Job control: one shell is all you need

If you work in a graphical desktop environment, you are most likely used to multi-tasking. You can listen to music while you type your blog posts, browse the web while your code compiles, and so on.

But what if you are interacting with your machine via a command line? Sure, you can use a terminal multiplexer like tmux. But what if you forgot to run it before starting your tasks? And now you are updating your packages and the shell is locked?! What a nightmare!

Luckily, the UNIX shell has a job control system that allows you to run multiple tasks at the same time. What I explain in this post has been tested on ksh on OpenBSD, but should work in the same way on Linux or any UNIX-like OS with a POSIX-compatible shell - except perhaps for the key combinations to suspend or kill a job.

This post is not meant to be an introduction to what the shell is, but it is worth spending a few words to clear up some common (and understandable) confusion. I’ll keep them really a few.

The terminal vs the shell, in 42 words

A terminal emulator is a program that displays text, usually coming from a shell. The shell reads text, normally entered by the user, and interprets it. If this text instructs it to run another program, it spawns a new process for it.

Foreground and background jobs

A job is an entity that runs in the shell when you issue a command. A job can consist of more than one process, for example if you run multiple commands in a pipeline. When you try to close a shell, it usually warns you if you have running jobs attached to it, since it will kill them before it closes - that might depend on the shell’s configuration and launch options, though.

When you run a program by typing its name of in a shell, say a text editor like vi, this program “takes over” the shell. You can’t run any other command until this program terminates - or so it seems. This happens also with most GUI programs, like firefox or gedit: if you run them from a shell you will see some log messages, but the shell is otherwise useless. This is the intendend behavior, and this job is said to be running in the foreground. At any time there can be at most one foreground job in a given shell.

If you have read my previous blog entry on the shell, you should know that you can launch a command in the background by adding an & at the end of the line. Background jobs do not “block” the shell, but they still use it to print their output.

So jobs can be running in the foreground or in the background of a shell. There is also a third possible state for a shell’s job: it can be suspended. On most UNIX shells you can suspend a foreground job by pressing Ctrl+Z. Try it: if you open vi, or any other terminal-based program, and press Ctrl+Z, you are sent back to a command prompt. This is even more fun with a graphical application: its whole window becomes unresponsive and you can’t even close it! (Ok, I admit my definition of “fun” might be… unusual)

Full job control

So far we have seen how to run commands (jobs) in the foreground (default behavior) or in the background (using &), and how to suspend the job in the foreground (with Ctrl+Z). But we can do more.

To get an overview of the jobs attached to the current shell, you can use the jobs command. If you run it while you have some backgrounded or suspended jobs, you’ll something like this:

[3] + Suspended   vi
[2] - Suspended   cat
[1]   Running     ./git/nissy/nissy

The number in brackets is the job’s ID. It is followed by the job’s status (Done, Running, Suspended or Stopped) and the command that started the job. If you use the -l option you’ll get the job’s process ID, or PID, too.

You can use this information to change a job’s status with the fg and bg builtins. For example, typing

$ fg %job_id

makes a currently backgrounded or suspended job run in the foreground. Similarly

$ bg %job_id

makes a currently suspended job run in the background. As far as I know, there is no way to tell the job running in the foregroung to pass to the background - you have to suspend it first, and then use bg.

You can replace %job_id with the job’s PID (without percent symbol) or with %string, where string is the beginning of the job’s name. If you call fg or bg without any argument, the job marked by a + in the jobs list is selected. You can select the job marked by a - with %-

All of this is summed up in the following diagram:

Diagram showing how to change the status of a job

Picture generated with tikz (code 1.2Kb, pdf 27.3Kb). Do you know a better (simpler) tool or language to generate svg graphics and diagrams programmatically? Let me know!

You may have noticed that kill(1) makes an appearance. I have not talked about it yet, and I won’t go over it in detail in this post, but to put it briefly you can use kill to send certain signals to a process or job - such as SIGSTOP to suspend and SIGTERM to terminate. This is what pressing a Ctrl+Z or Ctrl+C actually does under the hood.


With just a few simple bultins and keyboard sortcuts, the UNIX shell gives some good flexibility in managing running jobs. If, like me, you run most of your shells in a graphical terminal emulator or in a tmux session, you can already get all the flexibility you want by opening a new terminal window. But the ability to suspend jobs and resume them later might be something new. Moreover, you might find yourself in a situation where spawning a new window is not an option - for example if you are connected to a remote machine via ssh and you forgot to run tmux when you logged in.

I hope you found this post interesting. I certainly enjoyed writing it, and I learnt a couple of new tricks in the process.