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Run Process in Background Linux Terminal

I'm a software developer with a great interest in data analysis and statistics.


If you’re like me and you started to hate clicking icons to launch projects, you start them from the shell. For example, I open my terminal or have an open terminal and run the VLC command. This command will open the VLC media player if you have it installed. But now the process is running in the foreground on your open terminal. VLC’s lifecycle is closely tied to the terminal and blocks other actions on the terminal. If you don’t have VLC, use the ‘gnome-calculator’ for example.

When you start the process this way, you’ll see the shell waits (blocks) until the program finishes or is terminated.

If you close the terminal, you will be prompted by the terminal: “There is still a process running in this terminal. Closing the terminal will kill it”. You can cancel or close the terminal. This is because the process you started inherits some things from the shell (stdin, stdout, etc). This makes the process bound to that terminal.

When you close your terminal, the shell receives a SIGHUP. It also sends a SIGHUP to the process you started. This will end the process.

Let’s assume you don’t want to kill the process, but you don’t need or want this terminal anymore. Or you may want to continue using the terminal for other tasks.

Adding the ‘&’ to Your Command

In the case of VLC, the process moves to the background and you can continue to use the terminal as you see fit. You will get a shell prompt again. Often I just continue from there or clear the terminal and use it for other tasks or start different processes.

If you close the terminal by pressing the close button (x) with the mouse or use Shift+Ctrl+W, then it will stop all the processes you started in that terminal. This is more or less the same problem as before, but this time the terminal doesn’t prompt you to do so, it just kills the program(s) immediately.

If you type the exit command in the terminal or close with the Ctrl+D shortcut, it will close the terminal, but the running processes will stay up. This was the first solution I tried. I still use it quite often, but there are others. Some have other benefits or give you more options if needed.

$ vlc &

Adding the ‘& disown’ to Your Command

In many ways, this (& disown) seems to do the same as adding the “&” to the command. But when you add disown, the process will be removed from the shell’s list of jobs. The process is still connected to the terminal, but it does not receive the SIGHUP.

One of the downsides of disown is that it is bash specific. If you often use different systems which don’t know this command, then it can be a pain. Since most of the commands are near reflex-like after a while, you could end up typing this command on systems where it is of no use. But for me this is not really an issue, but keep it in mind.

$ vlc & disown

Using ‘setsid’ in Your Shell Command

A command run with setsid opens and/or assigns a new session id to the process. This session id is different from the session id of the current running terminal. A tree of all processes (executing instances of the programs) running on your system would show that the process with a new session id starts at the root of the tree structure, not as a branch of the terminal process.

With setsid, you can’t check the output of the process you started later on. This is something that you can do with something like nohup and screen. With screen there is an attached screen session to the process and with nohup you can check the output file. But is this something you need or want for the process you are starting? Sometimes this is the case, but often you just need to run the program and that’s it.

You can also make it write to an output file when using setsid.

$ setsid vlc

Using ‘nohup’ With Your Command

Nohup will separate the process from the terminal. Because of the disconnect, it will not receive SIGHUP, which is why it is named nohup. If you close the terminal, the process will keep running until you close it.

When the terminal is open, the job is still in the foreground and still under the shell’s job control. This means if you just use nohup, you still can’t use that terminal for other tasks. So you should combine it with an ‘&’.

$ nohup vlc
$ nohup vlc &

As you see, it closes/ignores the input and will append the output to a nohup.out. The use of nohup.out will make sure the process can still write its output even when the terminal ends/closes.

Linux basic commands, ubuntu

The Run Dialog

You can also opt for not starting the process from a terminal. It is possible to use the run dialog prompt. Press ALT+F2 and type in the process you wish to start in the dialog screen. For starting VLC media player in our case example: vlc.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2016 Sam Shepards


Anton on September 14, 2020:

Thank you for this post.