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A brief history of select(2)

I/O multiplexing part #1

01 November 2016

Recently I've been thinking about the multiplexing in Linux, namely the epoll(7) syscall. I was curious if epoll is better or worse than the iocp or kqueue. I was wondering if there was a benefit in batching epoll_ctl calls. But let's step back for a while, before we start a serious discussion we need to get some context. Most importantly - is file descriptor multiplexing an aberration or a gentle extension to the Unix design philosophy's?

To answer these question we must first discuss the epoll predecessor: the select(2) syscall. It's a good excuse to do some Unix archaeology!

In mid-1960's time sharing was still a recent invention. Compared to a previous paradigm - batch-processing - time sharing was truly revolutionary. It greatly reduced the time wasted between writing a program and getting its result. Batch-processing meant hours and hours of waiting often to only see a program error. See this film to better understand the problems of 1960's programmers: "The trials and tribulations of batch processing".

Early Unix

Then in 1970 the first versions of Unix were developed. It's important to emphasize that Unix wasn't created in a void - it tried to fix the batch-processing problems. The intention was to make a better, multi-user, time-sharing environment to speed up most common tasks. The "common tasks" were mostly: executing programs requiring heavy CPU computations and heavy disk access.

These days when a program was executed, it could "stall" (block) only on a couple of things1:

Take a look at the Linux process states. The above "stalls" are represented as: R, D, S process states.

Processes in early Unix couldn't do much more really. There was a pipe(2) and later a named pipe abstractions, but that's about it.

Let's take a closer look at the pipe(2)2. A colleague of mine @dwragg found this gem: "UNIX Time-Sharing System: A Retrospective" by Ritchie from 1978. Here's a relevant snippet on the page 1966 (page 20 in the PDF):

There is no general inter-process message facility, nor even a limited communication scheme such as semaphores. It turns out that the pipe mechanism mentioned above is sufficient to implement whatever communication is needed between closely related, cooperating processes. [...] Pipes are not, however, of any use in communicating with daemon processes intended to serve several users.

Here, Ritchie seem to have confirmed that synchronous pipe sufficed as the basic inter-process communication facility.

It might well have been sufficient! In 3BSD the processes were limited to maximum of 20 file descriptors. Each user was limited to 20 concurrent processes. These systems were really rudimentary. There just wasn't a need for IPC or complex I/O.

For example, in early Unix'es there was no idea of file descriptor multiplexing. A good example is the cu(1) Call Unix command. The man page says:

When a connection is made to the remote system, cu forks into two processes. One reads from the port and writes to the terminal, while the other reads from the terminal and writes to the port.

This makes sense. All of the I/O was blocking. The only way to read and write at the same time was to use two processes.

As a side note, if you are a Golang programmer, this may sound familiar. In Golang read and write calls usually block so you are forced to use two coroutines when you want to read and write at the same time.

The TCP/IP is born

This all changed in 1983 with the release of 4.2BSD. This revision introduced an early implementation of a TCP/IP stack and most importantly - the BSD Sockets API.

Although today we take the BSD sockets API for granted, it wasn't obvious it was the right API. STREAMS were a competing API design on System V Revision 3.

With the BSD Sockets API came the select() syscall. But why was it necessary?

I always thought that the "proper" Unix way to write network servers in was to create one worker process for each connection. In case of TCP/IP servers, this meant the accept-and-fork model:

sd = bind();
while (1) {
    cd = accept(sd);
    if (fork() == 0) {
        // Worker code goes here. Do the work for `cd` socket.
    // Get back to `accept` loop. Don't leak the `cd`.

While this model may be sufficient for writing basic network services 3, it's not enough for non-trivial programs.

Terminal multiplexing

Around 1983, Rob Pike was developing Blit, a fancy graphical terminal for Research Unix 8th Edition. Best to see it in action:

Here's the Blit research paper for the curious.

Blit clearly did terminal multiplexing. It allowed users to interact with multiple virtual consoles over a single physical serial link.

I asked Mr. Pike about the history of select:

Accept-and-fork, as you call it, makes it impossible for multiple clients to share state on the server. It's not just about networking either; one influence was the work with the Blit.

While running two synchronous processes to power cu was sufficient, it wasn't enough to power Blit. Blit did require some kind of socket multiplexing facility to work smoothly.

I would speculate that there was an theoretical alternative. One might try to extend the cu model and hack together a file descriptor multiplexer by spawning multiple processes blocking on I/O and having them synchronized on some kind of IPC.

Unfortunately no decent IPC mechanisms existed for BSD. System V IPC was released in January 1983, but nothing comparable was implemented on BSD. I went through the 4.2BSD man pages and couldn't find any kind of real IPC4.

With lack of any serious IPC mechanisms, it seems likely that Blit simply needed select to be able to do the console multiplexing.

