Python Internals Serie : Subprocess.Popen

The purpose of this serie is to review some parts of the CPython’s code.

Why ?

Well there are multiple reasons :

  • Because we can. The project is opensource and the source code is freely available here :
  • I strongly believe that we, as developpers, can learn a lot by studying good and clean code. And I think we can safely assume that CPython’s code, which is used practicaly everywhere, meet this crietria.
  • I also think that studying python internals can make us better python programmers, for example ever wondered why changing sys.stdout seems to have no effect on subprocesses ? Well at the end of this article You will know why.

I will try to regulary realease articles on random functions/modules/data strucutres/algorithms.

Starting today I don’t really have a plan or a timeline for future articles, I’ll just start with subprocess.Popen and go from there.

I’ll try to link PEPs, articles and disscussions whenever I can.

DISCLAIMER : I am not a Python Core Developper, therefore a lot of claims that I’ll make here may be wrong, especially if they’re not backed by any evidence.

With that being said, let’s read some code !

Wait … What the heck is CPython ?

CPython is the official python implementation. You need to understand that there is a difference between python specification and a python implementation.

A simple example can be the sorting function :

The python specification specify that a valid implementation should offer a sorted function which can take a list and sort it.

But as you may recall from your painfull algorithms course, there are multiple sorting algorithms, so which one are being used ? Well, as a lot of things, it depends on the implementation.

In fact you can create your own implementation and use bubble sort if you want, not a very practical choice but you can !

CPython is widely used nowadays, and a lot of its code is wrote using C, again this is an implementation detail not a specification one.

There are other python implementations like PyPy (which use JIT compilation), or Jython which is ran on a JVM machine.

Getting the code

the first step is to get the cpython code. For that we gonna just clone the official repo on github :

$ git clone

Subprocess.Popen : The class

Please note that we won’t really analyze ALL the code of Popen, there are way too many options and use cases to fit in this article.

Instead we juste gonna try to understand what happens when you execute this line of code :

p = subprocess.Popen(['ls', '-l']) 

We need to find a starting point, we can simply do :

$ find -name 


we can safely assume that the module we’re searching for is Lib/subprocess.

By searching for Popen in the file we find a class :

class Popen(object):
    """ Execute a child program in a new process.

    For a complete description of the arguments see the Python documentation.

      args: A string, or a sequence of program arguments.

The first instruction is :

_child_created = False  # Set here since __del__ checks it

the __del__ is basicaly a destructor method in python, this method is automatically called when the garbage collector try to free the object.

in CPython the garbage collector use what we call reference counting, this means that if you write something like this :

a = [1, 2, 3] 

a = [4, 5, 6] # we affect a new list to a

In the second line we no longer have a reference to the list [1, 2, 3], which means that the garbage collector may delete it (or not) any time.

my guess, is that if you run a command like this :

subprocess.Popen(['my command'])

since you’re not referencing the Popen object, it is a garbage candidate, and the gc may try to delete it before it run. Which is not the excepected behaviour since you except the command to run even if you don’t care about what it’ll return.

What surprises me tough is the fact that it’s a class attribute, there is surely a reason behind it, but i’m not sure what.

After doing a git blame, we can see that it was actually an instance attribute before this commit 72e7761301febe026536e7a2a444269698dcf156. Which refers to this issue : issue12085.

And the explanation is as follow :

If subprocess.Popen is called with a keyword argument whose name is undefined or simply too many arguments, an instance of the Popen class is created but its __init__ method call fails due to the invalid argument list. (Immediately) afterwards, the new instance is destroyed and its __del__ method is called, which checks the _child_created field that is defined by __init__; but __init__ never got the chance to execute, so the field is not defined, and __del__ raises an AttributeError, which is written out to stderr.

- Oleg Oshmyan (chortos) [2011]

The __init__ method

the first instruction in the init method is :


from the comment it looks like the purpose of the function is to avoid zombie processes. one thing that i like about this function is how the autor of the except explictly explain why he passes when he catches a ValueError and why it’s okay. I see a lot of developpers using the pattern try: except (some exception or just Exception) pass instead of treating the error proply. This can be very risky as it may hide a real error that you wish you saw before wasting 2 days trying to debug a random issue.

After that we can see some basic parameters validation : like is bufsize an integer ?

This is also a very good habit to have, especialy in a dynamicaly typed language like Python.

your code may still work with the wrong types and give you a wrong result, as an example :

def to_upper(list_str):
	return [s.upper() for s in list_str]

to_upper(['aaa', 'bbb']) # ['AAA', 'BBB']
to_upper('ab') # ['A', 'B']

As you can see altough it works, example 2 is clearly not what the user would expect.

You can also start to see that some code parts depends on the target plateforme (windows / POSIX), for the rest of this article, I’ll focus on the POSIX part.

(p2cread, p2cwrite,
c2pread, c2pwrite,
errread, errwrite) = self._get_handles(stdin, stdout, stderr)

next we get the file decriptors related to the optional arguments stdin/stdout/stderr.

A file descriptor is an abstraction managed by the process, each file descriptor points to an entry in a system wide table called Open file table.

In python you can do :

open("my file").fileno()

This will return the file descriptor.

Based on the comments and common sense it looks like, we will not always need 6 file descriptors, but only if we choose to communicate with the child process (which is not our case for our example).

In our example it looks like : c2pwrite will be the fd of the output of our script (1 if stdout) and p2cread the fd of the input of our script (0 if stdin).

