Originally Published: Thursday, 23 August 2001 Author: Subhasish Ghosh
Published to: develop_articles/Development Articles Page: 1/5 - [Printable]

Understanding Linux Kernel Inter-process Communication: Pipes, FIFO & IPC (Part 1)

In this article, part one of a two part article, the prolific and talented Subhasish returns to give Linux.com readers another trip into understanding Linux kernel behavoir and programming. There's a lot of information covered here for free, so hang up your hat and have fun. Part 2 of Understanding Linux Kernel Inter-process Communication will be published tomorrow.

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After "Understanding Re-entrant Kernels" and "Linux Kernel Synchronization", this forms the third article included within the "Linux Kernel Series" being published at Linux.com. Every reader is requested to read the first two articles of the series, because this article explores in more depth a few kernel features already introduced in the earlier articles. In this article the following topics will be covered:

  1. An Overview of Process Communication in Linux.
  2. An Overview of Pipes, FIFOs and System V IPC.
Part two of this article, to be published tomorrow, will cover:
  1. System V (AT&T System V.2 release of UNIX) IPC Resources: Semaphores, Message Queues & Shared Memory segments (implemented in terms of GNU/Linux).
  2. A few code examples to chew on (for the brave-hearted!).

Please Note:

  1. For explanation of words such as "kernel control paths", "semaphores", "race conditions" and related features, please refer to earlier articles in the series.
  2. All readers must note that though this article explores the depth of the Linux Kernel, but without the discussion of AT&T System V release of UNIX IPC features and facilities, no discussion would ever be complete. Thus, several System V UNIX features will be discussed too.
  3. I have had used Red Hat Linux 7.1, Linux Kernel 2.4.2-2 for compiling all the code included.

In earlier articles we have already encountered some exciting features of the Linux Kernel. This article explains how User Mode processes can synchronize themselves and exchange data. We have already covered a lot of synchronization topics, especially in "Linux Kernel Synchronization", but as readers must have noticed the main protagonist of the story there was a "Kernel Control Path" acting within the Linux Kernel and NOT User Mode programs. Thus, we are now ready to discuss synchronization of User Mode processes. These processes rely on the Linux Kernel to synchronize themselves and exchange data.

An Overview of Process Communication in Linux

First of all, let's understand the actual meaning of: IPC. IPC is an abbreviation that stands for Inter-process Communication. It denotes a set of system calls that allows a User Mode process to:

  1. Synchronize itself with other processes by means of 'Semaphores'.
  2. Send messages to other processes or receive messages from them.
  3. Share a memory area with other processes.

IPC was introduced in a development UNIX variant called "Columbus Unix" and later adopted by AT&T's System III. It is now commonly found in most UNIX systems, including GNU/Linux. System V IPC is more heavyweight than BSD mmap, and provides three methods of communication: message queues, semaphores, and shared segments. Like BSD mmap, System V IPC uses files to identify shared segments. Unlike BSD, System V uses these files only for naming. Their contents have nothing to do with the initialization of the shared segment. IPC data structures are created dynamically when a process requests an IPC Resource, i.e. a semaphore, a message queue, or a shared memory segment. All of these IPC Resources would be discussed in detail later on. Before we dive deep into the subject matter, there are a few things that I would like to explain at the very beginning. They are as follows:

  1. The mechanism in which User Mode processes synchronize themselves and exchange data is referred to as "Inter-process Communication (IPC)" in UNIX Systems (that includes Linux too). But in what way exactly do terms like: Semaphores, Shared Memory and Message Queues relate to IPC? All readers must note that Semaphores, Shared Memory and Message Queues do relate to IPC in a very special way, since Semaphores, Shared Memory and Message Queues are "Inter-process Communication Resources" or "Inter-process Communication Facilities", and different in the way they represent IPC from "Inter-process Communication Mechanisms" like Pipes and FIFOs. Semaphores, Shared Memory and Message Queues are System V (AT&T System V.2 release of UNIX) IPC facilities, and they represent wrapper functions that have been developed and inserted in suitable libraries to harness the energy and beauty of IPC mechanisms. More on this later.
  2. Data sharing among processes can be obtained by storing data in temporary files protected by locks. But this mechanism is never implemented as it proves costly since it requires accesses to the disk filesystem. For that reason, all UNIX Kernels include a set of system calls that supports process communications without interacting with the filesystem.

Application programmers have a variety of needs that call for different communication mechanisms. Some of the basic mechanisms that UNIX systems, GNU/Linux is particular has to offer are:

  1. Pipes and FIFOs: Mainly used for implementing producer/consumer interactions among processes. Some processes will fill the pipe with data while others will extract from it.
  2. Semaphores: Here we refer to (NOT the POSIX Realtime Extension Semaphores applied to Linux Kernel Threads), but System V semaphores which apply to User Mode processes. Used for locking critical sections of code.
  3. Message Queues: To set up a message queue between processes is a way to exchange short blocks (called messages) between two processes in an asynchronous way.
  4. Shared Memory: A mechanism (specifically a resource) applied when processes need to share large amounts of data in an efficient way.

Another commonly used data communication mechanism in networks, "Sockets" will NOT be discussed here since it requires a long discussion of networking. In this article, we will explore all the above-mentioned IPC mechanisms and System V IPC facilities at our disposal.

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