Characterizing the behavior of Python multiprocessing pools

The behavior of Python multiprocessing pools depends on largely on the target functions.



Python’s multiprocessing package

One of the most useful APIs introduced by Python’s multiprocessing package is the process Pool, which “offers a convenient means of parallelizing the execution of a function across multiple input values, distributing the input data across processes (data parallelism).” [multiprocessing documentation]

By creating child processes, the multiprocessing package sidesteps the Global Interpreter Lock and allows full utilization of multiple processors. However, depending on the target function, memory footprint can be significant, and achieving desired behavior over process and pool termination can be tricky.

Calling system commands in Python

This post refers collectively to binary executables (such as ls or wget) and shell builtins (such as pwd) as “system commands.” Several standard ways of calling system commands in Python are as follows:

  • os.system(<command>)
    • Calls the system() system call, which according to the Linux man-pages,

      uses fork(2) to create a child process that executes the shell command specified in command using execl(3) as follows:

       execl("/bin/sh", "sh", "-c", command, (char *) NULL);

      system() returns after the command has been completed.

      During execution of the command, SIGCHLD will be blocked, and SIGINT and SIGQUIT will be ignored, in the process that calls system(). (These signals will be handled according to their defaults inside the child process that executes command.)

  • os.exec*() family of functions
    • Call the corresponding exec*() system calls.
  • subprocess.Popen(<command>, **kwds)
    • Implemented using fork() and execv()/execve() system calls.
    • Nonblocking constructor that returns a subprocess.Popen object immediately, which can be waited upon using subprocess.Popen.wait().
    • The <command> can be executed directly or through a shell by passing the shell=True argument.
    • subprocess.Popen objects cannot be picked.
  •<command>, **kwds)
    • Calls subprocess.Popen() and blocks until the command finishes.
    • Returns a CompletedProcess object, which can be pickled.

Process groups and signals

In Python, child processes created using multiprocessing package or any of the methods above (with default arguments) for calling system commands will inherit the process group ID of the parent Python process. subprocess.Popen() and additionally support a subprocess.CREATE_NEW_PROCESS_GROUP flag that specifies “that a new process group will be created.” [subprocess documentation] By default, Python translates SIGINT signals into KeyboardInterrupt exceptions. [signal documentation]

In shells (e.g., sh and bash), child processes’ process group IDs depend on whether the shell is run interactively (i.e., in a terminal) or not (e.g., with the -c <command> option). When run by an interactive shell, child processes are assigned their own unique process group IDs. When run by a non-interactive shell, child processes inherit the process group ID of the shell. In either mode, the shell catches and handles SIGINT signals such that it waits for the current command to finish and “breaks out of any executing loops.” [Bash manual]

Signals generated by keyboard interrupts (e.g., SIGINT, Ctrl+C; SIGTSTP, Ctrl+Z; SIGQUIT, Ctrl+\) are sent to the foreground process group. [Wikipedia]

Behavior of multiprocessing.Pool

For brevity and consistency, we will use the following conventions and assumptions:

  • We follow the implementation provided by CPython v3.7.3.
  • mp refers to the multiprocessing package (e.g., assume that the line import multiprocessing as mp has been run).
  • “Parent process” refers to the Python process that created the pool (i.e., the process in which pool = mp.Pool() was run).

Memory footprint

On Unix-based systems, the multiprocessing package defaults to the 'fork' method to start processes. Depending on when garbage collection routines are run, the physical memory occupied by the child processes may be quite high. Memory footprint of child processes can be significantly reduced by using the 'spawn' start method (mp.set_start_method('spawn')), which launches each child process as a fresh Python interpreter that only inherits resources as necessary.

Upon initialization (e.g., in the constructor), a pool object creates a pool of processes, each of whose target is the mp.pool.worker() function, which waits until a task (consisting of a function to run and arguments to call it with, such as provided to pool.apply_async()) arrives in a task queue. We consider memory footprint with 3 types of task functions:

  1. Does not call the fork() or exec() family of system calls.
    • Example: pool.apply_async(time.sleep, (10,))
    • Process hiearchy
      • parent process
        • pool process
    • Memory footprint depends on the process start method ('fork' or 'spawn').
  2. Uses the fork() system call to create a child process to run the actual command.
    • Example: pool.apply_async(os.system, ('sleep 10',))
    • Process hiearchy
      • parent process
        • pool process
          • [shell process]
            • command process
    • Memory footprint is relatively high and depends in part on the process start method. A Python pool process, and possibly a shell process, is required to run alongside the desired command process.
  3. Uses the exec() family of system calls before/without calling fork() to run the actual command
    • Example: pool.apply_async(os.execvp, ('sleep', ('10',)))
    • Process hiearchy
      • parent process
        • pool process (whose memory space, originally occupied by a Python process, has been cannibalized to run the command)
    • Memory footprint is low, since there are no additional Python or shell processes required to run alongside the desired command process.