In the _get_handles function :

looks like the default values (if no alternative stdout/in/err) is provided) : -1.

p2cread, p2cwrite = -1, -1
c2pread, c2pwrite = -1, -1
errread, errwrite = -1, -1

if stdin is None:

if stdout is None:

the function seems to confirm our hypothesis :

	# Assuming file-like object
	p2cread = stdin.fileno()
	# Assuming file-like object
	c2pwrite = stdout.fileno()

it does bug me how similar the stdin / stdout / stderr code is. I know if I had to write this code I will desperatly try to somehow refactore it in one block, I’m not sure tough if it will be a good idea, refactoring is not always a good thing.

 # How long to resume waiting on a child after the first ^C.
 # There is no right value for this.  The purpose is to be polite
 # yet remain good for interactive users trying to exit a tool.
 self._sigint_wait_secs = 0.25  # 1/xkcd221.getRandomNumber()

I found the comment funny, for refecence this the xkcd comic that it refers to :

xkcd comic

next we call the function : _execute_child (POSIX version in our case) :

_execute_child function

Again some basic parameter validation.

sys.audit("subprocess.Popen", executable, args, cwd, env) 

this will send a signal and subsribed functions may do things accordenly (no idea what tough).

	and os.path.dirname(executable)
	and preexec_fn is None
	and not close_fds
	and not pass_fds
	and cwd is None
	and (p2cread == -1 or p2cread > 2)
	and (c2pwrite == -1 or c2pwrite > 2)
	and (errwrite == -1 or errwrite > 2)
	and not start_new_session
	and gid is None
	and gids is None
	and uid is None
	and umask < 0):
		self._posix_spawn(args, executable, env, restore_signals,
				p2cread, p2cwrite,
				c2pread, c2pwrite,
				errread, errwrite)

if the _USE_POSIX_SPAWN is true, python will try to use it to create the child process.

according to :

posix_spawn will not copy the data of the parent process, which can make the script start faster for larger processes.


 if sys.platform == 'linux' and libc == 'glibc' and version >= (2, 24):
 	# glibc 2.24 has a new Linux posix_spawn implementation using vfork
 	# which properly reports errors to the parent process.
 	return True

that if you are on a linux plateform and the version of glibc is greater than 2.24 you ll use posix_spanw().

the 2.24 version of glibc has been released around 2016 so it’s fair to assume that if you have a recent linux distribution you ll also use posix_spawn().

If you want to check

$ ldd --version

ldd (Ubuntu GLIBC 2.31-0ubuntu9.1) 2.31

If you’re interessted you can read the disccusion (on the python bug tracker) which lead to trying to use posix_span :

_posix_spawn function

if env is None:
	env = os.environ

looks like our child process will inherit all our defined env variables

one interessting thing :

for fd, fd2 in (
 (p2cread, 0),
 (c2pwrite, 1),
 (errwrite, 2),
 if fd != -1:
     file_actions.append((os.POSIX_SPAWN_DUP2, fd, fd2))

we iterate over the fds (in/out/err) of our child process, which are -1 by default as you can see if they’re different than -1, based on, will close fd2 (standard input/output), and copy the value of fd (our new fd) place of it.

which mean in our case (-1) nothing happen ! so even if sys.stdout is different than 1, this won’t affect children process, and this explain why contextredirect will not affect children output/error

os.posix_spawn function

we open (same folder), we do a /f posix_spawn : nada. There is no function in this module with this name, my guess is that the function added to the exported functions somehow, and that it may be defined in the c code.

by doing a grep -R 'posix_spawn', we seem to have a strong candidate here :

Modules/clinic/posixmodule.c.h:    {"posix_spawnp", (PyCFunction)(void(*)(void))os_posix_spawnp, METH_FASTCALL|METH_KEYWORDS, os_posix_spawnp__doc__},
Modules/clinic/posixmodule.c.h:os_posix_spawnp_impl(PyObject *module, path_t *path, PyObject *argv,
Modules/clinic/posixmodule.c.h:os_posix_spawnp(PyObject *module, PyObject *const *args, Py_ssize_t nargs, PyObject *kwnames)

I guess that our function is 'os_posix_spawnp' :

Note : the PyObject is a C wrapper aroud python objects, so each variable you use in python, will be presented by a PyObject in C.

we first see some initializations.

and then some … gotos ? gonna admit that is kinda weird, since, well :

xkcd gogo comic.

After some googling it appear that it’s not a bad practice to use for this kind of situation :

void foo()
    if (!doA())
        goto exit;
    if (!doB())
        goto cleanupA;
    if (!doC())
        goto cleanupB;

    /* everything has succeeded */


source :

gotos are apprently also appropriate for jumping out of nested loops (fun fact : this is the only accepted form of goto in java, which is called label) after multiple conditions we go here : os_posix_spawnp_impl

os_posix_spawnp_impl function

grep -R os_posix_spawnp_impl, Modules/posixmodule.c looks like a strong candidate.

if you’re intriged by this line :

/*[clinic end generated code: output=7b9aaefe3031238d input=c1911043a22028da]*/

clinic is a boilerpate code generator for CPython, we may inspect it in futur articles.

py_posix_spawn function

As above, some checks and gotos.

then we call posix_spawn

Which looks like our final step, since posix_spawn is a native function in c :


And that’s it, as you can see, this is definetly not an exaustive analysis of subprocess code. We left a lot of code/conditions. Maybe we’ll revisit them in later articles.

Hope you learned a thing or two in python, cpython or even general developpement best practices.

If you have any suggestion/request/comment feel free to contact me ! (more details here : about page.