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WITH-LOCK-EX(1) Chiark-utils-bin WITH-LOCK-EX(1)


with-lock-ex - file locker


with-lock-ex -w|-q|-f lockfile command args ...


with-lock-ex will open and lock the lockfile for writing and then feed the remainder of its arguments to exec(2); when that process terminates the fd will be closed and the file unlocked automatically by the kernel.

If the file does not exist it is created, with permissions rw for each user class for which the umask has w.


Wait for the lock to be available.
Fail (printing a message to stderr and exiting 255) if the lock cannot be acquired immediately because another process has it.
Silently do nothing (ie, exit 0 instead of executing the specified process) if the lock cannot be acquired immediately because another process has it.


The locking protocol used does not suffer from stale locks. If the lock cannot be acquired, one or more running processes must currently hold the lock; if the lock needs to be freed those processes should be killed.

Under no circumstances should `stale lock cleaner' cron jobs, or the like, be instituted. In systems where a great many locks may exist, old lockfiles may be removed from cron but only if each lock is acquired before the lockfile is removed, for example with

with-lock-ex -q lockfile rm lockfile


There is no deadlock detection. In a system with several locks, a lock hierarchy should be established, such that for every pair of locks A and B which a process might lock simultaneously, either A>B or B>A where the relation > is transitive and noncyclic.

Then, for any two locks X and Y with X>Y it is forbidden to acquire X while holding Y. Instead, acquire X first, or release Y before (re)acquiring X and Y in that order.

(There are more complicated ways of avoiding deadlocks, but a lock hierarchy is simple to understand and implement. If it does not meet your needs, consult the literature.)


The locking protocol used by with-lock-ex is as follows:

The lock is held by a process (or group of processes) which holds an fcntl exclusive lock on the first byte of the plain file which has the specified name. A holder of the lock (and only a holder of the lock) may delete the file or change the inode to which the name refers, and as soon as it does so it ceases to hold the lock.

Any process may create the file if it does not exist. There is no need for the file to contain any actual data. Indeed, actually using the file for data storage is strongly disrecommended, as this will foreclose most strategies for reliable update. Use a separate lockfile instead.

Ability to obtain the lock corresponds to write permission on the file (and of course permission to create the file, if it does not already exist). However, processes with only read permission on the file can prevent the lock being acquired at all; therefore lockfiles should not usually be world-readable.

When a (group of) processes wishes to acquire the lock, it should open the file (with O_CREAT) and lock it with fcntl(2) F_RWLCK, operation F_SETLK or F_SETLKW. If this succeeds it should fstat the file descriptor it has, and the file by its path. If the device and inode match then the lock has been acquired and remains acquired until that group of processes changes which file the name refers to, deletes the file, or releases the fcntl lock. If they do not then another process acquired the lock and deleted the file in the meantime; you must now close your filedescriptor and start again. with-lock-ex follows this specification.

Note that flock(2) is a different kind of lock to fcntl(2). with-lock-ex uses fcntl.


This Manual page was written by Matthew Vernon <> and enhanced by Ian Jackson <>, in 2003, but may be used by anyone.


with-lock-ex was written by Ian Jackson <> in 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999. He has placed it in the public domain.


fcntl(2), flock(2), chmod(2)
July 2003 Debian