[TUHS] Compare, contrast and a "Unixy" networking API

Paul Ruizendaal pnr at planet.nl
Sat Jul 2 20:10:46 AEST 2022

Following an insightful post by Norman Wilson (https://minnie.tuhs.org/pipermail/tuhs/2022-June/025929.html) and re-reading a few old papers (https://minnie.tuhs.org/pipermail/tuhs/2022-June/026028.html), I was thinking about similarities and differences between the various Unix networking approaches in the 1975-1985 era and came up with the following observations:

- First something obvious: early Unix was organised around two classes of device: character based and block based. Arguably, it is maybe better to think of these classes conceptually as “transient” and “memoizing”. A difference between the two would be wether or not it makes conceptual sense to do a seek operation on them and pipes and networks are in the transient class.

- On the implementation side, this relates two early kernel data structures: clists and disk buffers. Clists were designed for slow, low volume traffic and most early Unix network code creates a third kind: the mbufs of Arpanet Unix, BBN-TCP Unix and BSD, the packets of Chesson's V7 packet driver, Ritchie's streams etc. These are all the same when seen from afar: higher capacity replacements for clists.

- Typically devices are accessed via a filter. At an abstract level, there is not much difference between selecting a line discipline, pushing a stream filter or selecting a socket type. At the extreme end one could argue that pushing a TCP stack on a network device is conceptually the same as mounting a file system on a disk device. Arguably, both these operations could be performed through a generalised mount() call.

- Another implementation point is the organisation of the code. Is the network code in the kernel, or in user land? Conceptually connection management is different from stream management when connected (e.g. CMC and URP with Datakit, or RTP and BSP in Xerox Pups). In the BSD lineage all is in the kernel, and in the Research lineage connection management is done in a user space daemon.

Arpanet Unix (originally based on V5) had a curious solution: the network code was organised in a single process, but with code both in kernel mode and in user mode. The user code would make a special system call, and the kernel code would interact with the IMP driver, manage buffers and deliver packets. Only when a state-changing event happened, it would return to user mode and the user code would handle connection management (followed by a new call into kernel mode). Interestingly, this approach mostly hid the IMP connection, and this carried through to the BSD’s where the network devices were also buried in the stack. Arpanet Unix made this choice to conserve kernel address space and to minimize the amount of original kernel code that had to be touched.

- Early Unix has three ways to obtain a file descriptor: open, creat and pipe. Later also fifo. In this context adding more (like socket) does not seem like a mortal sin. Arguably, all could be rolled into one, with open() handling all cases. Some of this was done in 4.2BSD. It is possible to combine socket() & friends into open() with additional flags, much as was done in Arpanet Unix and BBN-TCP Unix.

- Network connections have different meta data than disk files, and in sockets this handled via specialised calls. This seems a missed opportunity for unified mechanisms. The API used in BBN-TCP handles most of this via ioctl. However, one could (cheekily!) argue that V7 unix has a somewhat byzantine meta data API, with the functionality split over seek, ioctl, fcntl, stat and fstat. These could all be handled in a generalised ioctl. Conceptually, this could also be replaced by using read/write on a meta data file descriptor, which could for example be the regular descriptor with the high bit set. But this, of course, did never exist.

- A pain point in Arpanet Unix was that a listening connection (i.e. a server endpoint) would block until a client arrived and then turn into the connection with the client. This would fork out into a service process and the main server process would open a new listening socket for the next client. In sockets this was improved into a rendez-vous type server connection that would spawn individual client connections via ‘accept’. The V8/V9 IPC library took a similar approach, but also developed the mechanism into a generalized way to (i) create rendez-vous points and (ii) ship descriptors across local connections.

- The strict blocking nature of IO in early Unix was another pain point for writing early network code. The first solution to that were BBN’s await and capac primitives, which worked around the blocking nature. With SysIII, non-blocking file access appeared and 4.1a BSD saw the arrival of 'select’. Together these offer a much more convenient way to deal with multiple tty or network streams in a single threaded process (although it did modify some of the early Unix philosophy). Non-blocking IO and select() also appeared in the Research lineage with 8th edition.

- The file system switch (FSS) arrived around 1983, during the gestation of 8th edition. This was just 1 or 2 years after the network interfaces for BSD and Datakit got their basic shape. Had the FSS been part of V7 (as it well could have been), probably the networking designs would have been a bit different, using virtual directories for networking connections. The ‘namei hack’ in MIT’s CHAOS network code already points in this direction. A similar approach could have been extended to named pipes (arriving in SysIII), where the fifo endpoint could have been set up through creating a file in a virtual directory, and making connections through a regular open of such a virtual file (and 9th edition appears to implement this.)


To me it seems that the V1-V7 abstractions, the system call API, etc. were created with the experience of CTSS, Multics and others fresh in mind. The issues were understood and it combined the best of the ideas that came before. When it came to networking, Unix did not have this advantage and was necessarily trying to ride a bike whilst inventing it. Maybe in a different time line it would have been possible to pick the best ideas in this area as well and combine these into a coherent framework.

I concur with the observation that this list should be about discussion of what once was and only tangentially about what might have been, so it is only after considerable hesitation that I write the below.

Looking at the compare and contrast above (and having been tainted by what became dominant in later decades), I would say that the most “Unixy” way to add networking to V7/SysIII era Unix would have been something like:

- Network access via open/read/write/close, in the style of BBN-TCP

- Network namespace exposed via a virtual file system, a bit like V9

- Meta data via a generalised ioctl, or via read/write on a meta data descriptor

- Connection rendez-vous via a generalised descriptor shipping mechanism, in the style of V8/V9

- Availability of non-blocking access, together with a waiting primitive (select/poll/etc.), in the style of BSD

- Primary network device visible as any other device, network protocol mounted similar to a file system.

- Both connection management and stream management located in kernel code, in the style of BSD

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