Linux Programming by Example: The Fundamentals

Linux Programming by Example: The Fundamentals

by Arnold Robbins

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“This is an excellent introduction to Linux programming. The topics are well chosen and lucidly presented. I learned things myself, especially about internationalization, and I’ve been at this for quite a while.”

—Chet Ramey, Coauthor and Maintainer of the Bash shell

“This is a good introduction to Linux programming. Arnold’s

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“This is an excellent introduction to Linux programming. The topics are well chosen and lucidly presented. I learned things myself, especially about internationalization, and I’ve been at this for quite a while.”

—Chet Ramey, Coauthor and Maintainer of the Bash shell

“This is a good introduction to Linux programming. Arnold’s technique of showing how experienced programmers use the Linux programming interfaces is a nice touch, much more useful than the canned programming examples found in most books.”

—Ulrich Drepper, Project Lead, GNU C library

“A gentle yet thorough introduction to the art of UNIX system programming, Linux Programming by Example uses code from a wide range of familiar programs to illustrate each concept it teaches. Readers will enjoy an interesting mix of in-depth API descriptions and portability guidelines, and will come away well prepared to begin reading and writing systems applications. Heartily recommended.”

—Jim Meyering, Coauthor and Maintainer of the GNU Core Utility Programs

Learn Linux® programming, hands-on… from real source code

This book teaches Linux programming in the most effective way possible: by showing and explaining well-written programs. Drawing from both V7 Unix® and current GNU source code, Arnold Robbins focuses on the fundamental system call APIs at the core of any significant program, presenting examples from programs that Linux/Unix users already use every day. Gradually, one step at a time, Robbins teaches both high-level principles and “under the hood” techniques. Along the way, he carefully addresses real-world issues like performance, portability, and robustness. Coverage includes:

  • Memory management
  • File I/O
  • File metadata
  • Processes
  • Users and groups
  • Sorting and searching
  • Argument parsing
  • Extended interfaces
  • Signals
  • Internationalization
  • Debugging
  • And more…

Just learning to program? Switching from Windows®? Already developing with Linux but interested in exploring the system call interface further? No matter which, quickly and directly, this book will help you master the fundamentals needed to build serious Linux software.

Companion Web Sites, and, include all code examples.

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Product Details

Prentice Hall
Publication date:
Prentice Hall Open Source Software Development Series
Product dimensions:
7.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.60(d)

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One of the best ways to learn about programming is to read well-written programs. This book teaches the fundamental Linux system call APIs—those that form the core of any significant program—by presenting code from production programs that you use every day.

By looking at concrete programs, you can not only see how to use the Linux APIs, but you also can examine the real-world issues (performance, portability, robustness) that arise in writing software.

While the book’s title is Linux Programming by Example, everything we cover, unless otherwise noted, applies to modern Unix systems as well. In general we use “Linux” to mean the Linux kernel, and “GNU/Linux” to mean the total system (kernel, libraries, tools). Also, we often say “Linux” when we mean all of Linux, GNU/Linux and Unix; if something is specific to one system or the other, we mention it explicitly.


This book is intended for the person who understands programming and is familiar with the basics of C, at least on the level of The C Programming Language by Kernighan and Ritchie. (Java programmers wishing to read this book should understand C pointers, since C code makes heavy use of them.) The examples use both the 1990 version of Standard C and Original C.

In particular, you should be familiar with all C operators, control-flow structures, variable and pointer declarations and use, the string management functions, the use ofexit(), and the <stdio.h> suite of functions for file input/output. You should understand the basic concepts of standard input, standard output, and standard error and the fact that all C programs receive an array of character strings representing invocation options and arguments. You should also be familiar with the fundamental command-line tools, such as cd, cp, date, ln, ls, man (and info if you have it), rmdir, and rm, the use of long and short command-line options, environment variables, and I/O redirection, including pipes.

