For an overview of namespaces, see namespaces(7).
PID namespaces isolate the process ID number space, meaning that processes in different PID namespaces can have the same PID. PID namespaces allow containers to provide functionality such as suspending/resuming the set of processes in the container and migrating the container to a new host while the processes inside the container maintain the same PIDs.
PIDs in a new PID namespace start at 1, somewhat like a standalone system, and calls to fork(2), vfork(2), or clone(2) will produce processes with PIDs that are unique within the namespace.
Use of PID namespaces requires a kernel that is configured with the CONFIG_PID_NS option.
The namespace init process
The first process created in a new namespace (i.e., the process created using clone(2) with the CLONE_NEWPID flag, or the first child created by a process after a call to unshare(2) using the CLONE_NEWPID flag) has the PID 1, and is the "init" process for the namespace (see init(1)). This process becomes the parent of any child processes that are orphaned because a process that resides in this PID namespace terminated (see below for further details).
If the "init" process of a PID namespace terminates, the kernel terminates all of the processes in the namespace via a SIGKILL signal. This behavior reflects the fact that the "init" process is essential for the correct operation of a PID namespace. In this case, a subsequent fork(2) into this PID namespace fail with the error ENOMEM; it is not possible to create a new process in a PID namespace whose "init" process has terminated. Such scenarios can occur when, for example, a process uses an open file descriptor for a /proc/pid/ns/pid file corresponding to a process that was in a namespace to setns(2) into that namespace after the "init" process has terminated. Another possible scenario can occur after a call to unshare(2): if the first child subsequently created by a fork(2) terminates, then subsequent calls to fork(2) fail with ENOMEM.
Only signals for which the "init" process has established a signal handler can be sent to the "init" process by other members of the PID namespace. This restriction applies even to privileged processes, and prevents other members of the PID namespace from accidentally killing the "init" process.
Likewise, a process in an ancestor namespace can—subject to the usual permission checks described in kill(2)—send signals to the "init" process of a child PID namespace only if the "init" process has established a handler for that signal. (Within the handler, the siginfo_t si_pid field described in sigaction(2) will be zero.) SIGKILL or SIGSTOP are treated exceptionally: these signals are forcibly delivered when sent from an ancestor PID namespace. Neither of these signals can be caught by the "init" process, and so will result in the usual actions associated with those signals (respectively, terminating and stopping the process).
Starting with Linux 3.4, the reboot(2) system call causes a signal to be sent to the namespace "init" process. See reboot(2) for more details.
Nesting PID namespaces
PID namespaces can be nested: each PID namespace has a parent, except for the initial ("root") PID namespace. The parent of a PID namespace is the PID namespace of the process that created the namespace using clone(2) or unshare(2). PID namespaces thus form a tree, with all namespaces ultimately tracing their ancestry to the root namespace. Since Linux 3.7, the kernel limits the maximum nesting depth for PID namespaces to 32.
A process is visible to other processes in its PID namespace, and to the processes in each direct ancestor PID namespace going back to the root PID namespace. In this context, "visible" means that one process can be the target of operations by another process using system calls that specify a process ID. Conversely, the processes in a child PID namespace can't see processes in the parent and further removed ancestor namespaces. More succinctly: a process can see (e.g., send signals with kill(2), set nice values with setpriority(2), etc.) only processes contained in its own PID namespace and in descendants of that namespace.
A process has one process ID in each of the layers of the PID namespace hierarchy in which is visible, and walking back though each direct ancestor namespace through to the root PID namespace. System calls that operate on process IDs always operate using the process ID that is visible in the PID namespace of the caller. A call to getpid(2) always returns the PID associated with the namespace in which the process was created.
Some processes in a PID namespace may have parents that are outside of the namespace. For example, the parent of the initial process in the namespace (i.e., the init(1) process with PID 1) is necessarily in another namespace. Likewise, the direct children of a process that uses setns(2) to cause its children to join a PID namespace are in a different PID namespace from the caller of setns(2). Calls to getppid(2) for such processes return 0.
