Wrap cron jobs in a call to lockrun to ensure that only one instance runs at a time.
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lockrun - Run cron job with overrun protection

When doing network monitoring, it's common to run a cron job every five minutes (the standard interval) to roam around the network gathering data. Smaller installations may have no trouble running within this limit, but in larger networks or those where devices are often unreachable, running past the five-minute mark could happen frequently.

The effect of running over depends on the nature of the monitoring application: it could be of no consequence or it could be catastrophic. What's in common is that running two jobs at once (the old one which ran over, plus the new one) slows down the new one, increasing the risk that it will run long as well.

This is commonly a cascading failure which can take many polling sessions to right itself, which may include lost data in the interim.

Our response has been to create this tool, lockrun, which serves as a protective wrapper. Before launching the given command, it insures that another instance of the same command is not already running.

Build and Install

This tool is published in the form of portable C source code, and it can be compiled on any Linux/UNIX platform that provides a development environment.

To build and install it from the command line:

$ gcc lockrun.c -o lockrun
$ sudo cp lockrun /usr/local/bin/

Now we'll find lockrun in the usual place: /usr/local/bin/.

We'll note that though portable, this program is nevertheless designed only to run on UNIX or Linux systems: it certainly won't build and run properly on a Windows computer.

Furthermore, file locking has always been one of the more problemtic areas of portability, there being several mechanisms in place. lockrun uses the flock() system call, and this of course requires low-level OS support.

We've tested this in FreeBSD and Linux, but other operating systems might trip over compilation issues. We welcome portability reports (for good or bad).

We've also received a report that this works on Apple's OS X.

Example Usage

Once lockrun has been built and installed, it's time to put it to work. This is virtually always used in a crontab entry, and the command line should include the name of the lockfile to use as well as the command to run.

This entry in a crontab file runs the Cacti poller script every five minutes, protected by a lockfile:

*/5 * * * * /usr/local/bin/lockrun --lockfile=/tmp/cacti.lockrun -- /usr/local/bin/cron-cacti-poller

The file used, /tmp/cacti.lockrun, is created (if necessary), the lock acquired, and closed when finished. At no time does lockrun perform any file I/O: the file exists only to be the subject of locking requests.

Note that everything up to the standalone -- is considered an option to lockrun, but everything after is the literal command to run.

The example provided here is a run-or-nothing instance: if the lock cannot be acquired, the program exits with a failure message to the standard error stream, which hopefully is routed back to the user via an email notification:

ERROR: cannot launch [command line] - run is locked

This mechanism effectively skips a polling run, but this may be the only option when polling runs long periodically. If one polling run goes quite long, it's conceivable that multiple subsequent jobs could be stacked behind the slow one, and never getting caught up.

But if most jobs complete very rapidly, adding the --wait parameter might allow the system to catch up after a lone straggler runs long.

However one organizes this, one can't avoid being concerned with runs which are locked often. An inability to complete a polling run on time indicates a resource-allocation problem which is not actually fixed by skipping some data.

If this happens regularly, it's important to track down what's causing the overruns: lack of memory? inadequate CPU? serialized jobs which could benefit from parallelization or asynchronous processing?

There is no substitute for actual human observation of important systems, and though lockrun may forestall a monitoring meltdown, it doesn't replace paying attention. It is not an advanced command queuing system.

Locking Behavior

We've been asked why we do this in a C program and not a simple shell script: the answer is that we require bulletproof, no-maintenance protection, and that's very hard to do with shell scripting.

With touch-a-file locking, there's a chance that the lockfile can be left around after everything is done: what if the cron job has run long, and the administrator killed everything associated with the job? What about a system crash leaving the lockfile around? What if there's a fatal error in lockrun itself? All of these leave the lockfile around in the system for the next run to trip over.

One could make this mechanism smarter by including the PID of the locking process inside the file, and then using kill(*pid*,0) to see if that process exists, but PIDs are reused, and it's possible to have a false positive (i.e., when the previous lockrun has finished, but some other process has taken that PID slot). We've always disliked the nondeterminism of this mechanism.

So we required a mechanism which provided guaranteed, bulletproof cleanup at program exit, and no chance of false positives. Though one can find numerous mechanisms for this, use of file locks is the easiest to code and understand. Setting a lock automatically tests for the previous lock, and this means no race conditions to worry about. When the file is closed, locks evaporate.

Note that file locking under UNIX is typically advisory only: A lock placed by one process is only honored by other processes who chose to check the lock first. Any process with suitable permissions is free to read or write anything without regard to locks.

Advisory locking works on the honor system, but they're entirely appropriate for our use here.

Finally, we'll note that our locking mechanism is only designed to prevent two lock-protected processes from running at once; It is not a queuing system.

When using the --wait parameter, it's entirely possible to have many processes stacked up in line behind a prior long-running process. When the long-running process exists, it's impossible to predict which of the waiting processes will run next, and it's probably not going to be done in the order in which they were launched. Users with more sophisticated queuing requirements probably need to find a different mechanism.

Command-Line Options

lockrun supports GNU-style command-line options, and this includes using -- to mark their end:

$ lockrun [options] -- [command]

The actual command after -- can have any arguments it likes, and they are entirely uninterpreted by lockrun.

We'll note that command-line redirection (> /dev/null, etc.) is not supported by this or the command which follows -- it's handled by the calling shell. This is the case whether it's run from cron or not.

  • --idempotent

Allows silent successful exit when lock contention is encountered.

  • --lockfile=[filename]

Specify the name of a file which is used for locking. This filename is created if necessary (with mode 0666), and no I/O of any kind is done. This file is never removed.

  • --maxtime=[N]

The script being controlled ought to run for no more than N seconds, and if it's beyond that time, we should report it to the standard error stream (which probably gets routed to the user via cron's email).

  • --wait

When a pre-existing lock is found, this program normally exits with error, but adding the --wait parameter causes it to loop, waiting for the prior lock to be released.

  • --verbose

Show a bit more runtime debugging.

  • --

Mark the end of the options, the actual command to run follows.


  • 2013/08/02 - return execvp's value if running child process fails (Allard Hoeve)
  • 2010/10/04 - added idempotency to allow run lock contention to be treated as a no-op (Mike Cerna, Groupon)
  • 2009/06/25 — added lockf() support for Solaris 10 (thanks to Michal Bella)
  • 2009/03/09 — Tracked on GitHub by Peter Harkins.
  • 2006/06/03 — initial release by Stephen J. Friedl. http://unixwiz.net/archives/2006/06/new_tool_lockru.html


This software is public domain.