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13. Locking Out Others

13.1 Introduction

When you are using a serial port, you may want to prevent others from using it at the same time. However there may be cases where you do want others to use it, such as sending you an important message if you are using a text-terminal.

There are various ways of preventing others (or other processes) from using your serial port when you are using it (locking). This should all happen automatically but it's important to know about this if it gives you trouble. If a program is abnormally exited or the PC is abruptly turned off (by pulling the plug, etc.) your serial port might wind up locked. Even if the lock remains, it's usually automatically removed when you want to use the serial port again. But in rare cases it isn't. That's when you need to understand what happened.

One way to implement locking is to design the kernel to handle it but Linux thus far has shunned this solution (with an exception involving the cua device which is now obsolete). Two solutions used by Linux is to:

  1. create lock-files
  2. modify the permissions and/or owners of devices such as /dev/ttyS2

13.2 Lock-Files

If you use the new device-filesystem (devfs) then see the next section. A lock-file is simply a file created to mean that a particular device is in use. They are kept in /var/lock. Formerly they were in /usr/spool/uucp. Linux lock-files are usually named, where name may be a device name, a process id number, a device's major and minor numbers, or a UUCP site name. Most processes (an exception is getty) create these locks so that they can have exclusive access to devices. For instance if you dial out on your modem, some lockfiles will appear to tell other processes that someone else is using the modem. In older versions (in the 1990s) there was usually only one lockfile per process. Lock files contain the PID of the process that has locked the device. Note that if a process insists on using a device that is locked, it may ignore the lockfile and use the device anyway. This is useful in sending a message to a text-terminal, etc.

When a program wants to use a serial port but finds it locked with lock-files it should check to see if the lock-file's PID is still in use. If it's not it means that the lock is stale and it's OK to go ahead and use the port anyway (after removing the stale lock-files). Unfortunately, there may be some programs that don't do this and give up by telling you that a device is already in use when it really isn't.

If the lockfile only uses device names, the following problem could arise: If the same device has two different names then two different processes could each use a different name for the same device. This results in lockfiles with different names that actually are the same device. Formerly each physical serial port was known by two different device names: ttyS0 and cua0. To solve this lockfile alias problem, 3 methods have been used. It may be overkill since any one of these methods would have fixed the problem.

  1. The lock checking software was made aware of ttyS vs. cua.
  2. The device cua was deprecated
  3. Additional locks were created which use unique device numbers instead of names.

Using alternate names such as /dev/modem for /dev/ttyS2 may cause problems if one program opens /dev/ttyS2 while another program opens /dev/modem. This problem was supposedly fixed around 2000, but is still present in 2005. For dumb terminals, lockfiles are not used since this would not permit someone else to send a message to your terminal using the write or talk program.

13.3 Change Owners, Groups, and/or Permissions of Device Files

In order to use a device, you (or the program you run if you have "set user id") needs to have permission to read and write the device "file" in the /dev directory. So a logical way to prevent others from using a device is to make yourself the temporary owner of the device and set permissions so that no one else can use it. A program may do this for you. A similar method can be used with the group of the device file.

While lock files prevent other process from using the device, changing device file owners/permissions restricts other users (or the group) from using it. One case is where the group is permitted to write to the port, but not to read from it. Writing to the port might just mean a message sent to a text-terminal while reading means destructive reading. The original process that needs to read the data may find data missing if another process has already read that data. Thus a read can do more harm that a write since a read causes loss of data while a write only adds extra data. That's a reason to allow writes but not reads. This is exactly the opposite of the case for ordinary files where you allow others to read the file but not write (modify) it. Use of a port normally requires both read and write permissions.

A program that changes the device file attributes should undo these changes when it exits. But if the exit is abnormal, then a device file may be left in such a condition that it gives the error "permission denied" when one attempts to use it again.

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