Linux process management
Server Administration

Linux process management simplified

In server administration, it is very important to understand how the running processes work in detail, from high load to slow response time processes. When your server becomes so slow or fails to respond sometimes, you should understand the process management or Linux process management in specific.

When it is the time to kill a process or renice it and how to monitor the currently running processes and how these processes affect the system load. Let’s see how Linux process management will help us tuning the system.


Process types

Before we start talking about Linux process management, we should review process types. There are four common types of processes you will see:

  • Parent process
  • Child process
  • Orphan Process
  • Daemon Process
  • Zombie Process

Parent process: is a process which executes the fork() system call. The process that invoked fork is the parent process. Every process except process 0 has one parent process

Child process:  is a process created by another process (the parent process)

Orphan Process: is a process whose parent process has finished or terminated, though it remains running itself.

Daemon Process: daemon is usually created by a process forking a child process and then exit. The parent process of a daemon is often, but not always is the init process.

Zombie Process: is a process that has completed execution but still has an entry in the process table. This entry is still needed to allow the parent process to read its child’s exit status.

The difference between Orphan process and zombie Process is that the orphan process is a process that still executing, but whose parent process has died. Orphan processes do not become zombie processes; instead, they are adopted by init.

Tuning performance with memory management

If you are maintaining your server or troubleshooting a particular service or an application, you will always need to remember that memory is a critical resource that you should care about.

The first command we will use in Linux process management is the free command:

$ free m

The -m option is used to show the values in megabytes.

linux process managment free command

Our main concern in buff/cache.

The importance of this part is based on the fact that it accounts for the associated buffers and caches to illustrate what memory is currently used and other reserved.

The first value indicates how much memory is being used; the second value tells us how much memory is available to our applications.

That means 536 megabytes is used while 1221 megabytes is available.

The second line is about the swap. Swapping typically occurs when memory usage is impacting performance.

As we can see from the previous example, the first value tells us that there is a total amount of system swap set at 3070 megabytes, with the second value indicating how much swap is being used which is 0, while the third value shows the amount of swap that is still available to the system which is 3070 megabytes.

We can say from the above values that this is a healthy system and no swap used, so while we are talking about the swap, let’s discover what proc directory provides us about the swap.

$ cat /proc/swaps

linux process managment swaps

This shows the total and used swap size:

$ cat /proc/sys/vm/swappiness

linux process managment swappiness

This command shows a value from 0 to 100, if your system has a value of 30 like ours, it will begin to use swap memory at 70 percent occupation of RAM.

Notice: the default value of all Linux systems for this value is between 30 and 60, you can modify it like this:

$ echo 50 > /proc/sys/vm/swappiness

Or using sysctl command like this:

$ sudo sysctl -w vm.swappiness=50

Changing the swappiness value using the above commands is not permanent, you have to write it on /etc/sysctl.conf file like this:

$ nano /etc/sysctl.conf


linux process managment persist swappiness


The level of swappiness controls the tendency of the kernel to move a process out of the physical RAM on to a swap disk.

Choosing the best swappiness value for your system requires some experimentation so you can choose the best value for your server.

Managing virtual memory with vmstat

Another important command used in Linux process management which is vmstat. vmstat command is used often in Linux process management, it gives a summary reporting associated with memory, processes, and paging.

$ vmstat -a

-a option is used to get all active and inactive processes.

linux process managment vmstat command

And this is a list of the important column outputs from this command:

si:                            This column shows the value swapped in from disk

so:                          This column shows the value swapped out to disk

bi:                           This column shows the value sent to block devices

bo:                         This column shows the value received from block devices

us:                          This column shows the user time

sy:                          This column shows the system time

id:                           This column shows the idle time

Our main concern about si and co columns, where si column shows page-ins while so column provides page-outs.

A better way to look at this is by viewing the output with a delay option like this:

$ vmstat 2 5

linux process managment vmstat delay

Where 2 is the delay in seconds and 5 is the number of times vmstat is called. It shows five updates of the command and all data is presented in kilobytes.

Page-in (si) is generally expected when you have started an application and the information is “paged-in”. Page out (so) also happen, and this is particularly so during periods when the kernel is freeing up memory.

Checking the system load with the top command

In Linux process management the top command gives a lot of information related to tasks associated with the kernel; the display is a real-time data and the highest load factors are expressed as a percentage of CPU or memory. However, it is important to realize that the top command may take these values above the expected percentile range. This is because all individual cores are expressed as a percentage and multiple instances of these cores are totaled.

For example, a dual core system may have the first core at 40 percent and the second core at 70 percent, in this case, the top command may show a combined result of 110 percent, but you will not know the individual values for each core.

$ top -c

linux process managment top command

We use –c option to show the command line or the executable path behind that process.

Top command refreshes the data automatically; however, try to observe it for a few minutes before making any decisions.

You can press 1 key while you watch the top command statistics to show individual CPU statuses.

linux process management individual cpu status

Keep in mind that certain processes are spawned. Known as child-processes they will have a tendency to be displayed individually like httpd and PHP-fpm.

A series of child processes can be seen using a significant amount of RAM.

The results provided by top should not be the only evidence you will want to review before making a final action.

Monitoring disk I/O with iotop

The system can begin to slow down as a result of heavy disk I/O activities, so it is important to monitor disk I/O activities. That means figuring out which processes or users cause this disk activity.

