I’ve been working on system-level software for Linux for some time now, which is a job that makes you much more likely to encounter the odd corner of an operating system than higher level development. For all practical purposes, Linux has succeeded as an operating system. Billions of web queries are being served from Linux servers every day, and it’s running on billions of mobile devices.

But of course an operating system ultimately rooted in the 70s will have accumulated its fair share of legacy. Of course, not all problems are rooted in this: we still are perfectly capable of making new and exciting mistakes.

Everything-ish is a file-ish

File descriptors are one of the most poorly named concepts, as they don’t necessarily represent (or describe) a file. Think of them more as pointers to resources in the kernel (which are conveniently referenced-counted), and things will start making more sense. You can use file descriptors to refer to many things, among them

Many of these things are not files in the either the sense that you can use them to store data, nor in the sense that they have a path on the file system. That all of these things are file descriptors is actually kind of cool: you can wait on many of these things, and asynchronous I/O APIs like epoll operate on file descriptors. This means that you can wait for data to become available on some socket or for some timer to run out or for a POSIX signal to arrive. No threading nonsense involved.

On the other hand, a file descriptor to an application developer is just an integer. From an API perspective, now you end up with all of these things just being integers, and all being called fd, and many functions operating on fds, all of them working on a different subset of them. For instance, what would it even mean to write to a timerfd? This gets even worse when talking about errors. Manpages will have a list of possible errnos, but with file descriptor functions, usually all bets are off (short of delving into the kernel source) of trying to understand which ones can happen for your particular case. If your FD is special enough (say, some /sys file), you might even get errors that are not listed on the manpage.

“Everything is bytes\n\0”

Linux has around 300 system calls that you can use in your programs. This is sometimes cited as an impressively small API surface for a kernel, but that’s only telling half of the truth. There are many, many files in the /proc and /sys virtual file-systems that you can read from to get information or write to to change some behaviour. You can use them to read a process’ command line, to get its CPU use, its memory use, to get or change the maximum number of file-descriptors open, set counters on breakpoints, etc. Long story short, you can do many things. If you are writing systems software, you will be using those quite a lot.

Most of those produce (or consume) information in ASCII, so if you want to use them programatically, you’ll have to parse the output. If you want to do that, it helps to know the format well.

Pop quiz! No cheating.1

  1. Does /proc/<pid>/cmdline have a trailing NUL-byte?
  2. Does /proc/<pid>/status use tabs or spaces?
  3. Does /proc/<pid>/status have a trailing newline?
  4. NUL-byte?
  5. Does /proc/<pid>/oom_score (a single value) have a trailing newline?
  6. Does /proc/<pid>/wchan (a single value) have a trailing newline?

Go to results.

So that was fun! If you haven’t looked at the results yet, please do take a second, even if you haven’t tried to answer yourself. There are multiple problems highlighted: most of /proc files are ad-hoc text formats (at least most of them do use newlines, it appears). Another one is that they are extremely poorly documented. A quick look at man 5 proc would not go far in answering the questions in this quiz. You have to look at the files and work out the format from this. Of course, if you read this from a program, the kernel rendering text only for your program to parse it back again is wasteful in both computer and human resources. This being ad-hoc formats, one has to write a parser for each and every one of them.

For some high-volume formats like ftrace, parsing from the text format is actually prohibitively expensive. This is why there is also a (undocumented) de-facto binary interface. With some configuration in, yes, you guessed it, a custom text format.

Manything is a race

How would you implement killall? Conceptually, it’s fairly simple: you go through all processes, and kill the ones matching. Having some function matches to determine whether a PID matches the given specification, you’d write something along the lines of this:

std::vector<pid_t> pids = get_all_pids();
for (pid_t pid : pids) {
  if (matches(pid)) {

Cool. That seems to work (given some imagination). But if you are a diligent programmer, maybe having done some multi-threaded programming, something might look a bit off. All we pass around is an integer pid, so how do we know it refers to the same process in match(pid) and in kill(pid)? Processes can go away, and their PIDs will be re-used. In that case, we could potentially match PID 1234 when it is retriable_nonsense_job, but kill super_important_process later.

So how do you write a correct killall? Turns out, on Linux it’s impossible before 5.1, on other Unices it might still be. All the major operating systems’ implementations are not fundamentally different to the pseudocode above2. On Linux 5.1, you can opendir /proc/\<pid\>, then use that as a handle to both read the command line (and other attributes), and pidfd_send_signal.

