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The Art of UNIX Programming

The Art of UNIX Programming

4.5 2
by Eric S. Raymond

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The Art of UNIX Programming poses the belief that understanding the unwritten UNIX engineering tradition and mastering its design patterns will help programmers of all stripes to become better programmers. This book attempts to capture the engineering wisdom and design philosophy of the UNIX, Linux, and Open Source software development


The Art of UNIX Programming poses the belief that understanding the unwritten UNIX engineering tradition and mastering its design patterns will help programmers of all stripes to become better programmers. This book attempts to capture the engineering wisdom and design philosophy of the UNIX, Linux, and Open Source software development community as it has evolved over the past three decades, and as it is applied today by the most experienced programmers. Eric Raymond offers the next generation of "hackers" the unique opportunity to learn the connection between UNIX philosophy and practice through careful case studies of the very best UNIX/Linux programs.

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Unix is not so much an operating system as an oral history.—Neal Stephenson

There is a vast difference between knowledge and expertise. Knowledge lets you deduce the right thing to do; expertise makes the right thing a reflex, hardly requiring conscious thought at all.

This book has a lot of knowledge in it, but it is mainly about expertise. It is going to try to teach you the things about Unix development that Unix experts know, but aren't aware that they know. It is therefore less about technicalia and more about shared culture than most Unix books — both explicit and implicit culture, both conscious and unconscious traditions. It is not a ‘how-to’ book, it is a ‘why-to’ book.

The why-to has great practical importance, because far too much software is poorly designed. Much of it suffers from bloat, is exceedingly hard to maintain, and is too difficult to port to new platforms or extend in ways the original programmers didn't anticipate. These problems are symptoms of bad design. We hope that readers of this book will learn something of what Unix has to teach about good design.

This book is divided into four parts: Context, Design, Tools, and Community. The first part (Context) is philosophy and history, to help provide foundation and motivation for what follows. The second part (Design) unfolds the principles of the Unix philosophy into more specific advice about design and implementation. The third part (Tools) focuses on the software Unix provides for helping you solve problems. The fourth part (Community) is about the human-to-human transactions and agreements that make the Unix culture so effective at what itdoes.

Because this is a book about shared culture, I never planned to write it alone. You will notice that the text includes guest appearances by prominent Unix developers, the shapers of the Unix tradition. The book went through an extended public review process during which I invited these luminaries to comment on and argue with the text. Rather than submerging the results of that review process in the final version, these guests were encouraged to speak with their own voices, amplifying and developing and even disagreeing with the main line of the text.

In this book, when I use the editorial ‘we’ it is not to pretend omniscience but to reflect the fact that it attempts to articulate the expertise of an entire community.

Because this book is aimed at transmitting culture, it includes much more in the way of history and folklore and asides than is normal for a technical book. Enjoy; these things, too, are part of your education as a Unix programmer. No single one of the historical details is vital, but the gestalt of them all is important. We think it makes a more interesting story this way. More importantly, understanding where Unix came from and how it got the way it is will help you develop an intuitive feel for the Unix style.

For the same reason, we refuse to write as if history is over. You will find an unusually large number of references to the time of writing in this book. We do not wish to pretend that current practice reflects some sort of timeless and perfectly logical outcome of preordained destiny. References to time of writing are meant as an alert to the reader two or three or five years hence that the associated statements of fact may have become dated and should be double-checked.

Other things this book is not is neither a C tutorial, nor a guide to the Unix commands and API. It is not a reference for sed or yacc or Perl or Python. It's not a network programming primer, nor an exhaustive guide to the mysteries of X. It's not a tour of Unix's internals and architecture, either. Other books cover these specifics better, and this book points you at them as appropriate.

Beyond all these technical specifics, the Unix culture has an unwritten engineering tradition that has developed over literally millions of man-years1 of skilled effort. This book is written in the belief that understanding that tradition, and adding its design patterns to your toolkit, will help you become a better programmer and designer.

Cultures consist of people, and the traditional way to learn Unix culture is from other people and through the folklore, by osmosis. This book is not a substitute for person-to-person acculturation, but it can help accelerate the process by allowing you to tap the experience of others.Who Should Read This Book

You should read this book if you are an experienced Unix programmer who is often in the position of either educating novice programmers or debating partisans of other operating systems, and you find it hard to articulate the benefits of the Unix approach.

You should read this book if you are a C, C++, or Java programmer with experience on other operating systems and you are about to start a Unix-based project.

You should read this book if you are a Unix user with novice-level up to middle-level skills in the operating system, but little development experience, and want to learn how to design software effectively under Unix.