The iotop command in Linux process management helps us to monitor disk I/O in real-time. You can install it if you don’t have it.

$ yum install iotop

Running iotop without any options will result in a list of all existing processes regardless of their disk I/O activities, so if you want iotop to only list processes that cause to disk I/O activity, you should use -o option:

$ iotop -o

linux process managment iotop command

The iotop command displays a list of all processes and threads and a measurement of disk activity (total disk read and actual disk read) so you can quickly identify what is impacting any current I/O activity across the system.

Checking processes with the ps command

We’ve talked about ps command before on a previous post and how to order the processes by memory usage and CPU usage so I recommend you to review this post basic Linux commands.

Checking performance with iostat and lsof

iostat command gives you CPU utilization report; it can be used with –c option is used to display the CPU utilization report.

$ iostat -c

linux process managment iostat command

The output result is easy to understand, but if the system is getting busy, you will see an increase in %iowait, which is used to report on an increase in waiting time for any I/O requests to be completed. Based on this, if the server is transferring or copying a lot of files.

With this command, you can check the read and write operations so you should have a solid knowledge of what is hanging your disk and take the right decision.

Additionally, lsof command is used to list the open files:

linux process managment lsof command

lsof command will show you which command is using the file, the process ID, the user, and the name of the file that is open.

Calculating the system load

Calculating system load is very important in Linux process management. The system load is a measure of the amount of processing for the system which is currently performing. It is not the perfect way to measure system performance, but it gives you some evidence.

The load is calculated like this:

Actual Load = Total Load (uptime) / Number of CPUs

You can calculate the uptime by reviewing uptime command or top command:

$ uptime

linux process managment uptime command

$ top

The server load is expressed as a value based on 1 minute, 5 minutes, and 15 minutes read times.

We can see that, for this system, the average load was 0.00 (at 1 minute), 0.01 (at 5 minutes), and 0.05 (at 15 minutes).

When the load increases, processors are queued, and if there are multiple processor cores, the load is evenly distributed across the server’s cores to balance the work.

The ideal load for a server is generally agreed to be set at a value of 1. This does not mean a high load as soon as this value is reached or exceeded, but if you do begin to see double-digit responses for some period of time, then yes, this is a high load.

Discovering process IDs with pgrep and systemctl

Besides using ps command, another way of discovering a specific process ID is to use the pgrep command.

$ pgrep servicename

linux process managment pgrep command

This command will show the process ID or PID. However, by using this approach, it is also possible that the output will provide more than one value. Note that if an application like httpd or ssh provides one or more process IDs, you can ensure that the lowest number which represents the first PID generated by the system is the most important one. This value is known as the PPID or parent process ID.

On the other hand, you can use systemctl command to get the main PID also.

$ systemctl status <service_name>.service

linux process managment systemctl command

There are more ways to obtain the required process ID or parent process ID.

Discussing systemd

If we are going to talk about Linux process management, we should take a look at systemd. The systemd is responsible for controlling how services are managed on CentOS 7.

You can start, stop and check the status like this:

Instead of using chkconfig to enable and disable a service during the boot, you can use systemctl command:

Systemd also ships with its own version of top, and in order to show the processes that are associated with a specific service, you can use the system-cgtop command like this:

$ systemd-cgtop

linux process managment systemd-cgtop

As you can see all associated processes, path, number of tasks, the percentage of CPU used, memory allocation, and the relative inputs and outputs. It works in a way similar to top.

This command can be used to output a recursive list of service content like this:

$ systemd-cgls

linux process managment systemd-cgls

This command gives us very useful information that can be used to take your decision.

Nice and renice processes

The process nice value is a numeric indication to the kernel about how the process should be treated in relation to other processes fighting for the CPU. A high nice value means a low priority for your process so how nice you are going to be to other users, and that’s the name come from.

The nice range is from -20 to +19.

nice command sets the nice value for the process at creation time while renice command adjust the value later and it takes the process ID as a parameter.

$ nice n 5 ./myscript

This command increases the nice means lower priority by 5.

$ sudo renice -5 2213

linux process managment renice command

This command decreases the nice value means increased priority.

The owner of the process can increase its nice value (lower priority) but cannot lower it (high priority) while root user can do both.

Sending the kill signal

All we’ve discussed in Linux process management is to get the top running processes and which process make high CPU loads and which one eats the memory is to send that process ID to kill command.

The process ID does have other uses, but our primary concern is to remove a service or application causes problem by issuing a termination signal (SIGTERM). You can review the previous post about signals and jobs bash scripting.

$ kill process ID

This method is called safe kill. However, depending on your situation, a better solution can be to force a service or application to hang up, and thereby enable an automatic reload of the service like this:

$ kill -1 process ID

Sometimes the safe kill and reload fail to do anything, you can send kill signal SIGKILL by using -9 option which is called forced kill.

$ kill -9 process ID

There are no cleanup operations or safe exit with this command and not preferred. However, you can do something more proper by using the pkill command.

$ pkill -9 serviceName

linux process managment pkill command

And you can use pgrep command to ensure that all associated processes killed.

$ pgrep serviceName

linux process managment pkill -9

I hope you have a good idea about Linux process management and how to make a good action to make the system healthy.

Thank you.