I heard recently that the process model in very early variants of UNIX was quite a bit different to the
fork/exec model used nowadays.
How did it differ from the current state?
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If you search for the seminal 1979 paper from Dennis Ritchie, entitled The Evolution of the Unix Time-Sharing System, it covers this (amongst a few other things like incredibly difficult-to-use file-system links, only being able to create directories at boot time, and why the password file has a GECOS field).
First, we'll recap the current model. A process is one type of execution unit within UNIX while a program is a runnable item that lives within a process (when it's running). That distinction is important.
A running process that wants to start a new process will call
fork and this gives you two nearly identical processes running the same program (at the same point), where only one existed before.
At that point, one of them (usually the child) may choose to
exec a new program to perform some other work - this
exec basically replaces the program in the current process with a whole new program.
Should the original process wish to wait until the child exits, it can call
wait to do so.
The old model was a little similar but it only ever had a limited number of processes, one for each of the terminals hooked up to the machine. These processes were created at boot time and there was therefore no
fork. A shell ran in each of these processes, interacting with the user on the given terminal.
When the user specified a program to run, the shell would:
Create a link to the file in the current directory (this has to do with the "incredibly difficult-to-use file-system links" mentioned earlier).
Open the file.
Remove the link.
Copy a small bootstrap program to the top of memory and jump to it.
This bootstrap program would read in the already-open file over the current shell code, then jump to the first location of the command (exec).
After the command had done its work, it called
exit. But this isn't the
exit we know and love nowadays. What this
exit did was simply to reload the shell program into the process in much the same way as the shell had loaded the program in the first place.
At that point, you would be back in the shell, ready to type in another command. As you may imagine, this had no support for pipeslines/filters but, interestingly, had I/O redirection from a very early stage - all the shell had to do was connect the standard handles to specific files rather than the terminal device.
If you're interested in the early history of various features of Unix, you cannot go past the article
The Evolution of the Unix Time-Sharing System by Dennis Ritchie, presented at a 1979 conference in Australia, and subsequently published by AT&T.
It covers a great many things like:
mkdirand why certain commands (such as
chdir) have to be incorporated into the shell;
Now on to the specific question: the
fork system call was not in the original (PDP-7) UNIX, though it didn't take that long to appear.
In the earliest UNIX, there were a fixed number of processes created at start-up time, one per terminal device that was attached to the machine.
Keep in mind this is likely the first edition for the PDP-11, which would have had much more functionality than the one described in Dennis Ritchie's paper. The terminal/process start-up code seems to be functionally identical but, if you look closely, it includes the system calls for
wait (hence this answer is more based on the paper than the source code).
This (slightly modified for readability)
init.s file from that first edition shows how the fixed number of shell processes were created:
mov $itab, r1 / Put address of table into r1. 1b: mov (r1)+, r0 / Get next entry from itab. beq 1f / Finish loop if table end (0). movb r0, ttyx+8 / Put symbol in ttyx. jsr pc, dfork / Call to make new init for this ttyx. mov r0, (r1)+ / Save child id in word for '0, '1, etc. br 1b / Go back for next itab entry. 1f: ... / All terminal processes now set up. itab: '0; .. '1; .. 0
There you can see the snippet which creates the processes for each of the two connected terminals. Note that these are the days of hard-coded values, no auto detection of terminal quantity was involved.
The zero-terminated table at
itab is used to create a number of processes and hopefully the comments from the code explain how. The crux of the code shown simply processes the table, calling
getty, the login program, in that process, connected to the related terminal.
getty program, in turn, eventually started the shell (see below).
Once the shell was running in the process space for a specific terminal, the basic idea was that it would accept a command from the user and then the following would happen (simplified a little, but you should get the idea):
There was no new process started at all, this is more akin to the
exec function rather than
When the program was finished, it would call
exit much like modern programs. This
exit call would perform the same steps as the shell did when it replaced itself with the new program (except it would, of course, replace itself with the shell).
Hence running programs was a continuous "swap between shell and other program, then swap back when done" method although there were ways to load another program directly without returning to the shell first. It's likely that's how the
getty log-in program started a shell for you once it had accepted and verified your login details.
From this two-way
exec between shell and another program in a single process, it was actually not that big a leap to adding
fork/wait) as a process duplicator/reaper to work in conjunction. The Dennis Ritchie paper cited below states that "the PDP-7’s fork call required precisely 27 lines of assembly code", a truly astonishing achievement.
While many systems combine
fork/exec into a single call (such as
CreateProcess in Windows) , it's this "just add what's needed" method which is responsible for the separation of duties between
exec in modern UNIX (it also resulted in a very simple