This is a tale about a hopelessly bad error message.

I’m trying to get Ansible 2.0 working on a custom FreeBSD 8.4 that’s running custom Python 2.6. That’s like fitting satellite navigation on a vintage car, but it’s a different story for another day.

Errno 23

Intermittently, Ansible would complain like so:

Unexpected Exception: [Errno 23] Too many open files in system

The full trace is below:

Traceback (most recent call last):
File "/var/python/lib/python2.6/site-packages/ansible-", line 85, in <module>
File "/var/python/lib/python2.6/site-packages/ansible-", line 150, in run
results =
File "/var/python/lib/python2.6/site-packages/ansible-", line 148, in run
result =
File "/var/python/lib/python2.6/site-packages/ansible-", line 203, in run
File "/var/python/lib/python2.6/site-packages/ansible-", line 103, in _initialize_processes
main_q = multiprocessing.Queue()
File "/var/python/lib/python2.6/multiprocessing/", line 213, in Queue
return Queue(maxsize)
File "/var/python/lib/python2.6/multiprocessing/", line 42, in __init__
self._wlock = Lock()
File "/var/python/lib/python2.6/multiprocessing/", line 117, in __init__
SemLock.__init__(self, SEMAPHORE, 1, 1)
File "/var/python/lib/python2.6/multiprocessing/", line 49, in __init__
sl = self._semlock = _multiprocessing.SemLock(kind, value, maxvalue)
OSError: [Errno 23] Too many open files in system

Hmmm. That looks an easy one to fix.

  • I set ulimit -n 50000. No help.
  • sysctl kern.maxfiles=50000. Nope.
  • sysctl kern.maxprocfiles=50000. Didn’t work either.

I had a demo coming up where I would deploy a cluster with Ansible. This was starting to give trouble. I had to get to the bottom of this.

Entering python

I started by looking in the python library /var/python/lib/python2.6 for _multiprocessing module sources, but couldn’t find it. There was a match in dynamic libraries, however:

$ grep _multiprocessing *
Binary file lib-dynload matches
Binary file test matches

That means it must be in the sources for the python interpreter: that’s how it ended up being a compiled, binary library.

I opened up python-2.6 sources. A grep showed matches in Modules/_multiprocessing/semaphore.c. It was making a system call: sem_open().

Hmmm. So sem_open() is failing. I looked up errno man page for the number 23 and it was, symbolically, ENFILE.

23 ENFILE	Too many open files in system.  Maximum number of file descrip-
		tors allowable on the system has been reached and a requests for
		an open cannot be satisfied until at least one has been closed.

Maybe there is a different tuning parameter for IPC file descriptors. That’s why the previous commands didn’t work?

Kernel of truth

Down the rabbit hole: now I opened the FreeBSD kernel sources. I first simply tried to list files that had sem in their filename. This led me to kern/sysv_sem.c and a bunch of weird sysctl tunables like kern.ipc.semmnu. But these tunables already had reasonably high values. Dead end.

Of course, there’s a better way than that. Why not just grep for sem_open? Besides, what I wanted was POSIX semaphores, not System-V! I remembered now: Python configure script for 2.6 on FreeBSD 8.4 doesn’t enable POSIX IPC by default, because it warns, the platform support code is experimental. I had read it, uncommented it, and then forgot all about it. Did I run into this problem?

OK, progress at last. The following was interesting:

kern/syscalls.c: "ksem_open", /* 405 = ksem_open */
kern/uipc_sem.c:ksem_open(struct thread *td, struct ksem_open_args *uap)
sys/semaphore.h:sem_t *sem_open(const char *, int, …);
sys/syscall.h:#define SYS_ksem_open 405

So it seems sem_open() is implemented via ksem_open() in kern/uipc_sem.c. I opened up uipc_sem.c and sure enough, found a tunable:

if (nsems == p31b_getcfg(CTL_P1003_1B_SEM_NSEMS_MAX) || ksem_dead) {
				return (NULL);

Thirty ought to be enough

Turns out CTL_P1003_1B_SEM_NSEMS_MAX corresponds to the sysctl sem_nsems_max. And guess what its default value is? 30! You read that right, it’s 30!

#ifndef SEM_MAX
#define SEM_MAX 30

That sounds like a very low value. I set it to 300:

sysctl p1003_1b.nsems_max=300

Magic! I stopped getting the “too many open files” error. I tried a few more times and never ran into the problem again. I still haven’t had a chance to see why p1003_1b.nsems_max defaults to 30, but I will stop here for now.


Looking back at this, I’m amazed at how far away the problem is from the actual cause. Saying “Too many open files” is certainly not the same as saying “Your configured maximum semaphores limit is too low”. A different errno would have helped. But then, I was warned the code is experimental.

When I first wrote the Ansible playbooks, it was on Linux. We never thought of running it on FreeBSD, much less its 8.4 version.

What really helped a lot here is the open source nature of the entire stack: I had access to python sources, as well as the FreeBSD kernel sources. All of that was sitting checked in to a single source repository. It was a matter of couple of hours to get to the bottom of it. I don’t know if I could have pulled this off if I had to call a Customer Support line and open a ticket!