Application I/o Interface

Application I/O interface

 In this section, we discuss structuring techniques and interfaces for the operating system that enable I/O devices to be treated in a standard, uniform way. We explain, for instance, how an application can open a file on a disk without knowing what kind of disk it is and how new disks and other devices can be added to a computer without disruption of the operating system. Like other complex software-engineering problems, the approach here involves abstraction, encapsulation, and software layering. Specifically we can abstract away the detailed differences in I/O devices by identifying a fewgeneral kinds. Each general kind is accessed through a standardized set of functions—an interface. The differences are encapsulated in kernel modules called device drivers that internally are custom-tailored to each device but that export one of the standard interfaces.

Application I/o Interface

Figure 13.6 illustrates how the I/O-related portions of the kernel are structured in software layers. The purpose of the device-driver layer is to hide the differences among device controllers from the I/O subsystem of the kernel, much as the I/O system calls encapsulate the behavior of devices in a few generic classes that hide hardware differences from applications. Making the I/O subsystem independent of the hardware simplifies the job of the operating-system developer. It also benefits the hardware manufacturers. They either design new devices to be compatible with an existing host controller interface (such as SCSI-2), or they write device drivers to interface the new hardware to popular operating systems. Thus, we can attach new peripherals to a computer without waiting for the operating-system vendor to develop support code. Unfortunately for device-hardware manufacturers, each type of operating system has its own standards for the device-driver interface. A given device may ship with multiple device drivers—for instance, drivers for MS-DOS, Windows 95/98, Windows NT/2000, and Solaris. Devices vary on many dimensions, as illustrated in Figure 13.7.

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Application I/o Interface

• Character-stream or block. A character-stream, device transfers bytes one by one, whereas a block device transfers a block of bytes as a unit.

• Sequential or random-access. A sequential device transfers data in a fixed order determined by the device, whereas the user of a random-access device can instruct the device to seek to any of the available data storage locations.

• Synchronous or asynchronous. A synchronous device performs data transfers with predictable response times. An asynchronous device exhibits irregular or unpredictable response times.

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• Sharable or dedicated. A sharable device can be used concurrently by several processes or threads; a dedicated device cannot. 8 Speed of operation. Device speeds range from a few bytes per second to a few gigabytes per second.

• Read-write, read only, or write only. Some devices perform both input and output, but others support only one data direction. For the purpose of application access, many of these differences are hidden by the operating system, and the devices are grouped into a few conventional types. The resulting styles of device access have been found to be useful and broadly applicable. Although the exact system calls may differ across operating systems, the device categories are fairly standard. The major access conventions include block I/O, character-stream I/O, memory-mapped file access, and network sockets. Operating systems also provide special system calls to access a few additional devices, such as a time-of-day clock and a timer. Some operating systems provide a set of system calls for graphical display, video, and audio devices. Most operating systems also have an escape (or back door) that transparently passes arbitrary commands from an application to a device driver. In UNIX, this system call is ioctl O (for "I/O" control). The ioctl O system call enables an application to access any functionality that can be implemented by any device driver, without the need to invent a new system call. The ioctl O system call has three arguments.

The first is a file descriptor that connects the application to the driver by referring to a hardware device managed by that driver. The second is an integer that selects one of the commands implemented in the driver. The third is a pointer to an arbitrary data structure in memory that enables the application and driver to communicate any necessary control information or data.

Block and Character Devices

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The block-device interface captures all the aspects necessary for accessing disk drives and other block-oriented devices. The device is expected to understand commands such as read () and wr it e (); if it is a random-access device, it is also expected to have a seek() command to specify which block to transfer next. Applications normally access such a device through a file-system interface. We can see that readO, write (), and seekO capture the essential behaviors of block-storage devices, so that applications are insulated from the low-level differences among those devices.

The operating system itself, as well as special applications such as databasemanagement systems, may prefer to access a block device as a simple linear array of blocks. This mode of access is sometimes called raw I/O. If the application performs its own buffering, then using a file system would cause extra, unneeded buffering. Likewise, if an application provides its own locking of file blocks or regions, then any operating-system locking services would be redundant at the least and contradictory at the worst.

To avoid these conflicts, raw-device access passes control of the device directly to the application, letting the operating system step out of the way. Unfortunately, no operating-system services are then performed on this device. A compromise that is becoming common is for the operating system to allow a mode of operation on a file that disables buffering and locking.

In the UNIX world, this is called direct I/O. Memory-mapped file access can be layered on top of block-device drivers. Rather than offering read and write operations, a memory-mapped interface provides access to disk storage via an array of bytes in main memory. The system call that maps a file into memory returns the virtual memory address that contains a copy of the file. The actual data transfers are performed only when needed to satisfy access to the memory image. Because the transfers are handled by the same mechanism as that used for demand-paged virtual memory access, memory-mapped I/O is efficient. Memory mapping is also convenient for programmers—access to a memory-mapped file is as simple as reading from and writing to memory. Operating systems that offer virtual memory commonly use the mapping interface for kernel services. For instance, to execute a program, the operating system maps the executable into memory and then transfers control to the entry address of the executable.

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The mapping interface is also commonly used for kernel access to swap space on disk. A keyboard is an example of a device that is accessed through a characterstream interface. The basic system calls in this interface enable an application to get() or putO one character. On top of this interface, libraries can be built that offer line-at-a-time access, with buffering and editing services (for example, when a user types a backspace, the preceding character is removed from the input stream). This style of access is convenient for input devices such as keyboards, mice, and modems that produce data for input "spontaneously" —that is, at times that cannot necessarily be predicted by the application. This access style is also good for output devices such as printers and audio boards, which naturally fit the concept of a linear stream of bytes.

