How do I set a socket to be non-blocking?

The traditional UNIX system calls are blocking. For example:

accept() blocks the caller until a connection is present.

If no messages space is available at the socket to hold the message to be transmitted, then send() normally blocks.

If no messages are available at the socket, the recv call waits for a message to arrive.

When writing a server, we need to be ready to react to many kinds of event which could happen next: a new connection is made, or a client sends us a request, or a client drops its connection. If we make a call to, say, accept, and the call blocks, then we lose our ability to respond to other events.

The traditional answer to this problem is the select system call. We call select indicating various blocking calls we’re interested in. select then blocks until one or more of those blocking calls is ready, meaning that calling it will not block.

If our server only makes calls which select has indicated will not block, will everything be OK? No! These two operations - select followed by the hopefully non-blocking call - are non-atomic. By the time the server makes the call, the situation may have changed! A pending connection may disappear before we try to accept it. A client attempting to send data may disappear before we try to read its data. Data may be read from a socket by a different process before we get to it.

The answer to this is non-blocking I/O. We set a flag on a socket which marks that socket as non-blocking. This means that, when performing calls on that socket (such as read and write), if the call cannot complete, then instead it will fail with an error like EWOULDBLOCK or EAGAIN.

To mark a socket as non-blocking, we use the fcntl system call. Here’s an example:

int flags = guard(fcntl(socket_fd, F_GETFL), "could not get file flags");
guard(fcntl(socket_fd, F_SETFL, flags | O_NONBLOCK), "could not set file flags");

Here’s a complete example. This server opens TCP port 8080, and marks the listening socket as non-blocking. The server then loops, repeatedly asking for a new connection. If the server gets a connection, the server writes something to the connection then closes it. If the server does not get a connection (because no connections were made to the server, and the socket was marked non-blocking), then the server sleeps for a second before trying again.

#include <stdlib.h>
#include <unistd.h>
#include <sys/socket.h>
#include <stdio.h>
#include <fcntl.h>
#include <netinet/in.h>
#include <errno.h>

int guard(int n, char * err) { if (n == -1) { perror(err); exit(1); } return n; }

int main() {
  int listen_socket_fd = guard(socket(AF_INET, SOCK_STREAM, 0), "could not create TCP listening socket");
  int flags = guard(fcntl(listen_socket_fd, F_GETFL), "could not get flags on TCP listening socket");
  guard(fcntl(listen_socket_fd, F_SETFL, flags | O_NONBLOCK), "could not set TCP listening socket to be non-blocking");
  struct sockaddr_in addr;
  addr.sin_family = AF_INET;
  addr.sin_port = htons(8080);
  addr.sin_addr.s_addr = htonl(INADDR_ANY);
  guard(bind(listen_socket_fd, (struct sockaddr *) &addr, sizeof(addr)), "could not bind");
  guard(listen(listen_socket_fd, 100), "could not listen");
  for (;;) {
    int client_socket_fd = accept(listen_socket_fd, NULL, NULL);
    if (client_socket_fd == -1) {
      if (errno == EWOULDBLOCK) {
        printf("No pending connections; sleeping for one second.\n");
      } else {
        perror("error when accepting connection");
    } else {
      char msg[] = "hello\n";
      printf("Got a connection; writing 'hello' then closing.\n");
      send(client_socket_fd, msg, sizeof(msg), 0);
  return EXIT_SUCCESS;

Notice the calls to fcntl and the check for EWOULDBLOCK when calling accept. When running this and making connections, we see:

$ ./a.out
No pending connections; sleeping for one second.
No pending connections; sleeping for one second.
No pending connections; sleeping for one second.
Got a connection; writing 'hello' then closing.
No pending connections; sleeping for one second.
Got a connection; writing 'hello' then closing.
Got a connection; writing 'hello' then closing.
No pending connections; sleeping for one second.
No pending connections; sleeping for one second.

I’m making repeated TCP connections with:

$ nc localhost 8080
$ nc localhost 8080
$ nc localhost 8080
I just released Vidrio, a free app for macOS and Windows to make your screen-sharing awesomely holographic. Vidrio shows your webcam video on your screen, just like a mirror. Then you just share or record your screen with Zoom, QuickTime, or any other app. Vidrio makes your presentations effortlessly engaging, showing your gestures, gazes, and expressions. #1 on Product Hunt. Available for macOS and Windows.

With Vidrio

With generic competitor

More by Jim

Tagged . All content copyright James Fisher 2017. This post is not associated with my employer. Found an error? Edit this page.