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  • Device Files in Unix and how to interacts with peripheral discs

    As you might guess from the name, /dev contains device files. One of the prettiest ideas in the UNIX system is the way it deals with peripherals discs, tape drives, line printers, terminals, etc. Rather than having special system routines to, for example, read the magnetic tape, there is a file called /dev/mt0 (again, local customs vary). Inside the kernel, references to that file are converted into hardware commands to access the tape, so if a program reads /dev/mt0, the contents of a tape mounted on the drive are returned. For example, 

    $ cp /dev/mt0 junk

    copies the contents of the tape to a file called junk. cp has no idea there is anything special about /dev/mt0; it is just a file - a sequence of bytes.

    The device files are something of a zoo, each creature a little different, but the basic ideas of the file system apply to each. Here is a significantly shortened list of our /dev:

    $ Is –I /dev

    crw--w--w- 1 root             0, 0 Sep 27 23:09 console

    crw-r--r-- 1 root                3, 1 Sep 27 14:37 kmem

    crw-r--r-- 1 root               3, 0 May 6 1981 mem

    brw-rw-rw- 1 root           1, 64 Aug 24 17:41 mt0

    crw-rw-rw- 1 root           3, 2 Sep 28 02:03 null

    crw-rw-rw- 1 root           4, 64 Sep 9 15:42 rmt0

    brw-r----- 1 root              2, 0 Sep 8 08:07 rp00

    brw-r----- 1 root              2, 1 Sep 27 23:09 rp01

    crw-r----- 1 root             13, 0 Apr 12 1983 rrp00

    crw-r----- 1 root            13, 1 Jul 28 15:18 rrp01

    crw-rw-rw- 1 root         2, 0 Jul 5 08:04 tty

    crw--w--w- 1 you         1, 0 Sep 28 02:38 tty0

    crw--w--w- 1 root       1, 1 Sep 27 23:09 tty1

    crw--w--w- 1 root      1, 2 Sep 27 17:33 tty2

    crw--w--w- 1 root     1, 3 Sep 27 18:48 tty3

    The first things to notice are that instead of a byte count there is a pair of small integers and that the first character of the mode is always a 'b' or a 'c'. This is how 1s prints the information from an inode that specifies a device rather than a regular file. The inode of a regular file contains a list of disc blocks that store the file's contents. For a device file, the inode instead contains the internal name for the device, which consists of its type character (c) or block (b) and a pair of numbers, called the major and minor device numbers. Discs and tapes are block devices; everything else terminals, printers, phone lines, etc. - is a character device. The major number encodes the type of device, while the minor number distinguishes different instances of the device. For example, /dev/tty0 and /dev/tty1 are two ports on the same terminal controller, so they have the same major device number but different minor numbers.

    Disc files are usually named after the particular hardware variant they represent. /dev/rp00 and /dev/rp01 are named after the DEC RP06 disc drive attached to the system. There is just one drive, divided logically into two file systems. If there were a second drive, its associated files would be named /dev/rp10 and /dev/xp11. The first digit specifies the physical drive and the second which portion of the drive.

    You might wonder why there are several disc device files, instead of just one. For historical reasons and ease of maintenance, the file system is divided into smaller subsystems. The files in a subsystem are accessible through a directory in the main system. The program /etc/mount reports the correspondence between device files and directories:

    $ /etc/mount

    rp01 on /usr


    In our case, the root system occupies /dev/rp00 (although this isn't reported by /etc/mount) while the user file system directories- reside on /dev/rp01. - the files in /usr and its sub-directories – reside on /dev/rp01

    The root file system has to be present for the system to execute. /bin, /dev, and /etc are always kept on the root system because when the system starts only files in the root system are accessible, and some files such as /bin/sh are needed to run at all. During the bootstrap operation, all the file systems are checked for self-consistency (see check(8) or fsck(8)) and attached to the root system. This attachment operation is called mounting, the software equivalent of mounting a new disc pack in a drive; it can normally be done only by the super-user. After /dev/rp01 has been mounted as /usr, the files in the user file system are accessible exactly as if they were part of the root system.

    For the average user, the details of which file subsystem is mounted where are of little interest, but there are a couple of relevant points. First, because the subsystems may be mounted and dismounted, it is illegal to link to a file in another subsystem. For example, it is impossible to link programs in /bin to convenient names in private bin directories, because /usr is in a different file subsystem from /bin:

    $ in /bin/mail /usr/you/bin/m

    In: Cross-device link


    There would also be a problem because inode numbers are not unique in different file systems. Second, each subsystem has fixed upper limits on size (number of blocks available for files) and inodes. If a subsystem fills up, it will be impossible to enlarge files in that subsystem until some space is reclaimed. The df (disc free space) command reports the available space on the mounted file subsets terms:

    $ df

    /dev/rp00 1989

    /dev/rp01 21257


    /usr has 21257 free blocks. Whether this is ample space or a crisis depends on how the system is used; some installations need more file space headroom than others. By the way, of all the commands, df probably has the widest variation in the output format. Your pdf output may look quite different.

