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Creating sockets

06 November 2019

Articles from this series:

  1. Creating sockets on Linux.
  2. Addressing of AF_INET, AF_INET6 and AF_UNIX sockets.

Our journey into the Linux networking API starts with the common socket() syscall:

int socket(int domain, int type, int protocol);

It takes three arguments:


Linux supports a myriad of address families and protocols, but most of them are rarely used. To communicate in the public internet, it's necessary to use AF_INET and AF_INET6 - the Internet IPv4 and IPv6 address families. Most often we use them with with TCP and UDP protocols1.

The usual way to create internet IPv4 sockets is:

int fd = socket(AF_INET, SOCK_STREAM, 0);   // IPv4, TCP
int fd = socket(AF_INET, SOCK_DGRAM, 0);    // IPv4, UDP

And IPv6:

int fd = socket(AF_INET6, SOCK_STREAM, 0);  // IPv6, TCP
int fd = socket(AF_INET6, SOCK_DGRAM, 0);   // IPv6, UDP

In Linux IPv4 and IPv6 networks stacks are interacting in complex ways. For example, you can create an AF_INET6 socket on IPv4-mapped addresses - like ::ffff: Then you could downgrade such AF_INET6 socket onto AF_INET with IPV6_ADDRFORM socket option. We'll discuss these things later, but for now note: IPv4 and IPv6 networking stacks on Linux are entangled.


While AF_INET/AF_INET6 address families route packets over the network, AF_UNIX address family only works within local machine. With AF_UNIX it's possible to transmit data between processes on the same machine much faster, without spending CPU on things like IP firewall and routing table. The behavior or AF_UNIX + SOCK_STREAM sockets is comparable to TCP, and AF_UNIX + SOCK_DGRAM to UDP. UNIX socket have advantages - they don't need to allocate internet addresses and ports, don't reorder packets are reliable and much faster. Example setup:

int fd = socket(AF_UNIX, SOCK_STREAM, 0);
int fd = socket(AF_UNIX, SOCK_DGRAM, 0);
int fd = socket(AF_UNIX, SOCK_SEQPACKET, 0);

SOCK_SEQPACKET is an underrated communication paradigm. It's connection-oriented and reliable like TCP, but is able to preserve record/message boundaries like UDP2. Such semantics are very programmer-friendly and useful in practice.

When to choose AF_UNIX over AF_INET?

If you are exchanging data between two processes on the same Linux host, you should use AF_UNIX. It's faster, supports the common Unix filesystem permissions model, and don't have the annoying limitations of TCP/IP - like a need to allocate port numbers.

Why allocating TCP port numbers is such a big deal? TCP/IP ports are a limited resource. It's not uncommon to run out of them! In past I discussed a war story when a bug in one program can lead to the system running out of port numbers for localhost connections, therefore hampering all applications on a machine.

Similarly - using large number of short-lived connections is also risky. In such case it's possible to end up with many sockets locked in TIME-WAIT state, preventing new connections from being established. See the 2nd TCP Puzzle for an example of this behavior.

The advice is - when possible, prefer AF_UNIX over AF_INET. There is almost no disadvantage of using AF_UNIX. Except maybe one - debugability. It's way easier to just run tcpdump and see Internet packets flowing by. Fortunately there is a workaround. The solution is is to pipe the data from UNIX socket to INET socket and back with the help of socat tool. For example:

ln real.sock real.sock~
socat TCP-LISTEN:6000,reuseaddr,fork UNIX-CONNECT:real.sock~
socat UNIX-LISTEN:fake.sock,fork TCP-CONNECT:
mv fake.sock real.sock

This reads as:

After this sequence of instructions all the data will pass over loopback, and it is possible to debug it with usual tcpdump. To revert the probe, just run:

ln -f real.sock~ real.sock

This will overwrite our mocked real.sock back with the real one. Remember to wait for the old connections to die off before killing socat instances. This trick will work for SOCK_STREAM and SOCK_DGRAM, but not for SOCK_SEQPACKET, and of course requires a Unix socket that is bound to a pathname (ie: not abstract or unnamed Unix sockets).