Handling SIGINT signals

Consider the following set of processes:

  • parent process (Python interpreter)
  • idle pool process (idle, waiting for a task)
  • active pool process (running task function)
  • shell process (may or may not exist, depending on the task function)
  • system command process (may or may not exist, depending on the task function)

We then consider sending a SIGINT signal to any one process. For the parent process, idle pool process, shell process, and system command process, the behavior is the same regardless of the task function:

  • Parent process: The Python interpreter raises a KeyboardInterrupt exception, which usually just means that the prompt is cleared and KeyboardInterrupt is printed to the terminal. The pool is not affected, since the various threads (worker handler, task handler, and result handler) managing the pool are not stopped, in part because there is no direct way to stop a thread in Python.
  • Idle pool process: The process exits with exitcode 1. The pool worker handler then repopulates the pool with a new process.
    • Details: The mp.pool.worker() function does not handle any KeyboardInterrupt exceptions raised while the pool process is blocked (idling) waiting for a task, so the exception is passed up one stack frame to the pool process object’s _boostrap() method, which catches the KeyboardInterrupt, prints out a traceback, and returns. The next stack frame up is the _launch() method of a Popen object (note: the Popen classes defined in the mp package and the subprocess.Popen class are distinct) created by the pool process object. Within _launch(), os._exit() is called, killing the pool process.
  • Shell processes: The shell waits for any currently executing system command to finish, then breaks out of any executing loops.
  • System command processes: The behavior of the system command upon receiving a SIGINT signal will depend on whether a signal handler was installed, either by the system command program, or by the trap shell builtin.

For the active pool process, the behavior depends on the task function:

  • A Python function that does not call the fork() or exec() family of system calls.
    • Unless a SIGINT handler was installed, the task function is interrupted, and the pool process puts a result value of (False, KeyboardInterrupt) in the pool results queue. The pool process then waits for the next task if it has not yet reached its maxtasks limit, or exits otherwise (and is replaced with a new pool process by the pool worker handler).
  • os.system()
    • The SIGINT signal is ignored (queued) until the system() system call returns, after which the pool process puts a result value of (False, KeyboardInterrupt) in the pool results queue. The pool process then waits for the next task if it has not yet reached its maxtasks limit, or exits otherwise (and is replaced with a new pool process by the pool worker handler).
    • The pool process exits before placing any result in the pool results queue and is replaced with a new pool process by the pool worker handler. If was called with the default shell=False argument, then the system command is killed. If the argument shell=True was set, then the shell is killed, but the system command continues to run.
      • Details: It is unclear why no result is added to the pool results queue. blocks until the system command exits, or an exception is raised. In the case of a KeyboardInterrupt exception, the system command is killed, and the KeyboardInterrupt exception is re-raised (so ends but never returns). The pool process should catch this exception and add (False, KeyboardInterrupt) to the pool results queue, but that is not the observed behavior.
  • subprocess.Popen()
    • The pool process exits and is replaced with a new pool process by the pool worker handler. Any shell and/or system command continues to run.
      • Details: Since subprocess.Popen() is nonblocking, it immediately returns, and the pool process tries to put the subprocess.Popen object into the pool results queue. However, subprocess.Popen objects cannot be pickled, so the pool process puts a multiprocessing.pool.MaybeEncodingError exception in the pool results queue and waits for the next task if it has not yet reached its maxtasks limit, or exits otherwise (and is replaced with a new pool process by the pool worker handler). Any SIGINT signal is likely to be received by the pool process when it is waiting for its next task. The behavior is then analogous to that of an idle pool process receiving a SIGINT signal.
  • os.exec*()
    • The pool process becomes the system command process, so the behavior is defined by the signal handler (if any) installed by the system command. Assuming the default signal handler, the system command exits. The pool is repopulated by the worker handler.

Note that keyboard interrupts (e.g., Ctrl-C) are sent to the entire process group, and the overall behavior can be understood as if SIGINT signals are sent to each process as discussed above.


pool.terminate() calls the terminate() method of each pool process, sending them SIGTERM signals. As before, we consider sending the effect of pool.terminate() on any one process.

