About a year ago I was having a discussion with my friend Crutcher when he suggested that one could hot-swap versions of a running program. This post describes my implementation of just such a thing.

Why would you hot-swap? One of the major benefits of hotswapping is that the new version of the program will have access to all of the old version’s file-descriptors. This means that any files, sockets, or pipes that the previous version currently had open can still be open. For example, if one was careful, you could hotswap an application that was in the middle of serving a very large file to a user without him being aware that anything happened.

Before we begin discussing how this should work, let’s look at some of the problems. Sure we get file descriptors, but what about all of our state? Well, this is a problem. We cannot easily take our state with us. Since we’re updating versions here, you want to be particularly sure you only take state that you need. To do this, I would recommend using a serialization library for C. A bit of Googling showed me this one, TPL, though I haven’t tried it yet. For our example here, we’ll just manually move the only pieces of state we care about: a counter and a file descriptor to a file we’re currently writing to.

The basic idea of what’s going to happen is that we will create a pair of pipes and then fork(). The child process will hold the pipe that does the writing and the parent the one that does the reading. Now, the parent will exec. This is a bit odd. Normally when you fork, then exec, it’s the child process which does the exec. However, here we really want the new version of the program to have access to all of the old file descriptors. Luckily, execl preserves these. As an added benefit, the program gets the exact same process ID.

So, let’s look at the important bits of the hot-swap (reader and writer are the file descriptors for the pipe):

unsigned int outputFD = fileno(outputFile);

if(fork()) {
  /* I am the parent. */
  char readBuf[20] = {0};

  sprintf(readBuf, "%d", reader);

  execl("./newbinary", "--hotswapping", readBuf, (char*)0);
} else {
  /* I am the child.*/
  FILE *outputStream = fdopen(writer, "w");

  fprintf(outputStream, "%d\n", i);
  fprintf(outputStream, "%u\n", (unsigned int) outputFD);

First, let’s look at what the parent process does. It simply closes its “writer” since it will never need to write to the pipe then it execs “newbinary” which is the new version of the program. It does so with a flag “–hotswapping”. This flag indicates another parameter will follow which is the file descriptor for the “read” end of the pipe we created. We do this so that the new binary can then get the state serialized across the pipe from the old binary.

Now, onto the child process. Line 32 creates a file handler from the file descriptor which is the “write” end of the pipe. Why? Because I’m lazy and I would prefer to work with fprintf() to write(). Now that we have this file handler, we can fprintf() directly to it and serialize the state we want. In this contrived case the only state I care about is my counter variable and the file descriptor of my output file. Line 19 gives me the descriptor from the handler using int fileno(FILE *).

So, to recap, we fork() then the parent exec’s to the new version of the binary and the child writes any relevant state to a pipe which the new binary is listening to.

Now, let’s look at what has to exist in the new binary. The new binary must recognize the argument “–hotswapping” which passes along the file descriptor of the “read” pipe. The following, in newversion.c does just this:

for(i = 0; i < argc; i++) {
  if(!strcmp(argv[i], "--hotswapping")) {
    int reader = atoi(argv[++i]);
    inputStream = fdopen(reader, "r");

Notice that Line 17 does something interesting. It converts the file descriptor back to a file handler using fdopen(int, char*). Thus we can use this pipe just like we were reading from a file. So, now we can use fscanf to read from the pipe instead of having to worry about read() and buffers. This is done starting at line 21:

fscanf(inputStream, "%d", &i);
fscanf(inputStream, "%u", &outputFD);
outputFile = fdopen(outputFD, "w");

Once again, at line 24, we turn the file descriptor we read from the pipe back into a file handler. Now, we can resume writing to it, just as we did before. It will continue to append to the end of the file.

The files which implement this are available as gists here:

Makefile original.c newversion.c The output when run for 11 seconds is:

gcc -Wall -pedantic -o newbinary newversion.c
gcc -Wall -pedantic -o example original.c
Original:       1 My PID=27272
Original:       2 My PID=27272
Original:       3 My PID=27272
Original:       4 My PID=27272
Original:       5 My PID=27272
New Binary:     6 My PID=27272
New Binary:     7 My PID=27272
New Binary:     8 My PID=27272
New Binary:     9 My PID=27272
New Binary:     10 My PID=27272
New Binary:     11 My PID=27272