Extra type flags

The type argument to socket() syscall is most often SOCK_STREAM, SOCK_DGRAM or SOCK_SEQPACKET. There is one more caveat about this field - you can squeeze two flags there: SOCK_NONBLOCK and SOCK_CLOEXEC flags.


SOCK_NONBLOCK flag can be used to avoid having to call fcntl() twice to set socket as non-blocking. The code:

int fd = socket(AF_INET, SOCK_STREAM | SOCK_NONBLOCK, 0);
if (fd < 0) { return errno; }

Is equivalent to:

int fd = socket(AF_INET, SOCK_STREAM, 0);
if (fd < 0) { return errno; }
int flags = fcntl(fd, F_GETFL);
if (flags == -1) { return errno; }
int r = fcntl(fd, F_SETFL, flags | O_NONBLOCK);
if (r == -1) { return errno; }

Using SOCK_NONBLOCK is an easy win, and can save quite a few lines of code.


Second flag that can be passed in the type field is SOCK_CLOEXEC. It looks like this:

int fd = socket(AF_INET, SOCK_STREAM | SOCK_CLOEXEC, 0);

This is roughly equivalent to setting FD_CLOEXEC with fcntl():

r = fcntl(fd, F_SETFD, FD_CLOEXEC)

The semantics of CLOEXEC are pretty simple - this flag ensures that when the program calls exec() the file descriptor will be closed before starting the desired program. Passing a socket to a child program may be problematic. To illustrate this, consider the program:

int fd = socket(AF_INET, SOCK_STREAM, 0);
int r = connect(fd, (struct sockaddr *)&sa, sizeof(sa));

if (fork() == 0) {
        system("sleep 100");


Here, even though we called close() the socket will not in fact shutdown. The socket will remain active for 100 seconds, wasting resources, until the child process exits and closes the last remaining reference to the socket.

The FD_CLOEXEC and SOCK_CLOEXEC subtly differ. Consider a sequence of socket() and fcntl() calls like this:

int fd = socket(AF_INET, SOCK_STREAM, 0);
... // What if another thread calls fork()?
r = fcntl(fd, F_SETFD, FD_CLOEXEC)

This code is racy. It's possible that a thread, doing some other work in background, might call fork() in the least appropriate moment - just between the socket and fcntl calls! This would, again, lead to a socket leaking to the child process3.

For completeness, on Linux it's also possible to set CLOEXEC flag with unstandardized ioctl():

int r = ioctl(fd, FIOCLEX);

Use FIONCLEX to clear the flag.

socket() errors

The socket() syscall returns a new file descriptor or an error.

EMFILE is returned when per-process fd limit is reached. You can inspect the default value with $ ulimit -n. Alternatively call getrlimit(RLIMIT_NOFILE) within the process to see the current limit. To fix the problem, the process must release some file descriptors. Some ancient Unix programs anticipated hitting this limit. To keep on functioning even in such error case, they kept a dummy file descriptor to some irrelevant file, like /dev/null. Before running into critical section, like saving state to disk, the dummy fd would be closed, the critical section run, and dummy file re-opened. With this trick the program could be confident that it won't see EMFILE in the critical section and reduced the risk of loosing important state.

ENFILE is raised on hitting the global file descriptor limit or memory limit. Inspect the global limit with $ cat /proc/sys/fs/file-max or sysctl fs.file-max. Generally speaking, fixing this error is a job for system administrator - if the memory allows, she should consider bumping the global limit.

Then there is EPERM error which is raised when user doesn't have permissions to open sockets. Practically speaking this is a concern for AF_PACKET/SOCK_RAW sockets. To open these you need to be root or have CAP_NET_RAW capability.

Testing programs for handling of these errors is hard. On Linux we can try injecting fake error return codes - injecting faults. On Linux there are numerous ways to inject faults to aid testing, but perhaps the easiest one is to use injection facility of strace tool. This is how to make every 10th socket() syscall to fail with EMFILE:

$ strace \
     -e trace=none \
     -e inject=socket:error=EMFILE:when=10+10 \

Read the man page of modern strace for detailed description of the rich fault injection facilities.

