Zombie Processes

Zombie processes are "dead" processes. That is, processes that have finished executing and are waiting for the parent to reap them (collect information about their status).

You cannot kill a zombie process because they are already dead. To get rid of a zombie process, kill its parent.

Zombie processes are, in some ways, the opposite of Orphan Processes. When a child process finishes running, its state (PID and return code) sits in the process table, waiting for the parent to collect it by calling wait(2). In this state, we say a child is a defunct or zombie process.

Therefore, zombie processes have completed execution and thus take up almost no system resources.

However, they do hold on to PIDs that the OS could allocate to other processes. With too many zombie processes - say if a poorly coded program isn't collecting return status information fast enough, it's possible for the OS to run out of PIDs. You can increase the number of available PIDs by modifying the kernel parameter kernel.pid_max using either the sysctl command or editing the /etc/sysctl.conf file. More info is available here.

To see this in action, I'm going to create a program that makes a child process that runs for 1 second and a parent process that'll sleep indefinitely.

from os import fork, getppid, wait
from sys import exit
from time import sleep

pid = fork()

if pid == 0:
    exit("Child: Goodbye, cruel world")
    print("Parent: I created a child with pid", pid,
          "and now all I want to do is sleep...")
    while True:
> python fork_zombie.py
Parent: I created a child with pid 26556, and now all I want to do is sleep.
Child: Goodbye, cruel world!

Now, in a separate terminal instance (or a separate Screen, Tmux or Byobu window) let's examine the child's process using ps.

> ps -ef | grep 26556
lex      26556 26555  0 21:40 pts/3    00:00:00 [python] <defunct>

There we have it, a defunct/zombie process that utilizes no memory awaiting our parent to acknowledge it by calling wait(2) or for our parent to die.

You can't really "kill" zombie processes because, well, they're already dead.

For some processes, sending the SIGCHLD signal to the parent process could instruct it to call wait and reap its dead child processes. However, we're out of luck if we haven't implemented a handler for SIGCHLD.

The only way to clear out a zombie process is for the parent to reap the process by calling kill or for the parent process itself to die. If, however, there's a zombie process in the system for a parent process that has already stopped, this could be a sign of an operating system bug.

In our example, we can get rid of the zombie process by closing the parent process, which I will do by pressing Ctrl + C in the terminal where my parent is running.

^CTraceback (most recent call last):
  File "fork.py", line 11, in 

Now, if we look for the initial zombie process, it should be nowhere to be found.

> ps -e | grep 27439