using the term “readiness protocol” to mean “how the supervisor knows the service is ready.” What it’s ready for or if the protocol is implicit or explicit does not really matter for the purposes of this discussion. Furthermore, the term “readiness protocol” is relatively new. The first use I could find about it was with respect to systemd in early 2014.

Also I will distinguish between blackbox protocols, which do not use the internals of the service, and whitebox protocols, which do. Look up blackbox testing and whitebox testing if you’re interested in where those terms come from.

One last note: all supervisors have the implicit assumption that a service that has been started is ready unless otherwise noted. With that said, I won’t mention this implicit pseudoprotocol again.


Of the supervisors I’ve mentioned in this series, runit was the first to have a readiness protocol worth discussing. Everything prior basically assumed that a service that had started was ready to go. I mentioned the check script that runit has. This is a “black box” readiness protocol, because the underlying service barely has to coördinate in this kind of protocol. As long as it supports being interrogated in any way (which may be as simple as serving a simple request, or query, or whatever) this is trivial to implement.

How does runit signify that the service is ready? It lets the check (or start) subcommand exit non-zero. This is very basic but sufficient for a lot of systems.

Here’s an example check script for runit:


curl -s > /dev/null

This obviously asumes that the service is running on port 3000. runit will run the above script over and over till it exits zero or passes the timeout, which is 7s by default but can be set with the -w flag to sv.

If you want to block arbitrarily long, you can just do the curl command in a loop in the check script itself.


Upstart has three explicit readiness protocols and one implicit. The explicit ones are what you’ll find from Googling on the internet basically: the underlying service can advertize that it has completed it’s startup and is ready to be used by

These explicit protocols are “whitebox” protocols, in that the service pretty much has to do these things itself; though you may be able to duct-tape together a bash script to do them, it will somewhat defeat the purpose of having the service doing whatever it needs to do, since you will have to either guess with a timer or check with a black box checker.

When you configure the service, you state which you will do, and if you get it wrong silly things happen.

The implicit version is that the post-start script completed.

The interesting thing here is that this option can be the good old check script. I mentioned it before when I wrote about Upstart. As with any check script, it’s a black box protocol.

Unlike runit the Upstart version will only run once and has no built in timeout mechanism. Upstart also has some special restart semantics (the idea being you’ll give up if the service crashes quickly over and over) that get confused (or confusing anyway) if you have a slow post-start script.


systemd has a handful of explicit readiness protocols. The are:

  • The underlying command forked once and then exited.
  • The underlying command exited (this can be leveraged for total grossness.)
  • The service appeared in the system bus.
  • The service explicitely said it was ready by sending READY=1 over the notification bus.

The first option is in Upstart. The second option, which I’m not really sure what the prescribed use for is, can be used to create init style services where the oneshot script starts the init and does a blocking healthcheck.

The last two are somewhat controversial. Both (as far as I know) are limited to Linux systems. Arguably only the last protocol is a true, explicit readiness protocol, because all of the other ones are just leveraging something a service may have always done. You can read some great criticisms of these protocols here. To take advantage of these last two your service needs to speak the dbus protocol, which some might balk at using exclusively for this purpose. Which brings us to


s6 has a single explicit readiness protocol. When you define your service you make a file called notification-fd and place a positive integer (like, 7) in the file. Then in your service you do something like the following:

open my $ready, '>>&=', 7
  or die "couldn't fdopen 7: $!";
print $ready "\n";
close $ready;

If you can’t tell due to the noise: that’s two system calls: write(2) and close(2). It’s so much simpler than using a complicated system bus.

On top of that, as mentioned before s6 has an addon that will make this simple protocol work with the notification bus protocol. One of the only efforts at interoperability in this whole mess.

Big Picture Alternatives

I strongly believe that building your systems well in the small can help when your systems get large. The problem is, there are situations where you cross a boundary and the small cannot be used for the large. In this case it’s when your services are on more than a single machine. It’s all well and good to have an init system that helps start services only when their dependencies are ready, both for efficiency and reliabilitiy. But once your services are on multiple machines a lot of these intricate little details go out of the window. There are two solutions (that I know of) that work better in a bigger environment.

First: make your clients patient and polite. This means exponential backoff. If a service tries to connect to a server and it fails, do not immediately crash and try again when your supervisor restarts you. On many services this wastes huge amounts of resources restarting the client service. Similarly, don’t simply sleep for two seconds and try again. If you ever end up with many thousands of clients and go down, you will be in for a bad time.

A good example of an exponential backoff implementation is DBIx::Connector by Tim Bunce. I’ve used this in situations where sometimes the underlying database is unavailable for connections. The service retries, slower and slower, and after retrying slower and slower for a few hours, it just gives up. Then the supervisor restarts it and it tries all over again, on the assumption that possibly something got messed up inside the service itself.

Second: use some form of service discovery. Connecting to a known server and port will work for a long time, but eventually it won’t scale because you have to keep the servers you maintain in sync with the code that needs to connect to them. I briefly mentioned service discovery before, but it really needs a post of its own. All that to say service discovery could be leveraged to subscribe to some form of readiness, instead of attempting to wire together all of these little pieces in the large.

As with many of the supervisor posts, this one was supposed to be a small section in a single post and grew to be a post of its own. My next post will be some ideas that I think should be implemented. Stay tuned.

This topic is very unix heavy, so if you are totally lost or would like an in depth refresher, Advanced Programming in the UNIX Environment, by Stevens is a good option.

Similarly, some of the tools above (and many more in later posts) discuss tools that while written for assistance in supervision are useful in isolation. I think that The Unix Programming Environment does a great job diving into tools that are general enough to stand on their own.

Finally, given that I mentioned service discovery and exponential backoff, The SRE Book seems like it might be applicable to this topic.

Posted Mon, Jul 31, 2017