Where parallels cross

Interesting bits of life

Linux, Unix Philosophy and why programs are just filters

I am a passionate reader and it is years that I work on operating systems based on Linux.

I confess that although reading tiny bits here and there, I never went in depth about what design principles Unix was built upon. For example, why cd is not change-directory? And why is all based on pipes, and stdin and stdout?

I am sure the Internet has all this information scattered around somewhere. However I really was looking for a consistent narration of why Unix and Linux are like we see them today.

I am convinced that just grasping the basics of how large and reliable software systems are built can boost your skills as an engineer.

And there I find it: Linux and Unix Philosophy by Mike Gancarz laying there in my reading list!

So let's start from the juicy part: programs are data filters. The point, in the words of the author, is that "Programs do not create data, people do". This left me wonder. If you think about it, it is a banal truth that carries a lot of meaning.

Any program we write ingest data and transforms that to something useful. But it does not generate the data in the first place. A program without data is useless, and we people are the data providers. The side effect of this is that functional programming is trendy for a reason: when you grasp how to use functions like map and filter you already belong to the functional community and also you are explicitly making your programs filter data.

So with that I looked at |, the pipe symbol, differently: that operator lets you compose your programs, i.e., your filters. (By the way, did you know the pipe operator passes partial results to the composed programs? Roughly speaking, cat file | grep "someWord" will not wait cat to pass the whole file contents to grep, instead grep will work line by line).

And that brings us to the other design principle: "Choose portability over efficiency". In Unix and Linux everything is a file: directories, stdin, stdout, processes, et cetera, are all files. The point here is that text files are portable, no strange byte conversions and similar. Anybody can open a file, it is standard, easy to share, and an abstraction around which you can build software that is uniform.

"Small is beautiful" is the last principle I want to consider in this post. This has much in common with Rich Hickey's talk Simple made easy: you want to prefer uni-functional programs. If your programs do a single thing, it is more likely you will write them correctly. Then to achieve your goal you can just compose your programs. The author calls this software leverage: the idea is that delivering and composing multiple small programs is more than delivering a single program that does the same. The reason is that you can reuse uni-functional programs in many different contexts.

An extra thing I want to mention is an interesting thought about the Agile community: Agile people have re-branded and made popular most of the Unix principles under the name of eXtreme Programming, Scrum, etc... Fundamentally fast prototyping, quick iterations and minimal bureaucracy (did I mention that all programs are as minimal as possible, even the naming conventions are i.e. cd vs change-directory) were all already around from a long time before we entered the Agile era (and luckily enough I would say!).

(This kind of borrowing ideas reminds me of another worth read I did recently which is "Steal Like an Artist" that was suggested by an interesting YouTuber Ali Abdaal, who was brought to my attention from a post of the Irreal blog.)

In conclusion this book's gift is a compact list of guidelines to design your programs and leverage composition of small programs with a single responsibility. Also, I am grateful that Mike decided to include this quote by his manager:

"Software is never finished. It is only delivered." And indeed, I strongly agree that interpreting a project as an iteration helps a lot in reducing stress.

Hope you will have time to look this book up too at some point!