We assume that you want to write programs that work not just under GNU/Linux but across the range of Unix systems. To that end, we mark each interface as to its availability (GLIBC systems only, or defined by POSIX, and so on), and portability advice is included as an integral part of the text.

The programming taught here may be at a lower level than you’re used to; that’s OK. The system calls are the fundamental building blocks for higher operations and are thus low-level by nature. This in turn dictates our use of C: The APIs were designed for use from C, and code that interfaces them to higher-level languages, such as C++ and Java, will necessarily be lower level in nature, and most likely, written in C. It may help to remember that “low level” doesn’t mean “bad,” it just means “more challenging.”

What You Will Learn

This book focuses on the basic APIs that form the core of Linux programming:

  • Memory management
  • File input/output
  • File metadata
  • Processes and signals
  • Users and groups
  • Programming support (sorting, argument parsing, and so on)
  • Internationalization
  • Debugging

We have purposely kept the list of topics short. We believe that it is intimidating to try to learn “all there is to know” from a single book. Most readers prefer smaller, more focused books, and the best Unix books are all written that way. So, instead of a single giant tome, we plan several volumes: one on Interprocess Communication (IPC) and networking, and another on software development and code portability. We also have an eye toward possible additional volumes in a Linux Programming by Example series that will cover topics such as thread programming and GUI programming.

The APIs we cover include both system calls and library functions. Indeed, at the C level, both appear as simple function calls. A system call is a direct request for system services, such as reading or writing a file or creating a process. A library function, on the other hand, runs at the user level, possibly never requesting any services from the operating system. System calls are documented in section 2 of the reference manual (viewable online with the man command), and library functions are documented in section 3.

Our goal is to teach you the use of the Linux APIs by example: in particular, through the use, wherever possible, of both original Unix source code and the GNU utilities. Unfortunately, there aren’t as many self-contained examples as we thought there’d be. Thus, we have written numerous small demonstration programs as well. We stress programming principles: especially those aspects of GNU programming, such as “no arbitrary limits,” that make the GNU utilities into exceptional programs.

The choice of everyday programs to study is deliberate. If you’ve been using GNU/Linux for any length of time, you already understand what programs such as ls and cp do; it then becomes easy to dive straight into how the programs work, without having to spend a lot of time learning what they do.

Occasionally, we present both higher-level and lower-level ways of doing things. Usually the higher-level standard interface is implemented in terms of the lower-level interface or construct. We hope that such views of what’s “under the hood” will help you understand how things work; for all the code you write, you should always use the higher-level, standard interface.

Similarly, we sometimes introduce functions that provide certain functionality and then recommend (with a provided reason) that these functions be avoided! The primary reason for this approach is so that you’ll be able to recognize these functions when you see them and thus understand the code using them. A well-rounded knowledge of a topic requires understanding not just what you can do, but what you should and should not do.

Finally, each chapter concludes with exercises. Some involve modifying or writing code. Others are more in the category of “thought experiments” or “why do you think ...” We recommend that you do all of them—they will help cement your understanding of the material.

Small Is Beautiful: Unix Programs

Initially, we planned to teach the Linux API by using the code from the GNU utilities. However, the modern versions of even simple command-line programs (like mv and cp) are large and many-featured. This is particularly true of the GNU variants of the standard utilities, which allow long and short options, do everything required by POSIX, and often have additional, seemingly unrelated options as well (like output highlighting).

It then becomes reasonable to ask, “Given such a large and confusing forest, how can we focus on the one or two important trees?” In other words, if we present the current full-featured program, will it be possible to see the underlying core operation of the program?

That is when Hoare’s law inspired us to look to the original Unix programs for example code. The original V7 Unix utilities are small and straightforward, making it easy to see what’s going on and to understand how the system calls are used. (V7 was released around 1979; it is the common ancestor of all modern Unix systems, including GNU/Linux and the BSD systems.)