Network Devices

 Because the performance and addressing characteristics of network I/O differ significantly from, those of disk I/O, most operating systems provide a network I/O interface that is different from the read 0 -writ e () -seekO interface used for disks. One interface available in many operating systems, including UNIX and Windows NT, is the network socket interface. Think of a wall socket for electricity: Any electrical appliance can be plugged in. By analogy, the system calls in the socket interface enable an application to create a socket, to connect a local socket to a remote address (which plugs this application into a socket created by another application), to 13.3 Application I/O Interface 509 listen for any remote application to plug into the local socket, and to send and receive packets over the connection.

To support the implementation of servers, the socket interface also provides a function called selec t () that manages a set of sockets. A call to selec t () returns information about which sockets have a packet waiting to be received and which sockets have room to accept a packet to be sent. The use of selec t () eliminates the polling and busy waiting that would otherwise be necessary for network I/O. These functions encapsulate the essential behaviors of networks, greatly facilitating the creation of distributed applications that can use any underlying network hardware and protocol stack.

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 Many other approaches to interprocess communication and network communication have been implemented. For instance, Windows NT provides one interface to the network interface card and a second interface to the network protocols (Section C.6). In UNIX, which has a long history as a proving ground for network technology, we find half-duplex pipes, full-duplex FIFOs, full-duplex STREAMS, message queues, and sockets. Information on UNIX networking is given in Appendix A (Section A.9). Clocks and Timers

Most computers have hardware clocks and timers that provide three basic functions:

 • Give the current time.

• Give the elapsed time.

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 • Set a timer to trigger operation X at time T. These functions are used heavily by the operating system, as well as by timesensitive applications. Unfortunately, the system calls that implement these functions are not standardized across operating systems. The hardware to measure elapsed time and to trigger operations is called a programmable interval timer. It can be set to wait a certain amount of time and then generate an interrupt, and it can be set to do this once or to repeat the process to generate periodic interrupts. The scheduler uses this mechanism to generate an interrupt that will preempt a process at the end of its time slice.


The disk I/O subsystem uses it to invoke the flushing of dirty cache buffers to disk periodically, and the network subsystem uses it to cancel operations that are proceeding too slowly because of network congestion or failures. Hie operating system may also provide an interface for user processes to use timers. The operating system can support more timer requests than the number of timer hardware channels by simulating virtual clocks. To do so, the kernel (or the timer device driver) maintains a list of interrupts wanted by its own routines and by user requests, sorted in earliest-time-first order. It sets the timer for the earliest time. When the timer interrupts, the kernel signals the requester and reloads the timer with the next earliest time.

On many computers, the interrupt rate generated by the hardware clock is between 18 and 60 ticks per second. This resolution is coarse, since a modern computer can execute hundreds of millions of instructions per second. The precision of triggers is limited by the coarse resolution of the timer, together with the overhead of maintaining virtual clocks. Furthermore, if the timer 510 Chapter 13 I/O Systems ticks are used to maintain the system tiine-of-day clock, the system? clock can drift. In most computers, the hardware clock is constructed from a highfrequency counter. In some computers, the value of this counter can he read from a device register, in which case the counter can be considered a highresolution clock. Although this clock does not generate interrupts, it offers accurate measurements of time intervals.

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Blocking and Nonblocking IO

 Another aspect of the system-call interface relates to the choice between blocking I/O and nonblocking I/O. When an application issues a blocking system call, the execution of the application is suspended. The application is moved from the operating system's run queue to a wait queue. After the system call completes, the application is moved back to the run queue, where it is eligible to resume execution, at which time it will receive the values returned by the system call. The physical actions performed by I/O devices are generally asynchronous—they take a varying or unpredictable amount of time. Nevertheless, most operating systems use blocking system calls for the application interface, because blocking application code is easier to understand than nonblocking application code. Some user-level processes need nonblocking I/O.

One example is a user interface that receives keyboard and mouse input while processing and displaying data on the screen. Another example is a video application that reads frames from a file on disk while simultaneously decompressing and displaying the output on the display. One way an application writer can overlap execution with I/O is to write a multithreaded application. Some threads can perform blocking system calls, while others continue executing. The Solaris developers used this technique to implement a user-level library for asynchronous I/O, freeing the application writer from that task. Some operating systems provide nonblocking I/O system calls. A nonblocking call does not halt the execution of the application for an extended time. Instead, it returns quickly, with a return value that indicates how many bytes were transferred. An alternative to a nonblocking system call is an asynchronous system call. An asynchronous call returns immediately, without waiting for the I/O to complete. The application continues to execute its code.

The completion of the I/O at some future time is communicated to the application, either through the setting of some variable in the address space of the application or through the triggering of a signal or software interrupt or a call-back routine that is executed outside the linear control flow of the application. The difference between nonblocking and asynchronous system calls is that a nonblocking readQ returns immediately with whatever data are available — the full number of bytes requested, fewer, or none at all. An asynchronous read() call requests a transfer that will be performed in its entirety but that will complete at some future time. These two I/O methods are shown in Figure 13.8.

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Application I/o Interface

A good example of nonblocking behavior is the selec t () system call for network sockets. This system call takes an argument that specifies a maximum waiting time. By setting it to 0, an application can poll for network activity without blocking. But using select() introduces extra overhead, because the selec t () call only checks whether I/O is possible. For a data transfer, selectO must be followed by some kind of readO or writeO command. A variation on this approach, found in Mach, is a blocking multiple-read call. It specifies desired reads for several devices in one system call and returns as soon as any one of them completes.

Frequently Asked Questions

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