You should read this book if you are a non-Unix programmer who has figured out that the Unix tradition might have something to teach you. We believe you're right, and that the Unix philosophy can be exported to other operating systems. So we will pay more attention to non-Unix environments (especially Microsoft operating systems) than is usual in a Unix book; and when tools and case studies are portable, we say so.

You should read this book if you are an application architect considering platforms or implementation strategies for a major general-market or vertical application. It will help you understand the strengths of Unix as a development platform, and of the Unix tradition of open source as a development method.

You should not read this book if what you are looking for is the details of C coding or how to use the Unix kernel API. There are many good books on these topics; Advanced Programming in the Unix Environment is classic among explorations of the Unix API, and The Practice of Programming is recommended reading for all C programmers (indeed for all programmers in any language).How to Use This Book

This book is both practical and philosophical. Some parts are aphoristic and general, others will examine specific case studies in Unix development. We will precede or follow general principles and aphorisms with examples that illustrate them: examples drawn not from toy demonstration programs but rather from real working code that is in use every day.

We have deliberately avoided filling the book with lots of code or specification-file examples, even though in many places this might have made it easier to write (and in some places perhaps easier to read!). Most books about programming give too many low-level details and examples, but fail at giving the reader a high-level feel for what is really going on. In this book, we prefer to err in the opposite direction.

Therefore, while you will often be invited to read code and specification files, relatively few are actually included in the book. Instead, we point you at examples on the Web.

Absorbing these examples will help solidify the principles you learn into semi-instinctive working knowledge. Ideally, you should read this book near the console of a running Unix system, with a Web browser handy. Any Unix will do, but the software case studies are more likely to be preinstalled and immediately available for inspection on a Linux system. The pointers in the book are invitations to browse and experiment. Introduction of these pointers is paced so that wandering off to explore for a while won't break up exposition that has to be continuous.

Note: While we have made every effort to cite URLs that should remain stable and usable, there is no way we can guarantee this. If you find that a cited link has gone stale, use common sense and do a phrase search with your favorite Web search engine. Where possible we suggest ways to do this near the URLs we cite.

Most abbreviations used in this book are expanded at first use. For convenience, we have also provided a glossary in an appendix.

References are usually by author name. Numbered footnotes are for URLs that would intrude on the text or that we suspect might be perishable; also for asides, war stories, and jokes.2

To make this book more accessible to less technical readers, we invited some non-programmers to read it and identify terms that seemed both obscure and necessary to the flow of exposition. We also use footnotes for definitions of elementary terms that an experienced programmer is unlikely to need.Related References

Some famous papers and a few books by Unix's early developers have mined this territory before. Kernighan and Pike's The Unix Programming Environment stands out among these and is rightly considered a classic. But today it shows its age a bit; it doesn't cover the Internet, and the World Wide Web or the new wave of interpreted languages like Perl, Tcl, and Python.

About halfway into the composition of this book, we learned of Mike Gancarz's The Unix Philosophy. This book is excellent within its range, but did not attempt to cover the full spectrum of topics we felt needed to be addressed. Nevertheless we are grateful to the author for the reminder that the very simplest Unix design patterns have been the most persistent and successful ones.

The Pragmatic Programmer is a witty and wise disquisition on good design practice pitched at a slightly different level of the software-design craft (more about coding, less about higher-level partitioning of problems) than this book. The authors' philosophy is an outgrowth of Unix experience, and it is an excellent complement to this book.

The Practice of Programming covers some of the same ground as The Pragmatic Programmer from a position deep within the Unix tradition.

Finally (and with admitted intent to provoke) we recommend Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, an important collection of Zen Buddhist primary sources. References to Zen are scattered throughout this book. They are included because Zen provides a vocabulary for addressing some ideas that turn out to be very important for software design but are otherwise very difficult to hold in the mind. Readers with religious attachments are invited to consider Zen not as a religion but as a therapeutic form of mental discipline — which, in its purest non-theistic forms, is exactly what Zen is.Conventions Used in This Book

The term UNIX is technically and legally a trademark of The Open Group, and should formally be used only for operating systems which are certified to have passed The Open Group's elaborate standards-conformance tests. In this book we use Unix in the looser sense widely current among programmers, to refer to any operating system (whether formally Unix-branded or not) that is either genetically descended from Bell Labs's ancestral Unix code or written in close imitation of its descendants. In particular, Linux (from which we draw most of our examples) is a Unix under this definition.

