Sometimes you need to unmount a filesystem or detach a loop device but it is busy because of open file descriptors, perhaps because of a smb server process.

To force the unmount, you can kill the offending process (or try kill -SIGTERM), but that would close the smb connection (even though some of the files it has open do not need to be closed).

A hacky way to force a process to close a given file descriptor is described here using gdb to call close(fd). This seems dangerous, however. What if the closed descriptor is recycled? The process might use the old stored descriptor not realizing it now refers to a totally different file.

I have an idea, but don't know what kind of flaws it has: using gdb, open /dev/null with O_WRONLY (edit: an comment suggested O_PATH as a better alternative), then dup2 to close the offending file descriptor and reuse its descriptor for /dev/null. This way any reads or writes to the file descriptor will fail.

Like this:

sudo gdb -p 234532
(gdb) set $dummy_fd = open("/dev/null", 0x200000) // O_PATH
(gdb) p dup2($dummy_fd, offending_fd)
(gdb) p close($dummy_fd)
(gdb) detach
(gdb) quit

What could go wrong?

  • One thing that could happen, you could loose buffered data that should have been written to that file descriptor. That of course depends on application. – Sergiy Kolodyazhnyy Dec 31 '18 at 22:51
  • In general, I'd rather just terminate the program (and tell any service manager controlling it not to restart it automatically) instead of making it suddenly get an EOF on one of its files. What if it had read the first 10 characters of the line RunAsUid=12345 in a config file and you do the /dev/null thing right after that? – Mark Plotnick Dec 31 '18 at 23:04
  • @MarkPlotnick if I could get it to return an access error or an I/O error would that solve the issue you raised? – afuna Jan 1 at 10:10
  • @MarkPlotnick - I haven't verified it, but the reason I open /dev/null with 2 (= O_WRONLY is so that reads should fail with EACCESS instead of EOF – afuna Jan 1 at 17:58
  • 1
    @afuna please update your question to use 0x200000 (O_PATH). that's the way to go if you want an "opaque" file descriptor (on which not only reads and writes, but also ioctl, lseek, ftruncate and fchmod will fail. – pizdelect Jan 5 at 19:00

Fiddling with a process with gdb is almost never safe though may be necessary if there's some emergency and the process needs to stay open and all the risks and code involved is understood.

Most often I would simply terminate the process, though some cases may be different and could depend on the environment, who owns the relevant systems and process involved, what the process is doing, whether there is documentation on "okay to kill it" or "no, contact so-and-so first", etc. These details may need to be worked out in a post-mortem meeting once the dust settles. If there is a planned migration it would be good in advance to check whether any processes have problematic file descriptors open so those can be dealt with in a non-emergency setting (cron jobs or other scheduled tasks that run only in the wee hours when migrations may be done are easily missed if you check only during daytime hours).

Write-only versus Read versus Read-Write

Your idea to reopen the file descriptor O_WRONLY is problematic as not all file descriptors are write-only. John Viega and Matt Messier take a more nuanced approach in the "Secure Programming Cookbook for C and C++" book and handle standard input differently than standard out and standard error (p. 25, "Managing File Descriptors Safely"):

static int open_devnull(int fd) {
  FILE *f = 0;

  if (!fd) f = freopen(_PATH_DEVNULL, "rb", stdin);
  else if (fd == 1) f = freopen(_PATH_DEVNULL, "wb", stdout);
  else if (fd == 2) f = freopen(_PATH_DEVNULL, "wb", stderr);
  return (f && fileno(f) == fd);

In the gdb case the descriptor (or also FILE * handle) would need to be checked whether it is read-only or read-write or write-only and an appropriate replacement opened on /dev/null. If not, a once read-only handle that is now write-only will cause needless errors should the process attempt to read from that.

What Could Go Wrong?

How exactly a process behaves when its file descriptors (and likely also FILE * handles) are fiddled behind the scenes will depend on the process and will vary from "no big deal" should that descriptor never be used to "nightmare mode" where there is now a corrupt file somewhere due to unflushed data, no file-was-properly-closed indicator, or some other unanticipated problem.

For FILE * handles the addition of a fflush(3) call before closing the handle may help, or may cause double buffering or some other issue; this is one of the several hazards of making random calls in gdb without knowing exactly what the source code does and expects. Software may also have additional layers of complexity built on top of fd descriptors or the FILE * handles that may also need to be dealt with. Monkey patching the code could turn into a monkey wrench easily enough.


Sending a process a standard terminate signal should give it a chance to properly close out resources, same as when a system shuts down normally. Fiddling with a process with gdb will likely not properly close things out, and could make the situation very much worse.

  • Thanks! The point of using O_WRONLY is specifically to cause errors - we don't want the process to get an incorrect EOF, like @MarkPlotnick commented above. – afuna Jan 2 at 22:13

open /dev/null with O_WRONLY, then dup2 to close the offending file descriptor and reuse it's descriptor for /dev/null. This way any reads or writes to the file descriptor will fail.

If you dup a descriptor to /dev/null, any writes will not fail, but succeed, and the reads will succeed and return 0 (eof).

This may or may not be what you want.

On linux, you can also open a file with flags = 3 (O_WRONLY|O_RDWR aka O_NOACCESS) which will cause any read or write to fail with EBADF.

The file will only be available for ioctls -- which brings up a danger not talked about in the other answer and comments: reads and writes are not the only operations done on file descriptors. (what about lseek or ftruncate?).


I found something better than the undocumented O_WRONLY|O_RDWR: O_PATH = 010000000 / 0x200000. According to the open(2) manpage:

O_PATH (since Linux 2.6.39)
     Obtain a file descriptor that can be used for two  purposes:  to
     indicate a location in the filesystem tree and to perform opera-
     tions that act purely at the file descriptor  level.   The  file
     itself  is not opened, and other file operations (e.g., read(2),
     write(2), fchmod(2), fchown(2), fgetxattr(2), mmap(2)) fail with
     the error EBADF.

    The  following operations can be performed on the resulting file

    *  close(2); fchdir(2) (since Linux 3.5); fstat(2) (since  Linux

    *  Duplicating  the  file  descriptor (dup(2), fcntl(2) F_DUPFD,
  • On linux, you can also open a file with flags = 3 (O_WRONLY|O_RDWR aka O_NOACCESS) Ooof. That directly violates the POSIX standard: "Applications shall specify exactly one of the first five values (file access modes) below in the value of oflag" – Andrew Henle Jan 2 at 23:45
  • I did not claim that was portable ;-) It's an obscure hack, only used in lilo if I'm not mistaken. – pizdelect Jan 3 at 0:21

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