Thursday, April 17, 2008

How to Recover from System Crashes or Sluggishness

Most of you have come to realize that Linux is really stable, and rarely suffers from a complete system crash. However, on those rare occasions that it does, what should you do? What if you have a runaway process that is eating up all your CPU or memory, and the system had become non-responsive? Would you simply power-cycle or wave the three fingered salute?

Well, if you are not a total Linux geek, you probably will resort to using the CTRL+ALT+DEL method, and failing that a hard power off. In the Windows world, this was acceptable, as these really were the only options you had available. However, for Linux, this is not the case.

How many times under Windows did you have a crash and then had to hard reset, only to find your file system was corrupted and often unbootable? The same can happen under Linux (though generally less likely), if you simply power off.

So, you ask, what should I do? Well, since you asked, here are some steps you can try to safely and cleanly recover from a non-responsive system/desktop under Kubuntu (some of the suggestions may be specific to KDE/Kubuntu - ymmv).

1) CTRL+ALT+ESC - Kill Window

If your system is sluggish due to a hanging application, you can hit the CTRL+ALT+ESC key sequence and the next window you left-click will be killed. Be warned, you can click the background/desktop and kill it using this method as it is treated just like any other application/window.

2) CTRL+ESC - ksysguard

If you cannot kill the offending application using method 1) above (e.g. there is no GUI or killing the app you though was the problem did not resolve the issue), then you can bring up the process table (similar to windows task manager) and look for the application sucking up all the memory or CPU time. Select it from the list, and hit Kill to terminate it.

If you are familiar with the Linux command line, you can achieve the same via running Konsole and typing using the command 'ps -A' or 'top' to examine the same process list. To kill the offending application, you need to issue the 'kill' command followed by the process ID (or PID) (e.g. kill 9999).

Instead of using kill, you may need to use the killall command, which can be passed an application name, like 'killall konqueror', which will kill all instances of konqueror (this is not the same as killing one instance of konqueror via a single PID).

3) CTRL+ALT+F1 - Switch to first text console

Your system has six virtual terminals predefined, and can be accessed via CTRL+ALT+F1 through CTRL+ALT+F6 consecutively. If the desktop is frozen/hung, and the first two options cannot be performed, then you can use this method to bring up a text based console. Login with your usual name and password, and using step 2 above, you should be able to find the offending applicatiion (assuming there is one that stands out - i.e. has all your memory tied up or using 99% CPU).

4) CTRL+ALT+BACKSPACE - Restart X server (Desktop/GUI)

If that doesn’t work, you might want to restart your Desktop using the CTRL-ALT-Backspace combo. Beware, that this will kill all your Desktop apps currently running, and you may lose any changes to files not recently saved or auto-backed up. This should kick you back to the login manager. If it does not, then the X Server may have failed to re-initialize, try the next option.

5) CTRL+ALT+DEL - Reboot System

You can attempt to use CTRL+ALT+DEL from the Desktop/GUI or one of the Virtual terminals (CTRL+ALT+F1). If you do it via the Desktop, you may be given the Shutdown Dialog with options to Reboot or Shutdown or the system may just silently reboot. Sometimes this will not work, and you must invoke the CTRL+ALT+DEL via one of the Virtual terminals, which will perform a full reboot.

6) ALT+SysRq - Magic SysRq (System Request) Key

If none of the above work, you can try this last option before resorting to a hard power-cycle. This method has sometimes been called "Skinny Elephants", "Raise the Elephant" or "Raising Skinny Elephants". Not sure where the phrase originated, but here's what it refers to: "Raising Skinny Elephants Is Utterly Boring"

Taking the first letter from each word in the phrase, and you have the key sequence you need to hit to safely sync the disks, terminate running processes, unmount file systems and finally reboot.

r - put keyboard in raw mode
s - sync the disk
e - terminate all processes
i - kill all processes
u - remount all filesystems read only
b - reboot the system

Now you see why someone came up with the silly phrase you will now never forget (just like elephants never forget).

Here is the full key sequence (remember to use the left ALT key and the SysRq key is the PrtSc key if not labeled on your keyboard):


Please wait 2 or 3 seconds between hitting each key sequence to allow for each step to complete. Especially if you have a lot of running services/processes.

When your system boots, you may be prompted for a file system check. If you are, please ensure you let the system check and repair if necessary.

7) Power-cycle - Power off or Reset

You should never do this. The system will hate you for this and will eventually lead to some sort of file corruption of lost data. This is as an absolute last resort (i.e. keyboard is not responding to any key sequences above).


I hope this is useful to someone :)