While processes may freely descend into child PID namespaces (e.g., using setns(2) with a PID namespace file descriptor), they may not move in the other direction. That is to say, processes may not enter any ancestor namespaces (parent, grandparent, etc.). Changing PID namespaces is a one-way operation.
The NS_GET_PARENT ioctl(2) operation can be used to discover the parental relationship between PID namespaces; see ioctl_ns(2).
Adoption of orphaned children
When a child process becomes orphaned, it is reparented to the "init" process in the PID namespace of its parent (unless one of the nearer ancestors of the parent employed the prctl(2) PR_SET_CHILD_SUBREAPER command to mark itself as the reaper of orphaned descendant processes). Note that because of the setns(2) and unshare(2) semantics described above, this may be the "init" process in the PID namespace that is the parent of the child's PID namespace, rather than the "init" process in the child's own PID namespace.
Compatibility of CLONE_NEWPID with other CLONE_* flags
In current versions of Linux, CLONE_NEWPID can't be combined with CLONE_THREAD. Threads are required to be in the same PID namespace such that the threads in a process can send signals to each other. Similarly, it must be possible to see all of the threads of a process in the proc(5) filesystem. Additionally, if two threads were in different PID namespaces, the process ID of the process sending a signal could not be meaningfully encoded when a signal is sent (see the description of the siginfo_t type in sigaction(2)). Since this is computed when a signal is enqueued, a signal queue shared by processes in multiple PID namespaces would defeat that.
In earlier versions of Linux, CLONE_NEWPID was additionally disallowed (failing with the error EINVAL) in combination with CLONE_SIGHAND (before Linux 4.3) as well as CLONE_VM (before Linux 3.12). The changes that lifted these restrictions have also been ported to earlier stable kernels.
/proc and PID namespaces
A /proc filesystem shows (in the /proc/pid directories) only processes visible in the PID namespace of the process that performed the mount, even if the /proc filesystem is viewed from processes in other namespaces.
After creating a new PID namespace, it is useful for the child to change its root directory and mount a new procfs instance at /proc so that tools such as ps(1) work correctly. If a new mount namespace is simultaneously created by including CLONE_NEWNS in the flags argument of clone(2) or unshare(2), then it isn't necessary to change the root directory: a new procfs instance can be mounted directly over /proc.
From a shell, the command to mount /proc is:
$ mount -t proc proc /proc
Calling readlink(2) on the path /proc/self yields the process ID of the caller in the PID namespace of the procfs mount (i.e., the PID namespace of the process that mounted the procfs). This can be useful for introspection purposes, when a process wants to discover its PID in other namespaces.
- /proc/sys/kernel/ns_last_pid (since Linux 3.3)
This file (which is virtualized per PID namespace) displays the last PID that was allocated in this PID namespace. When the next PID is allocated, the kernel will search for the lowest unallocated PID that is greater than this value, and when this file is subsequently read it will show that PID.
This file is writable by a process that has the CAP_SYS_ADMIN or (since Linux 5.9) CAP_CHECKPOINT_RESTORE capability inside the user namespace that owns the PID namespace. This makes it possible to determine the PID that is allocated to the next process that is created inside this PID namespace.
When a process ID is passed over a UNIX domain socket to a process in a different PID namespace (see the description of SCM_CREDENTIALS in unix(7)), it is translated into the corresponding PID value in the receiving process's PID namespace.
Namespaces are a Linux-specific feature.
clone(2), reboot(2), setns(2), unshare(2), proc(5), capabilities(7), credentials(7), mount_namespaces(7), namespaces(7), user_namespaces(7), switch_root(8)
buildah-build(1), buildah-from(1), buildah-run(1), capabilities(7), clone(2), credentials(7), fork(2), getpid(2), ioctl_ns(2), lttng-track(1), lttng-untrack(1), lttng-ust(3), namespaces(7), nsenter(1), pidfd_send_signal(2), proc(5), reboot(2), setns(2), unshare(1), unshare(2), user_namespaces(7).