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I heard someone talking about a fork bomb, I did some research and found some dreadful information about some strange looking characters people can have you type at the command line and as a result do bad things on the computer. I certainly would not issue commands I do not understand but one never knows what can happen.

I heard that some OS allows the administrator to place some limit on user processes to mitigate the effects of fork bombs, is this protection in Ubuntu by default or would a person with sudo privilege have to set this? If so, how?

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up vote 53 down vote accepted

You can easily limit the amount of processes that can be spawned in Ubuntu and most other Linux distributions by modifying /etc/security/limits.conf

sudoedit /etc/security/limits.conf

Then add this line to the bottom of that file

*    hard     nproc     800

You can raise this to whatever number you want - nproc is simply the maximum number of processes that can exist simultaneously on the machine. On my Lucid laptop running standard things: Gwibber, email client, web browser, chat I have about 200 processes running simultaneously - so you may need to adjust the number to your needs.

After this limit is put into place, you'll need to reboot, but it will affect each account on the system. So if a fork bomb is executed as any user (root included) it'll have that hard limit.

If you're not looking to restart anytime soon, you can use sudo ulimit -u 800 which will place the restriction only on the current running session. After restart, whatever is in /etc/security/limits.conf will be used (until ulimit is run again).

Some additional information about fork bombs. They aren't malware or anything dreadful. They typically consist of something as basic as a script that calls itself twice - thereby growing its presence on the machine exponentially. Even though they have a small memory footprint given the rapid pace they multiple they quickly fill all available RAM and the machine reboots. The only danger is loosing unsaved information. I would classify a forkbomb much more as a prank than malicious.

An important reminder:

You should rarely ever execute anything in commandline when you aren't 98% certain of its action. If you can't read the commands you're executing - don't do it. This applies double to unreadable chunks of hex/base64 characters, which can be used to obscure all sorts of nastiness. If you're uncertain of a command you can always search for it's actions in the Ubuntu Manpages and be extra cautions when using sudo since that will execute as the root user.

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I hardly need to reboot a linux system. A look at the /proc part of the system yields many limit-files, find /proc/ -name "*limit*" 2>/dev/null shows such files for every process, and i.E.: cat /proc/31750/limit displays, for example: Max processes unlimited unlimited processes . So maybe, it is sufficient to modify the parent process with sudo, and relogin? –  user unknown Feb 2 '11 at 6:53
    
@userunknown That won't work. If you're looking for a way to affect the current running session you can type ulimit -u 800 which would place the limit on all the current and future running processes until you restart. –  Marco Ceppi Feb 2 '11 at 12:25
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+1 for the warning at the end. –  jrg Feb 2 '11 at 12:39
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While the warning is definitely useful, it's often difficult to fully heed it. If inexperienced people ask for advice regarding certain problems, the command line often comes into play. Seeing the way some commands look like a cat walked over a keyboard, especially when regex or sed are involved, it's difficult even for experienced users to fully grasp what a command does, especially so because it's the solution to a problem they had to ask other people about in the first place. –  Christoph Jun 23 '11 at 16:42

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