by Shubheksha

Program design in the Unix environment: an academic article summary

Credit

Today, let’s take a look at “Program Design in the Unix Environment” published in 1983 by Pike and Kernighan.

The paper opens by listing why Unix has been successful, and then comments on the Unix philosophy and its benefits. It does so by looking at examples where programs diverged from the Unix philosophy and discussing the resulting trade offs

The reasons for Unix’s success:

  1. Portability: the kernel & applications were written in C, so they could be moved from system to system without being re-written in the assembly language particular to that system.
  2. The same OS ran on different hardware, so the users were already familiar and didn’t have to relearn when new hardware was released.
  3. The vendors could ship the same software with each machine despite changes in hardware.
  4. The system was not too big and was easy to modify since everything was written in C.
  5. It provided a new philosophy based on the use of general purpose tools. They did one thing well and could be combined to do a particular task, instead of creating giant monolithic tools that served only one purpose.

The paper argues that the use and design of tools is closely related, and how they fit together is the main subject of this essay.

The paper then dives into cat (the Unix command line utility for concatenating and printing files). It copies its input to its output. The input is usually a sequence of one or more files or the standard input. The output is a file or the standard output.

The main purpose of cat was to act as a utility to concatenate files. It can be combined with the pipe (|) operator to further enhance and extend its utility through output redirection.

Other systems, on the other hand, try to dump a bunch of related functionality into a single command which is against the Unix philosophy. It also creates a lock-in of functionality that might be useful to other programs.

Advantages of the Unix approach:

  1. The shell and the programs it can invoke provide uniform access to system facilities. Eg: the filename arguments are expanded by the shell in a similar fashion for each command. Because of pipes, we don’t need every command to deal with pre- and post- processing of input.
  2. Growth is easy when functions are well-separated.

Example: the `(backtic) operator was added to convert the output of one program into the input of another without requiring changes in any other program as it is interpreted by the shell. All programs the shell invokes acquire this feature automatically. If each program that required this feature interpreted it, it’d be very hard to enforce uniformity and carry out further experimentation, as each new idea would affect all the programs that would want to use it.

However, in future versions of cat, many new options were introduced (such as printing line numbers and non-printable characters).

The authors argue that instead of adding those options to cat itself, either existing programs should’ve been used or new programs should’ve been created. For example, line number functionality could’ve been provided by using pr. However, there was no program which allowed printing of non-printable characters which warranted the creation of a new one.

Such a modification confuses what cat’s job is  concatenating files  with
what it happens to do in a common special case  showing a file on the terminal. A UNIX program should do one thing well, and leave unrelated tasks to other programs. cat’s job is to collect the data in files. Programs that collect data shouldn’t change the data; cat therefore shouldn’t transform its input.

Whenever we split something into multiple programs, we sacrifice some efficiency. But since cat is usually used without any options, it makes sense to have the most common cases be the most efficient.

Separate programs are not always better than wider options; which is better depends on the problem. Whenever one needs a way to perform a new function, one faces the choice of whether to add a new option or write a new program (assuming that none of the programmable tools will do the job conveniently). The
guiding principle for making the choice should be that each program does one thing. Options are appropriately added to a program that already has the right functionality. If there is no such program, then a new program is called for. In that case, the usual criteria for program design should be used: the program should be as general as possible, its default behavior should match the most common usage, and it should cooperate with other programs.

Let’s consider another issue: dealing with fast terminal lines. How do we deal with output from cat scrolling off the top of the screen?

There are two approaches:

  1. Tell each command about terminal properties so it does the right thing
  2. Write a command that handles only terminals without modifying other programs

Let’s consider examples of both approaches: lsc and ls which prints out the list of files in a directory.

lsc varies its output depending on the input. It displays the list in a columnar fashion across the screen so that the o/p fits if it’s outputting to the terminal. ls displays everything in a single column.

By retaining single column output to files or pipes, lsc ensures compatibility with programs like grep or wc that expect things to be printed one per line. This ad-hoc adjustment of the output format depending on the destination is not only distasteful, it is unique  no standard UNIX command has this property.

The authors argue that the columnation facility is useful in general and shouldn’t be locked away in just lsc , making it inaccessible to other programs. They advocate for a different program whose primary job is columnation.

Similar reasoning suggests a solution for the general problem of data flowing off screens (columnated or not): a separate program to take any input and print it a screen at a time. Such programs are by now widely available, under names like pg and more. This solution affects no other programs, but can be used with all of them. As usual, once the basic feature is right, the program can be enhanced with options…

Based on the previous example, the authors also talk about different cases where some functionality is locked away in a specific program (like input history in the terminal) which would be better off as a central service. All interactive programs could benefit from it.

They conclude with how augmenting existing commands with features/options is not desirable in Unix, it goes against its basic philosophy: make a program do one thing well. Several such programs can be composed to accomplish a more complex task.

The key to problem solving on the UNIX system is to identify the right primitive operations and to put them at the right place. UNIX programs tend to solve general problems rather than special cases. In a very loose sense, the programs are orthogonal, spanning the space of jobs to be done (although with a fair
amount of overlap for reasons of history, convenience or efficiency). Functions are placed where they will do the most good: there shouldn’t be a pager in every program that produces output any more than there should be filename pattern matching in every program that uses filenames.
One thing that UNIX does not need is more features. It is successful in part because it has a small number of good ideas that work well together. Merely adding features does not make it easier for users to do things  it just makes the manual thicker. The right solution in the right place is always more effective
than haphazard hacking.