This might remind you of some code you might have written. Something like

pid_t pid = fork();
if (pid < 0) {
  oh no;
if (pid == 0) {
  something in child;
} else {
  int status;
  YOUR_EINTR_WRAPPER(waitpid(pid, &status, 0));

Could PID-reuse mean you could end up waiting on something else? Something that might never exit, in the worst case? Thankfully, not. The child process will actually stick around as a zombie, even if it is finished, until you waitpid for it. As you can only wait on your children, no race can occur like this. Of course, the other thing that can happen is that the parent dies before it has chance to waitpid. In that case, the problem is also averted through some gymnastics: the child process gets orphaned and reparented to init, which will wait on it to prevent the zombie from sticking around. Phew.

For fork’s sake

fork is one of the fundamental building blocks of Unix systems. It goes way back to the old days of Unix and is used to create a new process. That process is a copy of the original one. From an API perspective, to the child it will appear that fork returned 0, while to the parent the PID of the child. Kind of magical if you think of it.3

Memory does not actually get copied just yet, but only when either the parent or the child attempt to change it (this is called copy-on-write). File descriptors will get duplicated (convenient that they are already referenced counted). Problems already start popping up here: you need to be sure to close the ones you don’t actually need in the child, or you might hold on to them forever. This gets even worse if you exec another program, which (in general) won’t know or care about your file descriptors. To solve the latter problem, O_CLOEXEC (close on exec) was invented. Of course that’s not the default, so people often manually iterate over all FDs (via /proc), and then close them all.

But then came threads, and we went from bad to worse. Because it’s unclear what to do with all these other threads (it’s not like they have a call to fork where they could take different branches), they just get terminated in whatever state they are when fork gets called. Remember we copied the whole memory state? That might contain a lock (say, in malloc) that was being held by one of those threads. The next time anything calls malloc, it will be stuck forever, waiting on the now terminated thread. Your child process is toast. Your program might even be single threaded, but some library you pulled might have created a thread, that might have happened to do an allocation when you called fork.

They came up with pthread_atfork hooks that get called before the fork, and then afterwards in the parent on the child. That was intended to allow library developers to make their libraries safe in the presence of forks, but even the manpage concedes that this “is generally too difficult to be practicable.”

But there’s more! Even though the memory isn’t actually copied, forking is still an expensive operation for the kernel. It has to copy all sorts of structures like page tables and so on. That’s a waste if all we are going to do is exec a new program, replacing the page tables once again. So they came up with vfork, which is like fork except that you pinkie-promise not to call anything except exec or _exit afterwards. This raises questions about the API design: if all you are allowed to call is exec, why not create a function that is the combination of vfork an exec? With all the different exec variations I can see how that would be slightly painful, but at least not something that makes it super easy to shoot your foot. In fact, posix_spawn is exactly that and was standardised in 2001.

But going further down the route of forking, modern Linux also has something else up its sleeve: clone. That let’s you mix-and-match what your new thread/process should share and what it shouldn’t. It let’s you create something that has its own process id, but is a thread for all other intents and purposes. Good luck. glibc does not provide a syscall wrapper for this, so you’ll have to be extra dedicated to use this.4

Ultimately, things do not compose in a way that make it possible to locally reason about a program. Yes, if you hold fork and threads exactly right (for instance by managing all the threads, and having a way to signal them to go to a safe state, and then forking) you can write a correct program. But that requires you to reason globally about your program, which only works if you control every bit of your program, and even then is very hard.


Writing cross-platform software is hard. Most software is written for Linux, and if it happens to run on other Unices, that is a happy accident. For systems software, that is usually a lost cause, as it needs more powerful APIs than POSIX provides. So we’ll settle for Linux. Most of these APIs were introduced at some point, so you’d usually target Linux of some version or newer – this is a generally unavoidable thing to do. But even then Linux has compile-time configuration flags that will enable or disable some system calls, or some arguments to system calls. And some depend on the target architecture. It’s a bit like duck typing: you call it and hope it works.

ENOSYS The membarrier() system call is not implemented by this kernel.

EINVAL cmd is invalid, or flags is nonzero, or the MEMBARRIER_CMD_GLOBAL command is disabled because the nohz_full CPU parameter has been set, or the MEMBARRIER_CMD_PRIVATE_EXPEDITED_SYNC_CORE and MEMBARRIER_CMD_REGISTER_PRIVATE_EXPEDITED_SYNC_CORE commands are not implemented by the architecture.

man 2 membarrier

Any software that uses one of those system calls is inherently unportable even between machines of the same kernel version. You will notice this incompatibility at runtime, whenever you attempt to call that syscall. Some more sanity could be achieved if there was a way to check for this without actually calling the syscall. Then some static analysis could figure out which syscalls you use, and then generate a stanza to check whether they exist that you can run at first startup. Everything would be like ./configure. What’s not to love?