Retrieving socket type

Sometimes a process is given a file descriptor, without any prior knowledge. For example an fd can be inherited from a parent process, or retrieved via SCM_RIGHTS Unix socket.

Given such a file descriptor, we might want to query kernel to learn its properties. First, it's easy to recover address family, type and protocol:

int r;
socklen_t r_sz = sizeof(r);
getsockopt(SOL_SOCKET, SO_DOMAIN, &r, &r_sz);
getsockopt(SOL_SOCKET, SO_TYPE, &r, &r_sz);
getsockopt(SOL_SOCKET, SO_PROTOCOL, &r, &r_sz);

With this information we should know if socket is TCP or UDP. But it doesn't tell us on which stage of lifetime the socket is:

Linux doesn't allow us to read this status easily. Instead we have to look a series of clues to recover the socket lifetime information. There are three most important clues:

This is how these clues look on listening/unconnected sockets:

                        lport  getpeername()  SO_ACCEPTCONN
socket(AF_INET, STREAM) 0      ENOTCONN       0
bind()                  57329  ENOTCONN       0
listen()                57329  ENOTCONN       1

socket(AF_INET, DGRAM)  0      ENOTCONN       0
bind()                  35918  ENOTCONN       0

The established/connected sockets:

                         lport  getpeername()  SO_ACCEPTCONN
socket(AF_INET, STREAM)  0      ENOTCONN       0
bind()                   49245  ENOTCONN       0
connect()                49245  ok             0

socket(AF_INET, DGRAM)   0      ENOTCONN       0
bind()                   35918  ENOTCONN       0
connect()                35918  ok             0

But in practice running all these tests may be an overkill. Often, just calling listen() on an unconnected TCP socket is sufficient to get socket to a predictable state. The error codes indicate the socket status: ENOTSOCK means it's not a socket and EOPNOTSUPP means it's not unconnected TCP.

Socket activation

Sometimes it's worthwhile to ask an intermediary to establish sockets for us. This is most useful when:

In such situations it's recommended to pass-down the privileged socket from the parent process - most commonly systemd. Systemd supports this as a "socket activation" feature. Systemd will set LISTEN_FDS environment variable, explaining how many file descriptors belongs were passed down with socket activation (counting from fd number 3 and up). Then it will set LISTEN_FDNAMES and LISTEN_PID.

Example of a systemd socket configuration:

$ cat /etc/systemd/system/socket-port-80.socket
Description=Port 80/TCP



An an example daemon service using such a socket:

$ cat /etc/systemd/system/daemon.servie
Description=Important Network Daemon



On startup, the daemon needs to recognize the inherited sockets. Systemd provides LISTEN_PID, LISTEN_FDS and LISTEN_FDNAMES env variables. Here is an example code that could be used to pick up the passed descriptors:

listenfds = int(os.environ.get('LISTEN_FDS', '0'))
fdnames = os.environ.get('LISTEN_FDNAMES', '').split(':')

if len(fdnames) != listenfds:
    return "LISTEN_FDS doesn't match LISTEN_FDNAMES"

for fd, fdname in zip(range(3, listenfds+3), fdnames):
    # In python we need socket object to call getsockopt
    tmp_sd = socket.fromfd(fd, 0, 0, 0)
        domain = tmp_sd.getsockopt(SOL_SOCKET, SO_DOMAIN)
        type = tmp_sd.getsockopt(SOL_SOCKET, SO_TYPE)
        protocol = tmp_sd.getsockopt(SOL_SOCKET, SO_PROTOCOL)
    except OSError:
        # not a socket
        sd = socket.socket(domain, type, protocol, fileno=fd)
        SOCKETS.append( (fdname, sd) )
    # tmp_sd is a dup, we must close it
return SOCKETS

This socket activation code will only work with systemd - it relies on LISTEN_FDNAMES environment variable. Sometimes we need to work with other implementations of socket activation. A slightly more generic method to achieve socket activation, is just to traverse file descriptor numbers in ascending order, looking for sockets passed down from a parent.