  • Parent process: not relevant / no effect
  • Idle pool process: exits and is not replaced
  • Active pool process: exits without putting any result in the pool results queue, and is not replaced
    • The only exception is if the task function is subprocess.Popen(), in which case the pool process will put a result with an exception in the pool results queue unless pool.terminate() is run before the pool process finishes its nonblocking creation of a subprocess.
    • If task function is os.exec*(), the pool process becomes the system command process, so the behavior is defined by the signal handler (if any) installed by the system command. Assuming the default signal handler (i.e., immediate termination upon receiving a SIGTERM signal), the system command process exits.
  • Shell process: not affected
  • System command process: not affected, unless the task function is os.exec*() (see above)


In many cases, the standard

pool = mp.Pool()

usage is sufficient. However, the optimal use of multiprocessing pools depends on the target functions one wants to run in the pool. Target functions can be split into two types:

  1. Python functions that do not call the fork() or exec() family of system calls. To reduce memory utilization at the expense of speed of launching processes, you can set the process start method to 'spawn' using mp.set_start_method('spawn') at the start of your main Python program.
  2. System commands. If you want to be able to terminate the system commands with pool.terminate(), you have to use os.exec*() to launch them. However, this precludes getting any return value (not even an exit code) from the pool processes.

To run system commands with the ability to terminate them, check on their status, and retrieve their returned exit codes, you will have to create your own thread/process pool class, either by extending the existing multiprocessing.pool.Pool class, or rolling your own altogether.


multiprocessing.Pool versus multiprocessing.pool.Pool

multiprocessing.Pool is an alias of multiprocessing.pool.Pool. Upon importing the multiprocessing package (running, the global namespace of the package is updated with names in _default_context, which is an isntance of the DefaultContext class that inherits the BaseContext class, which defines Pool as a wrapper around the multiprocessing.pool.Pool constructor.

Life of a pool process

Below is the hierarchy of some of the key functions and methods involved in creating a pool process. Each function / method is linked to the source code of the method being called, not where it was called in the parent stack frame.

pool = mp.Pool()

Obtaining process (group) IDs and sending signals


  • Current process ID: os.getpid()
  • Current process group ID: os.getpgrp(), or os.getpgid(0)
  • Current process’s parent’s process ID: os.getppid()
  • Process group ID of a process with process ID <PID>: os.getpgid(<PID>)
  • Sending a signal to a process: os.kill(<PID>, <SIGNAL>)
  • Sending a signal to a process group: os.killpg(<PGID>, <SIGNAL>)


  • Current process ID: echo $$
  • Process group ID, parent process ID, process ID: ps -o pgid,ppid,pid,cmd <PID>
  • Sending a signal to a process: kill -s <SIGNAL> <PID>
  • Sending a signal to a process group: kill -s <SIGNAL> -- -<PGID>

multiprocessing.dummy module

The multiprocessing.dummy module “replicates the API of multiprocessing but is no more than a wrapper around the threading module.” [multiprocessing documentation] Specifically, “dummy processes” inherit the threading.Thread class. Even though a thread-based pool system (such as that implemented by multiprocessing.dummy) is limited to a single processor by the Global Interpreter Lock, it can still be useful in the following contexts:

  • Running multiple I/O-bound tasks simultaneously
  • Lanching subprocesses (e.g., system commands)

The multiprocessing.dummy module has some notable limitations, however.

  • Starting dummy processes with a target of os.exec*() will fail with an OSError exception: [Errno 12] Cannot allocate memory.
  • multiprocessing.pool.ThreadPool.terminate() does not terminate workers.
    • Pools created using multiprocessing.dummy.Pool() are instances of the multiprocessing.pool.ThreadPool class, which inherits the mulitprocessing.pool.Pool class and shares the same terminate() method, which calls _terminate(), which calls _terminate_pool(), which includes the lines
      if pool and hasattr(pool[0], 'terminate'):
        util.debug('terminating workers')
        for p in pool:
            if p.exitcode is None:

      where pool is a list of process objects. Real processes have a terminate() method, so hasattr(pool[0], 'terminate') evaluates to True, and the terminate() method is called on each process object. However, threads and dummy processes do not have a terminate() method or attribute, so they are not actually stopped.

Topics not discussed (may be added later!)

  • Using os.spawn() as a means of launching system commands.
  • Exactly how virtual and physical memory are managed across fork() system calls in Python.
Posted: May 27, 2019. Last updated: Oct 15, 2019.