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Books Programming Book Reviews Linux

The Linux Programming Interface 73

Muad writes "Michael Kerrisk has been the maintainer of the Linux Man Pages collection (man 7) for more than five years now, and it is safe to say that he has contributed to the Linux documentation available in the online manual more than any other author before. For this reason he has been the recipient a few years back of a Linux Foundation fellowship meant to allow him to devote his full time to the furthering this endeavor. His book is entirely focused on the system interface and environment Linux (and, to some extent, any *NIX system) provides to a programmer. My most obvious choice for a comparison of the same caliber is Michael K. Johnson and Eric W. Troan's venerable Linux Application Development, the second edition of which was released in 2004 and is somewhat in need of a refresh, lamentably because it is an awesome book that belongs on any programmer's shelf. While Johnson and Troan have introduced a whole lot of programmers to the pleasure of coding to Linux's APIs, their approach is that of a nicely flowing tutorial, not necessarily complete, but unusually captivating and very suitable to academic use. Michael's book is a different kind of beast: while the older tome selects exquisite material, it is nowhere as complete as his — everything relating to the subject that I could reasonably think of is in the book, in a very thorough and maniacally complete yet enjoyably readable way — I did find one humorous exception, more on that later. Keep reading for the rest of Federico's review.
The Linux Programming Interface
author Michael Kerrisk
pages 1552
publisher No Starch Press
rating 8/10
reviewer Federico Lucifredi
ISBN 9781593272203
summary The definitive guide to the Linux and UNIX programming interface
This book is an unusual, if not altogether unique, entry into the Linux programming library: for one, it is a work of encyclopedic breadth and depth, spanning in great detail concepts usually spread in a multitude of medium-sized books, but by this yardstick the book is actually rather concise, as it is neatly segmented in 64 nearly self-contained chapters that work very nicely as short, deep-dive technical guides. I have collected an extremely complete technical library over the years, and pretty much any book of significance that came out of the Linux and Bell Labs communities is in it — it is about 4 shelves, and it is far from portable. It is very nice to be able to reach out and pick the definitive work on IPC, POSIX threads, or one of several socket programming guides — not least because having read them, I know what and where to pick from them. But for those out there who have not invested so much time, money, and sweat moving so many books around, Kerrisk's work is priceless: any subject be it timers, UNIX signals, memory allocation or the most classical of topics (file I/O) gets its deserved 15-30 page treatment, and you can pick just what you need, in any order.

Weighing in at 1552 pages, this book is second only to Charles Kozierok's mighty TCP/IP Guide in length in the No Starch Press catalog. Anyone who has heard me comment about books knows I usually look askance at anything beyond the 500-page mark, regarding it as something defective in structure that fails the "I have no time to read all that" test. In the case of Kerrisk's work, however, just as in the case of Kozierok's, actually, I am happy to waive my own rule, as these heavyweights in the publisher's catalog are really encyclopedias, and despite my bigger library I will like to keep this single tome within easy reach of my desk to avoid having to fetch the other tomes for quick lookups — yes, I still have lazy programmer blood in my veins.

There is another perspective to this: while writing, I took a break and while wandering around I found myself in Miguel's office (don't tell him ;-), and there spotted a Bell Labs book lying on his shelf that (incredibly) I have never heard of. After a quick visit to AbeBooks to take care of this embarrassing matter, I am back here writing to use this incident as a valuable example: the classic system programming books, albeit timeless in their own way, show their rust when it comes to newer and more esoteric Linux system calls (mmap and inotify are fair examples) and even entire subsystems in some cases — and that's another place where this book shines: it is not only very complete, it is really up to date, a combination I cannot think of a credible alternative to in today's available book offerings.

One more specialized but particularly unique property of this book is that it can be quite helpful in navigating what belongs to what standard, be it POSIX, X/Open, SUS, LSB, FHS, and what not. Perhaps it is not entirely complete in this, but it is more helpful than anything else I have seen released since Donald Lewine's ancient POSIX Programmers Guide (O'Reilly). Standards conformance is a painful topic, but one you inevitably stumble into when writing code meant to compile and run not only on Linux but to cross over to the BSDs or farther yet to other *NIX variants. If you have to deal with that kind of divine punishment, this book, together with the Glibc documentation, is a helpful palliative as it will let you know what is not available on other platforms, and sometimes even what alternatives you may have, for example, on the BSDs.

If you are considering the purchase, head over to Amazon and check out the table of contents, you will be impressed. The Linux Programming Encyclopedia would have been a perfectly adequate title for it in my opinion. In closing, I mentioned that after thinking for a good while I found one thing to be missing in this book: next to the appendixes on tracing, casting the null pointer, parsing command-line options, and building a kernel configuration, a tutorial on writing man pages was sorely and direly missing! Michael, what were you thinking?

Federico Lucifredi is the maintainer of man (1) and a Product Manager for the SUSE Linux Enterprise and openSUSE distributions.