In such case we just need to make an assumption on when to stop our search for valid file descriptors, or specifically: after how large gap in file descriptor numbers we stop?


gap = 0
for fd in itertools.count(3):
    # In python we need socket object to call getsockopt
    # this dup()s the fd.
        tmp_sd = socket.fromfd(fd, 0, 0, 0)
    except OSError as e:
        if e.errno == errno.EBADF:
            gap += 1
            if gap > MAXCONTIGOUSFDGAP:
            raise e
    gap = 0

        # This can trigger EBADF
        domain = tmp_sd.getsockopt(SOL_SOCKET, SO_DOMAIN)
        sock_type = tmp_sd.getsockopt(SOL_SOCKET, SO_TYPE)
        protocol = tmp_sd.getsockopt(SOL_SOCKET, SO_PROTOCOL)
    except OSError as e:
        # not a socket
        SOCKETS[fd] = socket(domain, sock_type, protocol, fd)

This solution stops iterating over file descriptors when a gap of defined size is found. Yet another technique could use /proc/self/fd directory to iterate over only valid file descriptor numbers.

Dissolving the socket association

From the application point of view, file descriptors end their life when application calls close(). Depending on the protocol the socket itself may linger in the background for a while. There is a myriad toggles available for different protocols, from setsockopt(SO_LINGER), to shutdown(). We'll discuss these options later.

However, there is one obscure way to recycle a socket descriptor without really closing it. Some protocols allow calling connect(AF_UNSPEC) on a connected socket, which will "dissolve the socket association" - reset the socket state, and bring it back to pristine state, like just after calling socket(). Beware though, some obscure socket flags may not be cleaned correctly. Here is an example code of this trick:

int sd = socket(AF_INET, SOCK_STREAM, 0);
int r = connect(sd, (struct sockaddr *)&sa, sizeof(sa));

struct sockaddr su = {
    .sa_family = AF_UNSPEC,
r = connect(sd, (struct sockaddr *)&su, sizeof(su));
if (r < 0) {
    error(-1, errno, "connect(AF_UNSPEC)");

r = connect(sd, (struct sockaddr *)&sa, sizeof(sa));

This AF_UNSPEC socket dissolve trick is totally ugly, but it can save us a syscall. Instead of calling close() and then socket(), we can do a single connect(AF_UNSPEC) only. The big issue is it's not obvious which internal socket fields are reset and which are preserved.


There is one final way to create sockets which specific to UNIX address family. We can create a pair of sockets with the socketpair() syscall. For example:

int sv[2];
int r = socketpair(AF_UNIX, SOCK_STREAM, 0, sv);

This creates sv[0] and sv[1] UNIX sockets, connected to each other. This syscall works for all UNIX domain socket types. The created sockets are special - both are "connected" from the start. Their getsockaddr/getpeeraddr functions return a special value - not even empty address family string, but a lack of thereof. This is called "unnamed" UNIX sockets. More about this in UNIX sockets addressing section.

Totally comment this article on Twitter!

  1. Linux supports SCTP, UDP Lite, TIPC, DCCP and many other more obscure protocols. They are outside of the scope of this write-up. 

  2. SOCK_SEQPACKET paradigm is provided by Unix sockets and SCTP protocol. We won't discuss SCTP, since as of 2019 this protocol didn't catch on in the public internet. 

  3. On a side note, CLOEXEC is a flag set on a "file descriptor" (the process-specific number identifying a file), as opposed to "file description" (the kernel object). This means, that as opposed to features like NONBLOCK, which are shared between all the processes using the file, the CLOEXEC flag is local to the file descriptor referring to the file, and so local to a single process. In other words: dup() of a file descriptor may have independent CLOEXEC flag value from parent file descriptor; dup() of a socket will always share the NONBLOCK flag value among both file descriptors. 

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