This book employs the Unix manual page convention of tagging Unix facilities with a following manual section in parentheses, usually on first introduction when we want to emphasize that this is a Unix command. Thus, for example, read “munger(1)” as “the ‘munger’ program, which will be documented in section 1 (user tools) of the Unix manual pages, if it's present on your system”. Section 2 is C system calls, section 3 is C library calls, section 5 is file formats and protocols, section 8 is system administration tools. Other sections vary among Unixes but are not cited in this book. For more, type man 1 man at your Unix shell prompt (older System V Unixes may require man -s 1 man).

Sometimes we mention a Unix application (such as Emacs), without a manual-section suffix and capitalized. This is a clue that the name actually represents a well-established family of Unix programs with essentially the same function, and we are discussing generic properties of all of them. Emacs, for example, includes xemacs.

At various points later in this book we refer to ‘old school’ and ‘new school’ methods. As with rap music, new-school starts about 1990. In this context, it's associated with the rise of scripting languagesscripting languages, GUIs, open-source Unixes, and the Web. Old-school refers to the pre-1990 (and especially pre-1985) world of expensive (shared) computers, proprietary Unixes, scripting in shell, and C everywhere. This difference is worth pointing out because cheaper and less memory-constrained machines have wrought some significant changes on the Unix programming style.Our Case Studies

A lot of books on programming rely on toy examples constructed specifically to prove a point. This one won't. Our case studies will be real, pre-existing pieces of software that are in production use every day. Here are some of the major ones:

These two separate projects are usually used together. The cdrtools package is a set of CLI tools for writing CD-ROMs; Web search for “cdrtools”. The xcdroast application is a GUI front end for cdrtools; see the xcdroast project site <http://www.xcdroast.org/>.
The fetchmail program retrieves mail from remote-mail servers using the POP3 or IMAP post-office protocols. See the fetchmail home page <http://www.catb.org/~esr/fetchmail> (or search for “fetchmail” on the Web).
The GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) is a full-featured paint, draw, and image-manipulation program that can edit a huge variety of graphical formats in sophisticated ways. Sources are available from the GIMP home page <http://www.gimp.org/> (or search for “GIMP” on the Web).
The mutt mail user agent is the current best-of-breed among text-based Unix electronic mail agents, with notably good support for MIME (Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions) and the use of privacy aids such as PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) and GPG (GNU Privacy Guard). Source code and executable binaries are available at the Mutt project site <http://www.mutt.org>.


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To minimize the amount of code the user needs to read to understand the examples, we have tried to choose case studies that can be used more than once, ideally to illustrate several different design principles and practices. For this same reason, many of the examples are from my projects. No claim that these are the best possible ones is implied, merely that I find them sufficiently familiar to be useful for multiple expository purposes.Author's Acknowledgements

The guest contributors (Ken Arnold, Steven M. Bellovin, Stuart Feldman, Jim Gettys, Steve Johnson, Brian Kernighan, David Korn, Mike Lesk, Doug McIlroy, Marshall Kirk McKusick, Keith Packard, Henry Spencer, and Ken Thompson) added a great deal of value to this book. Doug McIlroy, in particular, went far beyond the call of duty in the thoroughness of his critique and the depth of his contributions, displaying the same care and dedication to excellence which he brought to managing the original Unix research group thirty years ago.

Special thanks go to Rob Landley and to my wife Catherine Raymond, both of whom delivered intensive line-by-line critiques of manuscript drafts. Rob's insightful and attentive commentary actually inspired more than one entire chapter in the final manuscript, and he had a lot to do with its present organization and range; if he had written all the text he pushed me to improve, I would have to call him a co-author. Cathy was my test audience representing non-technical readers; to the extent this book is accessible to people who aren't already programmers, that's largely her doing.

This book benefited from discussions with many other people over the five years it took me to write it. Mark M. Miller helped me achieve enlightenment about threads. John Cowan supplied some insights about interface design patterns and drafted the case studies of wily and VM/CMS, and Jef Raskin showed me where the Rule of Least Surprise comes from. The UIUC System Architecture Group contributed useful feedback on early chapters. The sections on What Unix Gets Wrong and Flexibility in Depth were directly inspired by their review. Russell J. Nelson contributed the material on Bernstein chaining in Chapter 7. Jay Maynard contributed most of the material in the MVS case study in Chapter 3. Les Hatton provided many helpful comments on the Languages chapter and motivated the portion of on Optimal Module Size. David A. Wheeler contributed many perceptive criticisms and some case-study material, especially in the Design part. Russ Cox helped develop the survey of Plan 9. Dennis Ritchie corrected me on some historical points about C.