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The Linux Programming Interface

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  • by windcask ( 1795642 ) on Monday November 08, 2010 @02:53PM (#34164070) Homepage Journal
    I think anyone who has the overwhelming dedication to create a 1500+ page tome about every nook and cranny of the Linux API can be spared the task of explaining how to write text files. But that's just me.
    • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Man pages are written in [ng]roff format, so no, they're not just text files.
      • I think anyone who has the overwhelming dedication to create a 1500+ page tome about every nook and cranny of the Linux API can be spared the task of explaining how to write text files. But that's just me.

        Man pages are written in [ng]roff format, so no, they're not just text files.

        It's even worse than that. They're all just strings of zeroes and ones, even Linux programs. I think the author can be spared the task of explaining how to write a string of zeroes and ones, don't you think?

        • by afabbro ( 33948 ) on Monday November 08, 2010 @03:29PM (#34164642) Homepage

          I think anyone who has the overwhelming dedication to create a 1500+ page tome about every nook and cranny of the Linux API can be spared the task of explaining how to write text files. But that's just me.

          Man pages are written in [ng]roff format, so no, they're not just text files.

          It's even worse than that. They're all just strings of zeroes and ones, even Linux programs.

          They're actually bits, not strings. I will spare myself the task of explaining further.

          • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

            by noidentity ( 188756 )

            They're actually bits, not strings. I will spare myself the task of explaining further.

            Good, because it wouldn't be necessary. On the other hand, in an informal sense, a string is "A linear sequence of characters, words, or other data" (from Google dictionary). In this case, it's a linear sequence of bits. The bits aren't characters (unless your machine's characters are a single bit wide), but I think string was appropriate. I could have called them a one-dimensional vector, or a linear sequence of bits, b

        • Man pages are written in [ng]roff format, so no, they're not just text files.

          It's even worse than that. They're all just strings of zeroes and ones

          I think I saw a two in there!

      • by trb ( 8509 ) on Monday November 08, 2010 @03:38PM (#34164730)
        Man pages are plain text files, but not just text files. They are also not just ?roff files. They are written using the "man page macros" for [gnt]roff. These man page macros were written for UNIX in the 1970's, and survive pretty much unchanged. You can find doc for them on your Linux system by typing: man 7 man or []

        If Kerrisk is the keeper of man 7, and he was supposed to cover man 7 in his book, then yes, this would be an oversight.

        The ?roff language was pretty much "assembler language" for typesetting - you weren't supposed to write your documents in raw ?roff. In those days, before word processors like msword and oo, and before TeX and LaTeX, anyone who wrote docs for UNIX systems was well versed in the different macro packages, including some of man, ms, mm, me, and others.

        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by sconeu ( 64226 )

          Ah... memories...

          The mm and me packages. Used me at UCSC in '84, and mm for about 10 years at my first job (before MSWord became ubiquitous).

          And of course, it's part of one of the unix puns...

          A Unix software pirate says, "Argv! nroff -me timbers!"

        • not to mention there's a guide to writing Techinfo pages also. While I get the humor, man page writing isn't programming so I don't think it would fit in a book Named "The Linux Programming Interface"
    • I'm guessing this is a joke, given that programming code files are also "just text files"?

      • by blair1q ( 305137 )

        You saved me posting that.

      • In good, human-readable languages the sources are "just text files". Some languages use binary source files that only a specific IDE can make useful. Others are "just text files" with significant white space which you need a good editor or an IDE to use reliably, but you can muddle through with a lesser editor.

        • funny, I find the ones without significant whitespace (or that let it be omitted) to be the problem...

          Then again, I've never programmed in whitespace. []

          • Well, I'm glad you enjoy programming in ABC and Python. That lets you maintain code I'd rather not. :-)

            Actually, many more languages have some significance to whitespace. In most languages, though, it's a matter of presence or absence around some non-whitespace syntax.

            ABC and Python with their level of indentation determining scope are really difficult to edit correctly if you're stuck without the proper editor some time, though.

            • Not familiar with ABC, don't mind python.

              I hate certain code practices of reducing whitespace in C-likes, since they make it harder for me to find blocks of code (such as putting the block-opener at the end of the line, instead of on it's own line).

              I usually use Eclipse, Emacs or, when in Windows doing a quick script, Notepad, when I use Python, so I guess I've never had a "the wrong editor" problem.

              • Are you sure? I've always considered Notepad the wrong editor for just about anything. Even Microsoft's DOS was a better editor as far as I'm concerned.

                I'm more of a vi/vim/cream (in a pinch elvis or vile), geany, or Kate person. Eclipse or Emacs aren't bad and I'm not here to start an editor flame fest. I just prefer modal commands to a lot of meta keys. I understand others prefer the opposite. Graphical is okay most of the time, but having something that's curses based or even line based to fall

      • Sure they are. The executables they generate are not, however. And neither are the man pages, generated by the macros trb spoke of. And let's leave out binary-level includes such as bitmaps, drivers, codecs, and the doesn't change the fact that the core elements of man pages are just plain text output with a minimal amount of formatting.
  • sudo apt-get install first_post.deb
  • tl; dr. Anyone got a summary of the summary?
  • curious minds...