For many years, Unix source code was protected by copyrights and trade secret license agreements, making it difocult to use for study and impossible to publish. This is still true of all commercial Unix source code. However, in 2002, Caldera (currently operating as SCO) made the original Unix code (through V7 and 32V Unix) available under an Open Source style license (see Appendix B, “Caldera Ancient UNIX License,” page 655). This makes it possible for us to include the code from the early Unix system in this book.


Throughout the book we refer to several different formal standards. A standard is a document describing how something works. Formal standards exist for many things, for example, the shape, placement, and meaning of the holes in the electrical outlet in your wall are defined by a formal standard so that all the power cords in your country work in all the outlets.

So, too, formal standards for computing systems define how they are supposed to work; this enables developers and users to know what to expect from their software and enables them to complain to their vendor when software doesn’t work. Of interest to us here are:

  1. ISO/IEC International Standard 9899: Programming Languages — C, 1990. The first formal standard for the C programming language.
  2. ISO/IEC International Standard 9899: Programming Languages — C, Second edition, 1999. The second (and current) formal standard for the C programming language.
  3. ISO/IEC International Standard 14882: Programming Languages — C++, 1998. The first formal standard for the C++ programming language.
  4. ISO/IEC International Standard 14882: Programming Languages — C++, 2003. The second (and current) formal standard for the C++ programming language.
  5. IEEE Standard 1003.1-2001: Standard for Information Technology — Portable Operating System Interface (POSIX). The current version of the POSIX standard; describes the behavior expected of Unix and Unix-like systems. This edition covers both the system call and library interface, as seen by the C/C++ programmer, and the shell and utilities interface, seen by the user. It consists of several volumes:
  • Base Definitions. The definitions of terms, facilities, and header files.
  • Base Definitions — Rationale. Explanations and rationale for the choice of facilities that both are and are not included in the standard.
  • System Interfaces. The system calls and library functions. POSIX terms them all “functions.”
  • Shell and Utilities. The shell language and utilities available for use with shell programs and interactively.

    Although language standards aren’t exciting reading, you may wish to consider purchasing a copy of the C standard: It provides the final definition of the language. Copies can be purchased from ANSI and from ISO. (The PDF version of the C standard is quite affordable.)

The POSIX standard can be ordered from The Open Group. By working through their publications catalog to the items listed under “CAE Specifications,” you can find individual pages for each part of the standard (named “C031” through “C034”). Each one’s page provides free access to the online HTML version of the particular volume.

The POSIX standard is intended for implementation on both Unix and Unix-like systems, as well as non-Unix systems. Thus, the base functionality it provides is a subset of what Unix systems have. However, the POSIX standard also defines optional extensions —additional functionality, for example, for threads or real-time support. Of most importance to us is the X/Open System Interface (XSI) extension, which describes facilities from historical Unix systems.

Throughout the book, we mark each API as to its availability: ISO C, POSIX, XSI, GLIBC only, or nonstandard but commonly available.

Features and Power: GNU Programs

Restricting ourselves to just the original Unix code would have made an interesting history book, but it would not have been very useful in the 21st century. Modern programs do not have the same constraints (memory, CPU power, disk space, and speed) that the early Unix systems did. Furthermore, they need to operate in a multilingual world—ASCII and American English aren’t enough.

More importantly, one of the primary freedoms expressly promoted by the Free Software Foundation and the GNU Project is the “freedom to study.” GNU programs are intended to provide a large corpus of well-written programs that journeyman programmers can use as a source from which to learn.

By using GNU programs, we want to meet both goals: show you well-written, modern code from which you will learn how to write good code and how to use the APIs well.

We believe that GNU software is better because it is free (in the sense of “freedom,” not “free beer”). But it’s also recognized that GNU software is often technically better than the corresponding Unix counterparts, and we devote space in Section 1.4, “Why GNU Programs Are Better,” page 14, to explaining why.

