2.6. I/O System

The basic model of the UNIX I/O system is a sequence of bytes that can be accessed either randomly or sequentially. There are no access methods and no control blocks in a typical UNIX user process.

Different programs expect various levels of structure, but the kernel does not impose structure on I/O. For instance, the convention for text files is lines of ASCII characters separated by a single newline character (the ASCII line-feed character), but the kernel knows nothing about this convention. For the purposes of most programs, the model is further simplified to being a stream of data bytes, or an I/O stream. It is this single common data form that makes the characteristic UNIX tool-based approach work [Kernighan & Pike, 1984]. An I/O stream from one program can be fed as input to almost any other program. (This kind of traditional UNIX I/O stream should not be confused with the Eighth Edition stream I/O system or with the System V, Release 3 STREAMS, both of which can be accessed as traditional I/O streams.)

2.6.1. Descriptors and I/O

UNIX processes use descriptors to reference I/O streams. Descriptors are small unsigned integers obtained from the open and socket system calls. The open system call takes as arguments the name of a file and a permission mode to specify whether the file should be open for reading or for writing, or for both. This system call also can be used to create a new, empty file. A read or write system call can be applied to a descriptor to transfer data. The close system call can be used to deallocate any descriptor.

Descriptors represent underlying objects supported by the kernel, and are created by system calls specific to the type of object. In 4.4BSD, three kinds of objects can be represented by descriptors: files, pipes, and sockets.

  • A file is a linear array of bytes with at least one name. A file exists until all its names are deleted explicitly and no process holds a descriptor for it. A process acquires a descriptor for a file by opening that file's name with the open system call. I/O devices are accessed as files.

  • A pipe is a linear array of bytes, as is a file, but it is used solely as an I/O stream, and it is unidirectional. It also has no name, and thus cannot be opened with open. Instead, it is created by the pipe system call, which returns two descriptors, one of which accepts input that is sent to the other descriptor reliably, without duplication, and in order. The system also supports a named pipe or FIFO. A FIFO has properties identical to a pipe, except that it appears in the filesystem; thus, it can be opened using the open system call. Two processes that wish to communicate each open the FIFO: One opens it for reading, the other for writing.

  • A socket is a transient object that is used for interprocess communication; it exists only as long as some process holds a descriptor referring to it. A socket is created by the socket system call, which returns a descriptor for it. There are different kinds of sockets that support various communication semantics, such as reliable delivery of data, preservation of message ordering, and preservation of message boundaries.

In systems before 4.2BSD, pipes were implemented using the filesystem; when sockets were introduced in 4.2BSD, pipes were reimplemented as sockets.

The kernel keeps for each process a descriptor table, which is a table that the kernel uses to translate the external representation of a descriptor into an internal representation. (The descriptor is merely an index into this table.) The descriptor table of a process is inherited from that process's parent, and thus access to the objects to which the descriptors refer also is inherited. The main ways that a process can obtain a descriptor are by opening or creation of an object, and by inheritance from the parent process. In addition, socket IPC allows passing of descriptors in messages between unrelated processes on the same machine.

Every valid descriptor has an associated file offset in bytes from the beginning of the object. Read and write operations start at this offset, which is updated after each data transfer. For objects that permit random access, the file offset also may be set with the lseek system call. Ordinary files permit random access, and some devices do, as well. Pipes and sockets do not.

When a process terminates, the kernel reclaims all the descriptors that were in use by that process. If the process was holding the final reference to an object, the object's manager is notified so that it can do any necessary cleanup actions, such as final deletion of a file or deallocation of a socket.

2.6.2. Descriptor Management

Most processes expect three descriptors to be open already when they start running. These descriptors are 0, 1, 2, more commonly known as standard input, standard output, and standard error, respectively. Usually, all three are associated with the user's terminal by the login process (see Section 14.6) and are inherited through fork and exec by processes run by the user. Thus, a program can read what the user types by reading standard input, and the program can send output to the user's screen by writing to standard output. The standard error descriptor also is open for writing and is used for error output, whereas standard output is used for ordinary output.

These (and other) descriptors can be mapped to objects other than the terminal; such mapping is called I/O redirection, and all the standard shells permit users to do it. The shell can direct the output of a program to a file by closing descriptor 1 (standard output) and opening the desired output file to produce a new descriptor 1. It can similarly redirect standard input to come from a file by closing descriptor 0 and opening the file.

Pipes allow the output of one program to be input to another program without rewriting or even relinking of either program. Instead of descriptor 1 (standard output) of the source program being set up to write to the terminal, it is set up to be the input descriptor of a pipe. Similarly, descriptor 0 (standard input) of the sink program is set up to reference the output of the pipe, instead of the terminal keyboard. The resulting set of two processes and the connecting pipe is known as a pipeline. Pipelines can be arbitrarily long series of processes connected by pipes.

The open, pipe, and socket system calls produce new descriptors with the lowest unused number usable for a descriptor. For pipelines to work, some mechanism must be provided to map such descriptors into 0 and 1. The dup system call creates a copy of a descriptor that points to the same file-table entry. The new descriptor is also the lowest unused one, but if the desired descriptor is closed first, dup can be used to do the desired mapping. Care is required, however: If descriptor 1 is desired, and descriptor 0 happens also to have been closed, descriptor 0 will be the result. To avoid this problem, the system provides the dup2 system call; it is like dup, but it takes an additional argument specifying the number of the desired descriptor (if the desired descriptor was already open, dup2 closes it before reusing it).