  • Won't anybody think of the trees? My aching back trying to lug this around?
  • Fiddleheads (Score:4, Insightful)

    by blair1q ( 305137 ) on Monday November 08, 2010 @03:16PM (#34164422) Journal

    Michael, what were you thinking?

    He was thinking he's the only person writing man pages for Linux so why does anyone else need to know how to do that?

  • Just as long as (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Rasputin ( 5106 ) on Monday November 08, 2010 @03:17PM (#34164442) Homepage
    I don't have to use Info to read it I'll be happy...
    • Re:Just as long as (Score:5, Insightful)

      by sconeu ( 64226 ) on Monday November 08, 2010 @03:54PM (#34164954) Homepage Journal

      Yeah. I hate info. Actually, what I hate are man pages that say "use info $APP for the man page".

      • And then it happens you don't have the 'programname-doc' package installed, so 'info' loads up the man page.

        Help! I'm stuck iterating through a self-referential linked-list!

  • Stevens.

    Sorry , but no other book comes close to Advanced Programming in the Unix Enviroment.

    • Stevens.

      Sorry , but no other book comes close to Advanced Programming in the Unix Enviroment.

      You know, I was thinking more or less the same thing when I read this story. How can a review like this not make the obvious comparison with the glorious APUE? I love that book. I have to admit, I didn't even know you could pass file descriptors from one process to another before I read it... And its descriptions of job control, TTYs, process hierarchies and so on have been very valuable to me.

      It seems like this book covers a lot of the same ground, though presumably without the same level of cross-plat

  • by hey! ( 33014 ) on Monday November 08, 2010 @03:49PM (#34164888) Homepage Journal

    back in the day:

    (1) The Unix Programming Environment (K&P)
    (2) The C Programming Language (K&R)
    (3) Software Tools (K&P)
    (4) The Elements of Programming Style (K&P) [optional]

    In those days, I was always amazed that so many people tried to program on Unix without having read these books forward and back. After you read those, all that was left was to read the manuals cover to cover, which took a few months but was worth doing. That was a good spare time activity back in the days when compiling and linking took a long, long time.

    It's an entirely different kind of world today. I doubt many people know even the standard Java libraries as well as we knew Version 7 and System III of Unix, not only the details but the design philosophy as well.

    Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his essay "Self-Reliance", claims that society does not progress; it simply changes. We gain some things but lose others. I suppose that depends on your definition of "progress"; I certainly wouldn't want to go back to those days. We have unquestionably gained, but we've lost something too as programmers, a sense of mastery and control over our destiny. So much of our time today is spent dealing with the fallibility of others, in wrestling with frameworks that are powerful but so complex they're inevitably full of excruciating design flaws. We don't think it extraordinary at all for a good fraction of our time on a project to be working around flaws in other layers of the solution.

    • What, no Advanced Programming in the UNIX Environment (Stevens)?

      I know what you mean about the differences in programming between then and now. Then it was about learning a relatively small set of simple, fundamental tools and knowing how to build with them in creative ways. Now it's more about learning a bunch of complex, ever-changing, flavor-of-the-month frameworks. Demands memorizing trivia more than creativity really.

    • society does not progress; it simply changes. We gain some things but lose others.

      And THAT is why documentation is so important. I agree fully with you, but I would like to add that if know-how is well documented, then we can always fall back to it in case of emergency or if we take a wrong turn. GPS is a nice example: very few people know how to navigate using the stars, but GPS enables anyone to steer a boat. However, the old method is still there, in the books.

    • Unix was so much easier to comprehend and had such nice tools compared to the DEC RSX OS and documentation that it replaced on PDP-11s. Just to know where to find something in the DEC documentation, you had to have read it before. I finally simply read all four feet of that stuff. (I think it was in orange 3 ring binders.)

    • Yes, well thank goodness that FORTH is still dead, just like BSD, eh?

  • Quoth the Amazon page:

    Usually ships within 2 to 6 months.
    Ships from and sold by Gift-wrap available.

    Also, Slashdot's referral code is broken. I believe they now require the URL to be signed using a private key. "/ref=nosim/?tag=slashdot0c-20" is insufficient.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      I went to Amazon earlier and found the same thing. I was pretty sure it was a typo since the book just came out in October 2010, so I clicked their "call me". An automated system called me, but in the process of transferring me to a rep it hung up on me. So I tried their "chat" feature. The rep took about 10 minutes and finally came back and said the same thing as the website, 2 to 6 months.

      The publisher supposedly has the book in stock, as well as other stores such as, but it ranges from sligh
  • by Karl J. Smith ( 184 ) * <> on Monday November 08, 2010 @08:55PM (#34168630) Homepage

    What was the book that you didn't already have?

    • by Muad ( 11989 )
      A fairly obscure one... but you will have to ask me that in person and over a beer ;)
  • And it's not available in an easily indexable machine-readable form? Anything more than a thousand pages needs to be machine-readable to save on weight alone.
  • For more information about the book, including a detailed table of contents, index, preface, and sample chapters, see my website for the book at [].

I've finally learned what "upward compatible" means. It means we get to keep all our old mistakes. -- Dennie van Tassel