    Let's turn now to some more generally useful things. When you log in, you get a terminal line and therefore a file in /dev through which the characters you type and receive are sent. The tty command tells you which terminal you are using:

    $ who am I you

    you tty0 Sep 28 01:02

    $ tty

    $ Is -1 /dev /tty0

    Crw—w—w- 1 you 1, 12 Sep 28 02:40 /dev/tty0

    date >/dev/ttyo

    Wed Sep 28 02:40:51 EDT 1983


    Notice that you own the device and that only you are permitted to read it. In other words, no one else can directly read the characters you are typing. Anyone may write on your terminal, however. To prevent this, you could chmod the device, thereby preventing people from using write to contact you, or you could just use mesg.

    Is -I /dev/tty0

    Crw------- 1 you 1, 12 Sep 28 02:41 /dev/tty0

    $ mesg y Restore


    It is often useful to be able to refer by name to the terminal you are using. but it's inconvenient to determine which one it is. The device /dev/tty is a synonym for your login terminal, whatever terminal you are using.

    $ date >/dev/tty

    Wed Sep 28 02:42:23 EDT 1983

    /dev/tty is particularly useful when a program needs to interact with a user even though its standard input and output are connected to files rather than the terminal. the crypt is one program that uses /dev/tty. The "clear text" comes from the standard input, and the encrypted data goes to the standard output, so the crypt reads the encryption key from /dev/tty:

    $ crypt cleartext >cryptedtext

    Enter key: Type encryption key


    The use of /dev/tty isn't explicit in this example, but it is there. If the crypt read the key from the standard input, it would read the first line of the clear text. So instead crypt opens /dev/tty, turns off automatic character echoing so your encryption key doesn't appear on the screen and reads the key. In Chapters 5 and 6 we will come across several other uses of /dev/tty.

    Occasionally you want to run a program but don't care what output is produced. For example, you may have already seen today's news, and don't want to read it again. Redirecting news to the file /dev/null causes its output to be thrown away:

    $ news >/dev/null


    Data written to /dev/null is discarded without comment, while programs that read from /dev/null get end-of-file immediately because reads from /dev/null always return zero bytes. One common use of /dev/null is to throw away regular output so that diagnostic messages are visible. For example, the time command (time(1)) reports the CPU usage of a program. The information is printed on the standard error, so you can time commands that generate copious output by sending the standard output to /dev/null:

    $ ls -I/usr/dict/words

    -r--r--r-- 1 bin 196513 Jan 20 1979 /usr/dict/words

    $ time grep e /usr/dict/words >/dev/null

    real 13.0

    user 9.0

    sys 2.7

    $ time grep e /usr/dict/words >/dev/null

    real 8.0

    user 3.9

    sys 2.8

    The numbers in the output of time are elapsed clock time, CPU time spent in the program, and CPU time spent in the kernel while the program was running. egrep is a high-powered variant of grep that we will discuss in Chapter 4; it's about twice as fast as grep when searching through large files. If the output from grep and egrep had not been sent to /dev/null or a real file, we would have had to wait for hundreds of

    thousands of characters to appear on the terminal before finding out the timing information we were after.

    Exercise 2-9. Find out about the other files in /dev by reading Section 4 of the manual. What is the difference between /dev/mt0 and /dev/rmt0? Comment on the potential advantages of having subdirectories in /dev for discs, tapes, etc. D

    Exercise 2-10. Tapes written on non-UNIX systems often have different block sizes, such as 800 bytes- ten 80-character card images- but the tape device /dev/mto expects 512-byte blocks. Look up the dd command (dd(1)) to see how to read such a tape.

    Exercise 2-11. Why isn't /dev/tty just a link to your login terminal? What would happen if it were mode rw--w--w- like your login terminal?

    Exercise 2-12. How does write(1) work? Hint: see utmp(5).

    Exercise 2-13. How can you tell if a user has been active at the terminal recently?

    History and bibliographic notes

    The file system forms one part of the discussion in "UNIX implementation," by Ken Thompson (BSTJ, July 1978). A paper by Dennis Ritchie, entitled "The evolution of the UNIX time-sharing system" (Symposium on Language Design and Programming Methodology, Sydney, Australia, Sept. 1979) is a fascinating description of how the file system was designed and implemented on the original PDP-7 UNIX system, and how it grew into its present form.

    The UNIX file system adapts some ideas from the MULTICS file system. The MULTICS System: An Examination of its Structure, by E. I. Organic (MIT Press, 1972) provides a comprehensive treatment of MULTICS. "Password security: a case history," by Bob Morris and Ken Thompson, is an entertaining comparison of password mechanisms on a variety of systems; it can be found in Volume 2B of the UNIX Programmer's Manual. In the same volume, the paper "On the security of UNIX," by Dennis Ritchie, explains how the security of a system depends more on the care taken with its administration than on the details of programs like a crypt.



    /usr/lib /usr/man



    /usr/news /usr/pub 


    /usr/src/cmd /usr/src/lib








    your login directory


    execution of a program. When you start up the editor ed, for example, it creates a file with a name like /tmp/e00512 to hold its copy of the file you are editing, rather than working with the original file. It could, of course, create the file in your current directory, but there are advantages to placing it in /tmp: although it is unlikely, you might already have a file called e00512 in your directory; /tmp is cleaned up automatically when the system starts, so your directory doesn't get an unwanted file if the system crashes, and often /tmp is arranged on the disc for fast access.

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