A number of the GNU code examples come from gawk (GNU awk). The main reason is that it’s a program with which we’re very familiar, and therefore it was easy to pick examples from it. We don’t otherwise make any special claims about it.

Summary of Chapters

Driving a car is a holistic process that involves multiple simultaneous tasks. In many ways, Linux programming is similar, requiring understanding of multiple aspects of the API, such as file I/O, file metadata, directories, storage of time information, and so on.

The first part of the book looks at enough of these individual items to enable studying the first significant program, the V7 ls. Then we complete the discussion of files and users by looking at file hierarchies and the way filesystems work and are used.

Chapter 1, “Introduction,” page 3, describes the Unix and Linux file and process models, looks at the differences between Original C and 1990 Standard C, and provides an overview of the principles that make GNU programs generally better than standard Unix programs.

Chapter 2, “Arguments, Options, and the Environment,” page 23, describes how a C program accesses and processes command-line arguments and options and explains how to work with the environment.

Chapter 3, “User-Level Memory Management,” page 51, provides an overview of the different kinds of memory in use and available in a running process. User-level memory management is central to every nontrivial application, so it’s important to understand it early on.

Chapter 4, “Files and File I/O,” page 83, discusses basic file I/O, showing how to create and use files. This understanding is important for everything else that follows.

Chapter 5, “Directories and File Metadata,” page 117, describes how directories, hard links, and symbolic links work. It then describes file metadata, such as owners, permissions, and so on, as well as covering how to work with directories.

Chapter 6, “General Library Interfaces — Part 1,” page 165, looks at the first set of general programming interfaces that we need so that we can make effective use of a file’s metadata.

Chapter 7, “Putting It All Together: ls,” page 207, ties together everything seen so far by looking at the V7 ls program.

Chapter 8, “Filesystems and Directory Walks,” page 227, describes how filesystems are mounted and unmounted and how a program can tell what is mounted on the system. It also describes how a program can easily “walk” an entire file hierarchy, taking appropriate action for each object it encounters.

The second part of the book deals with process creation and management, interprocess communication with pipes and signals, user and group IDs, and additional general programming interfaces. Next, the book first describes internationalization with GNU gettext and then several advanced APIs.

Chapter 9, “Process Management and Pipes,” page 283, looks at process creation, program execution, IPC with pipes, and file descriptor management, including nonblocking I/O.

Chapter 10, “Signals,” page 347, discusses signals, a simplistic form of interprocess communication. Signals also play an important role in a parent process’s management of its children.

Chapter 11, “Permissions and User and Group ID Numbers,” page 403, looks at how processes and files are identified, how permission checking works, and how the setuid and setgid mechanisms work.

Chapter 12, “General Library Interfaces — Part 2,” page 427, looks at the rest of the general APIs; many of these are more specialized than the first general set of APIs.

Chapter 13, “Internationalization and Localization,” page 485, explains how to enable your programs to work in multiple languages, with almost no pain.

Chapter 14, “Extended Interfaces,” page 529, describes several extended versions of interfaces covered in previous chapters, as well as covering file locking in full detail. We round the book off with a chapter on debugging, since (almost) no one gets things right the first time, and we suggest a final project to cement your knowledge of the APIs covered in this book.

Chapter 15, “Debugging,” page 567, describes the basics of the GDB debugger, transmits as much of our programming experience in this area as possible, and looks at several useful tools for doing different kinds of debugging.

Chapter 16, “A Project That Ties Everything Together,” page 641, presents a significant programming project that makes use of just about everything covered in the book.

Several appendices cover topics of interest, including the licenses for the source code used in this book.

Appendix A, “Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years,” page 649, invokes the famous saying, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” So too, Linux/Unix expertise and understanding only come with time and practice. To that end, we have included this essay by Peter Norvig which we highly recommend.

Appendix B, “Caldera Ancient UNIX License,” page 655, covers the Unix source code used in this book.

Appendix C, “GNU General Public License,” page 657, covers the GNU source code used in this book.

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