Service startup in Systemd

Due to some issues I recently had on one system I wanted to learn more about how systemd handles dependencies and especially when it actually considers a service to be active/started. This is by no means a complete or highly detailed guide but simply gives an overview of what I’ve learnt so far 😊

The original issue was that I had one service (A) depending on another service (B) and a port it was binding to. Sadly, B didn’t bind the port immediately but only after a couple milliseconds while systemd was already starting A. A couldn’t connect to B’s port and exited.

While due to some constraints I opted in the end to just go with something like ExecStartPre=-/bin/sh -c 'sleep 1' I was still curious what options I’d have in other situations where the services are more under my control.

Status transitions

So how does systemd know that a service has been started successfully and therefore moves it from the status “activating” to “activated”?

According to the systemd.service manpage, for “simple” services (those service units with the type “simple”) that’s pretty straight forward. The ExecStart command is started and right afterwards all depending services are launched. No timeouts or something like that to see if the service keeps running before continuing. If the start itself doesn’t fail, everything is done.

For “forking” services (classic Unix daemons), depending services are launched right after the configured commands exits successfully.

If you need a bit more control over that transition, you can use the “notify” service type, which requires the service to send back a signal that it is ready. That sounds pretty useful, so let’s dig a bit deeper.

Notifying you’re ready

With a notifying service unit the whole service stays in the “activating” state until the process signals through the NOTIFY_SOCKET a READY=1 message:

The protocol for communications through that socket is simple. All you have are newline-seperated key-value pairs like these:


The first datasets helps systemd to determine which service is saying it is ready, while the second does just that.

There are also other messages that can be sent through that connection like when the service wants systemd to know that it is restarting, reloading its configuration, stopping, that it failed, …, and also a free-form STATUS value.

You can find out more on the sd_notify manpage.

Setting the MAINPID seems only to be necessary if you send the notification from something like a subprocess, not the process that is directly managed by systemd. This is probably done using some low-level domain socket headers and peer credentials. Haven’t checked 😊

A really tiny demo

Let’s give all of that a try:

First, let’s create a little service unit for something that should start up but wait a couple of seconds before confirming that it is done:

Description=Systemd Notify Demo



The actual service code looks like this:

package main

import (

var ErrNoSocket = errors.New("No NOTIFY_SOCKET set")

func notify(msg string) error {
    socketPath := os.Getenv("NOTIFY_SOCKET")
    if socketPath == "" {
        return ErrNoSocket
    addr := &net.UnixAddr{
        Name: socketPath,
        Net:  "unixgram",
    conn, err := net.DialUnix(addr.Net, nil, addr)
    if err != nil {
        return err
    defer conn.Close()
    _, err = conn.Write([]byte(msg))
    return err

func main() {
    notify("STATUS=Process started. Setting up...")
    time.Sleep(5 * time.Second)
    notify("STATUS=Setup complete. Enjoy!")
    for {
        time.Sleep(1 * time.Second)

What’s really neat is that you can set the status even before the service is marked as ready. This way you can have in one line displayed some kind of progress information. That status is displayed right below the “Main PID” in the output of systemctl status systemd-notify-demo.service:

● systemd-notify-demo.service - Systemd Notify Demo
Loaded: loaded (/etc/systemd/system/systemd-notify-demo.service; disabled)
Active: active (running) since Sat 2016-11-05 15:46:47 UTC; 8min ago
Main PID: 5145 (systemd-notify-)
Status: "Setup complete. Enjoy!"
CGroup: /system.slice/systemd-notify-demo.service
        └─5145 /tmp/systemd-notify-demo

What else?

In case you don’t want to do the socket communication yourself, systemd also comes with a little command called systemd-notify which lets you send notifications, for instance, from your shell scripts.

RabbitMQ among others considered it for their startup system but eventually opted for a native implementation as systemd-notify turned out to be unreliable when executed by a non-root user.

For me personally, I’d probably try to go down to the socket whenever I can simply because it has only a very limited amount of overhead compared to launching a subprocess.

In any case you might also want to look into the NotifyAccess service setting which controls, what processes within the service’s cgroup can send status updates.


While this hasn’t really helped me solve my initial problem, the systemd notification system looks like a way I might use in the future when I have systems that require, for instance, an HTTP service running. I’m not yet sure, though, how applicable all of this is when combined with Docker. I’ve seen systemd-docker but haven’t had the time, yet, to give it a try. Perhaps something for the next weekend πŸ˜‰