– Linus (2012)

C++ has The Standard, which, even being aspirational5 at times, gives people a way to abstractly reason about their programs. Unix has POSIX, but that is a very low common denominator. Linux-specific details have no standard whatsoever. In the end, the kernel behaviour is whatever is in the kernel source, and the kernel promises to not break userspace6. For libc, it’s the wild west without any proper specification once you go beyond what’s specified in C and POSIX.

With the proliferation on non-Glibc based Linux systems (musl on Alpine Linux, Bionic on Android) this makes interoperability more painful than it has to be. But more than that: it makes system programming very hard. It is often impossible to work in all situations client code could construct via creative use of the available syscalls. Ultimately, looking at kernel and userspace in isolation is not the right approach. In an ideal world, applications should not need to care about the kernel.


Pop quiz again! How did I get this error?

$ ./a.out 
bash: ./a.out: No such file or directory

If you guessed that a.out didn’t exist, that would be one way of getting this error. But in my case what does not exist is the linker library that is specified in the ELF file7. That’s one of the joys of errno: for more complicated operations like this, it is unclear what file the ENOENT error refers to. Some of the socket errnos on the other hand are very specific. Other syscalls just give you EINVAL, and you need to figure out what exactly is wrong. If all you get is a single integer, I don’t think there’s a way to really strike that balance, as you have to encode both what you want humans to see, but also what the calling code might deal with. For EINVAL, a human would probably want to know which of the arguments was wrong, while the calling code can’t do anything with that information.


I could go on, but I think I’ll wrap it up here. People can only take so much. 8

Systems programming is exciting, and if you’ve read this far you’d probably be inclined to agree. I’ve shown some of the not-so-nice corners I’ve come across. Some are inevitable in an operating system of this size and age. But they also are a valuable lesson in system design. Generalising a bit

  • Data should be machine-readable: otherwise, people will have to build ad-hoc parsers. Those will contain bugs.
  • APIs should allow to locally reason about code: it is impossible to reason about all your dependencies in big software systems. Apart from that, it is very hard to reason about large state spaces.
  • Errors matter: good error reporting gives a good developer experience.
  • Consistency matters: having too many knobs fragments your system.
  • Behaviour should be specified: This creates a contract between application programmers and operating system programmers. People will violate that contract, but no one knows what to expect if there isn’t any.

But also, we have to work with what we’ve got. Even if we come up with robust APIs for client applications, there we always be the long-tail of weird legacy software that uses the old ones. fork is here to stay, and so are threads. What we can do is meticulously document both the caveats that come with those, and the behaviour. For /proc files, some EBNF definition can help both formalize the format, and be used to auto-generate parsers. The less we can base our engineering on guesswork, the better.

EBNF results

  1. Maybe.9
  2. Tabs.10
  3. Yes.
  4. No.
  5. Yes.
  6. No.

Of course, those were kind of trick questions. No one would ever have gotten the first one right (what kind of answer is that even?). And the last two don’t make any sense either, because they are both single values.

Go back up


  1. Or cheat, I’m a sign, not a cop. 

  2. GNU/Linux, FreeBSD, or macOS

  3. Spoilers for Ted Chiang’s story “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom”. It’s like the premise of that story. (Assuming single-threaded) fork brings forth a new process that is the same, except for one int, which is used to make a choice. All other differences derive from that. 

  4. I’m not a fan of syscalls without wrappers, as that encourages people to use raw syscalls, which then constrains libc implementors. clone is actually a good example: Bionic (Android’s libc) has a cache for the TID of a thread. It needs to invalidate that cache upon calls to fork / clone / etc. It can only do this when people use the syscall wrapper. People don’t always. 

  5. Some of the more low-level details leave a lot to be desired. Many things are impossible in a standards compliant way, or are underspecified, so people end up doing what works in practice. 

  6. This, of course, leads to the question of what constitutes a feature, and what constitutes a bug. And what level of quality you expect from user-space. For instance, adding a new line to a proc file would break applications that do not properly look at key, value pairs, but rather hard-code the line they expect the value to be at. It’s generally accepted that writing code like this is asking to be broken. 

  7. I do have opinions on more things, including but not limited to: perf_event_open, signals, sendmsg, session leaders, controlling terminals, SIGPIPE, … 

  8. Depends on whether your kernel has this commit

  9. The manpage uses spaces.