Back to sockets

I contacted Kirk McKusick about the history of select. He replied:

Select was introduced to allow applications to multiplex their I/O.

Consider a simple application like a remote login. It has descriptors for reading from and writing to the terminal and a descriptor for the (bidirectional) socket. It needs to read from the terminal keyboard and write those characters to the socket. It also needs to read from the socket and write to the terminal. Reading from a descriptor that has nothing queued causes the application to block until data arrives. The application does not know whether to read from the terminal or the socket and if it guesses wrong will incorrectly block. So select was added to let it find out which descriptor had data ready to read. If neither, select blocks until data arrives on one descriptor and then awakens telling which descriptor has data to read.

[...] Non-blocking was added at the same time as select. But using non-blocking when reading descriptors does not work well. Do you go into an infinite loop trying to read each of your input descriptors? If not, do you pause after each pass and if so for how long to remain responsive to input? Select is just far more efficient.

Select also lets you create a single inetd daemon rather than having to have a separate daemon for every service.

Here we are. Mr. McKusick confirms that non-blocking I/O simply didn't exist before select. Furthermore, he cites the cu terminal use case - it would be hard to write a telnet client without I/O multiplexing. Finally, he mentions inetd, which although introduced later in 4.3BSD, would have been impossible without select.


Having to run two processes to get cu working was a hack. With lack of any serious IPC it was impossible to emulate socket multiplexing in Blit without select.

Furthermore select was needed to implement inetd. On architecture level select is needed to implement stateful servers which allow some state sharing between client connections.

Here's another snippet from the "UNIX Time-Sharing System: A Retrospective" page 1966:

[In UNIX] input and output ordinarily appear to be synchronous; programs wait until their I/O is completed. [...] There remain special applications in which one desires to initiate I/O on several streams and delay until the operation is complete on only one of them. When the number of streams is small, it is possible to simulate this usage with several processes. However, the writers of a UNIX ncp ("network control program") interface to the Arpanet feel that genuinely asynchronous I/O would improve their implementation significantly.

Early Unix systems were pretty basic and select was simply not needed. It's not that blocking I/O model in C was deemed the best programming paradigm for everyone. This model made sense because all you could do were simple operations on files.

This all was changed with the advent of network. Network application required things like inetd, stateful servers and terminal emulators like telnet. These things would be hard to implement had the OS not allowed socket multiplexing.


In this discussion I was afraid to phrase the core question. Were Unix processes intended to be CSP-style processes? Are file descriptors a CSP-derived "channels"? Is select equivalent to ALT statement?

I think: no. Even if there are design similarities, they are accidental. The file-descriptor abstractions were developed well before the original CSP paper.

It seems that an operating socket API's evolved totally disconnected from the userspace CSP-alike programming paradigms. It's a pity though. It would be interesting to see an operating system coherent with the programming paradigms of the user land programs.

Let me leave you with a couple of vaguely related links:


Mr. Pike clarified a bit of early history:

Greg Chessons mpx was in v7 unix by the late 1970s, well before 1983 and BSD. Sockets were just one attempt in a crowded environment. The predecessor to the Blit used Greg's mpx. I think the very earliest Blit stuff did too, but by the time the movie was made v8 had happened and Dennis Ritchie gave me streams and select (but no sockets!).

Select and sockets were roughly the same time but not necessarily two parts of one thing.

The last statement is telling. select came at the same time as sockets, but it wasn't implemented purely for networking. It seems that all of multiplexing, sockets and IPC came at about the same time, without a coherent grand design.

A number of people helped with this article: Rob Pike, Kirk McKusick, Ólafur Guðmundsson, Martin J. Levy, David Wragg and Tony Garnock-Jones. Thanks!


In a twitter exchange Clifford Heath noted that there was nonblocking I/O on TTY devices before 1983.

There was nonblocking I/O before 1983. The University of Melbourne CS dept paused in 1980/1 to play Hack, and I used it for Pacman.

I wonder how it worked. What ioctl's did it use and what were the semantics. Perhaps read() was nonblocking?


Paul Ruizendaal followed up this blog post with some more investigation into early history. His findings are documented in The History of Unix mailing list:

Continue reading about Select() being fundamentally broken →

  1. I'm ignoring signals in this discussion. Although signals can in principle be used to do basic file descriptor multiplexing, this was never intended. Furthermore early Unix signals didn't carry any payload. Even if a process was interrupted and informed of an event on some descriptor, it could not know just how many bytes are awaiting. Remember that all I/O operations were blocking. 

  2. Early pipes were just magical files: "In systems before 4.2BSD, pipes were implemented using the filesystem;" source 

  3. Early network services like QoTD, Echo or Discard were rater simple. 

  4. I found a couple of things that could be used to create some kind of IPC. First, ptrace exists with a notable comment: "Ptrace is unique and arcane; it should be replaced with a special file". Then there is /dev/kmem. Finally there is pipe and socketpair

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