Hundreds of Unix programmers, far too many to list here, contributed advice and comments during the book's public review period between January and June of 2003. As always, I found the process of open peer review over the Web both intensely challenging and intensely rewarding. Also as always, responsibility for any errors in the resulting work remains my own.

The expository style and some of the concerns of this book have been influenced by the design patternsdesign patterns movement; indeed, I flirted with the idea of titling the book Unix Design Patterns. I didn't, because I disagree with some of the implicit central dogmas of the movement and don't feel the need to use all its formal apparatus or accept its cultural baggage. Nevertheless, my approach has certainly been influenced by Christopher Alexander's work3 (especially The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language), and I owe the Gang of Four and other members of their school a large debt of gratitude for showing me how it is possible to use Alexander's insights to talk about software design at a high level without merely uttering vague and useless generalities. Interested readers should see Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software for an introduction to design patterns.

The title of this book is, of course, a reference to Donald Knuth's The Art of Computer Programming. While not specifically associated with the Unix tradition, Knuth has been an influence on us all.

Editors with vision and imagination aren't as common as they should be. Mark Taub is one; he saw merit in a stalled project and skillfully nudged me into finishing it. Copy editors with a good ear for prose style and enough ability to improve writing that isn't like theirs are even less common, but Mary Lou Nohr makes that grade. Jerry Votta seized on my concept for the cover and made it look better than I had imagined. The whole crew at Addison-Wesley gets high marks for making the editorial and production process as painless as possible, and for cheerfully accommodating my control-freak tendencies not just over the text but deep into the details of the book's visual design, art, and marketing.


  1. The three and a half decades between 1969 and this 2003 is a long time. Going by the historical trend curve in number of Unix sites during that period, probably somewhere upwards of fifty million man-years have been plowed into Unix development worldwide.
  2. This particular footnote is dedicated to Terry Pratchett, whose use of footnotes is quite...inspiring.
  3. An appreciation of Alexander's work, with links to on-line versions of significant portions, may be found at Some Notes on Christopher Alexander <http://www.math.utsa.edu/ sphere/salingar/Chris.text.html>.

Meet the Author

ERIC S. RAYMOND has been a Unix developer since 1982. Known as the resident anthropologist and roving ambassador of the open-source community, he wrote the movement's manifesto in The Cathedral and the Bazaar and is the editor of The New Hacker's Dictionary.

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Art of UNIX Programming 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This brilliant book succeeds in capturing Raymond's 30 years of programming experience in UNIX and Linux! He explains not just techniques but also why they work. I too have 30 years of UNIX/Linux programming experience and I agree with his wisdom. In many cases he even helped me understand why the techniques I use work and explains clearly why other techniques -- some being quite fashionable these days -- do not work. Regardless of experience, any programmer will benefit tremendously from this book; any manager will benefit from learning what techniques will make his staff more productive and result in more reliable and maintainable code.

One technique discussed is using ASCII text files to store system configuration and documents. This allows any text editor to see, change data, and remove errors. Anyone who has suffered a trashed Windows Registry file or wanted to look at a Word document without using Word understands the bad design of not doing this. He also discusses the Windows Registry file design as allowing a single-point failure in any application to make the system unusable and how UNIX avoids this problem.

Eric is the rare person who has both the knowledge and the ability to explain it clearly in an easy-to-read and fun book. It includes the history that helps understanding and contrasts UNIX with other operating systems and techniques to illustrate advantages and disadvantages of each. While intended for UNIX and Linux programming in C, C++, Perl, Java, and shell script, those programming under Windows and other operating systems will benefit too by taking advantage of the techniques that made UNIX so popular and productive among programmers.

Guest More than 1 year ago
The Art of UNIX Programming by Eric S. Raymond, contains over 30 years software engineering wisdom. In addition to Raymond?s own experience, the book also incorporates knowledge from thirteen UNIX pioneers including Ken Thompson (the creator of UNIX) and David Korn (creator of the korn shell). Raymond?s book tells about the philosophy, design, tools, culture, and traditions that make up UNIX. Raymond shows how these are being carried forward today in both the open-source movement and Linux. Personally, I rather enjoyed reading this book because it's not just another book that teaches you how to use a particular programming language. This book teaches you how to design software, teaching you the philosophy behind UNIX and contains some of the history hacker lore that made UNIX what it is today. Unlike most programming books I have read this book uses case studies to prove a point rather then tailored examples. The case studies use real, pre-existing pieces of open-source software that are in use every day (including Kmail, The Gimp, Audacity and many others). Through these case studies Eric demonstrates how to apply the book's wisdom in building software that not only adheres to the UNIX philosophy but software that is more portable, more reusable, and longer lived.