2.6.3. Devices

Hardware devices have filenames, and may be accessed by the user via the same system calls used for regular files. The kernel can distinguish a device special file or special file, and can determine to what device it refers, but most processes do not need to make this determination. Terminals, printers, and tape drives are all accessed as though they were streams of bytes, like 4.4BSD disk files. Thus, device dependencies and peculiarities are kept in the kernel as much as possible, and even in the kernel most of them are segregated in the device drivers.

Hardware devices can be categorized as either structured or unstructured; they are known as block or character devices, respectively. Processes typically access devices through special files in the filesystem. I/O operations to these files are handled by kernel-resident software modules termed device drivers. Most network-communication hardware devices are accessible through only the interprocess-communication facilities, and do not have special files in the filesystem name space, because the raw-socket interface provides a more natural interface than does a special file.

Structured or block devices are typified by disks and magnetic tapes, and include most random-access devices. The kernel supports read-modify-write-type buffering actions on block-oriented structured devices to allow the latter to be read and written in a totally random byte-addressed fashion, like regular files. Filesystems are created on block devices.

Unstructured devices are those devices that do not support a block structure. Familiar unstructured devices are communication lines, raster plotters, and unbuffered magnetic tapes and disks. Unstructured devices typically support large block I/O transfers.

Unstructured files are called character devices because the first of these to be implemented were terminal device drivers. The kernel interface to the driver for these devices proved convenient for other devices that were not block structured.

Device special files are created by the mknod system call. There is an additional system call, ioctl, for manipulating the underlying device parameters of special files. The operations that can be done differ for each device. This system call allows the special characteristics of devices to be accessed, rather than overloading the semantics of other system calls. For example, there is an ioctl on a tape drive to write an end-of-tape mark, instead of there being a special or modified version of write.

2.6.4. Socket IPC

The 4.2BSD kernel introduced an IPC mechanism more flexible than pipes, based on sockets. A socket is an endpoint of communication referred to by a descriptor, just like a file or a pipe. Two processes can each create a socket, and then connect those two endpoints to produce a reliable byte stream. Once connected, the descriptors for the sockets can be read or written by processes, just as the latter would do with a pipe. The transparency of sockets allows the kernel to redirect the output of one process to the input of another process residing on another machine. A major difference between pipes and sockets is that pipes require a common parent process to set up the communications channel. A connection between sockets can be set up by two unrelated processes, possibly residing on different machines.

System V provides local interprocess communication through FIFOs (also known as named pipes). FIFOs appear as an object in the filesystem that unrelated processes can open and send data through in the same way as they would communicate through a pipe. Thus, FIFOs do not require a common parent to set them up; they can be connected after a pair of processes are up and running. Unlike sockets, FIFOs can be used on only a local machine; they cannot be used to communicate between processes on different machines. FIFOs are implemented in 4.4BSD only because they are required by the POSIX.1 standard. Their functionality is a subset of the socket interface.

The socket mechanism requires extensions to the traditional UNIX I/O system calls to provide the associated naming and connection semantics. Rather than overloading the existing interface, the developers used the existing interfaces to the extent that the latter worked without being changed, and designed new interfaces to handle the added semantics. The read and write system calls were used for byte-stream type connections, but six new system calls were added to allow sending and receiving addressed messages such as network datagrams. The system calls for writing messages include send, sendto, and sendmsg. The system calls for reading messages include recv, recvfrom, and recvmsg. In retrospect, the first two in each class are special cases of the others; recvfrom and sendto probably should have been added as library interfaces to recvmsg and sendmsg, respectively.

2.6.5. Scatter/Gather I/O

In addition to the traditional read and write system calls, 4.2BSD introduced the ability to do scatter/gather I/O. Scatter input uses the readv system call to allow a single read to be placed in several different buffers. Conversely, the writev system call allows several different buffers to be written in a single atomic write. Instead of passing a single buffer and length parameter, as is done with read and write, the process passes in a pointer to an array of buffers and lengths, along with a count describing the size of the array.

This facility allows buffers in different parts of a process address space to be written atomically, without the need to copy them to a single contiguous buffer. Atomic writes are necessary in the case where the underlying abstraction is record based, such as tape drives that output a tape block on each write request. It is also convenient to be able to read a single request into several different buffers (such as a record header into one place and the data into another). Although an application can simulate the ability to scatter data by reading the data into a large buffer and then copying the pieces to their intended destinations, the cost of memory-to-memory copying in such cases often would more than double the running time of the affected application.

Just as send and recv could have been implemented as library interfaces to sendto and recvfrom, it also would have been possible to simulate read with readv and write with writev. However, read and write are used so much more frequently that the added cost of simulating them would not have been worthwhile.

2.6.6. Multiple Filesystem Support

With the expansion of network computing, it became desirable to support both local and remote filesystems. To simplify the support of multiple filesystems, the developers added a new virtual node or vnode interface to the kernel. The set of operations exported from the vnode interface appear much like the filesystem operations previously supported by the local filesystem. However, they may be supported by a wide range of filesystem types:

  • Local disk-based filesystems

  • Files imported using a variety of remote filesystem protocols

  • Read-only CD-ROM filesystems

  • Filesystems providing special-purpose interfaces -- for example, the /proc filesystem

A few variants of 4.4BSD, such as FreeBSD, allow filesystems to be loaded dynamically when the filesystems are first referenced by the mount system call. The vnode interface is described in Section 6.5; its ancillary support routines are described in Section 6.6; several of the special-purpose filesystems are described in Section 6.7.

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