Home » Why is /dev/null a file? Why isn’t its function implemented as a simple program?

Why is /dev/null a file? Why isn’t its function implemented as a simple program?

Solutons:


In addition to the performance benefits of using a character-special device, the primary benefit is modularity. /dev/null may be used in almost any context where a file is expected, not just in shell pipelines. Consider programs that accept files as command-line parameters.

# We don't care about log output.
$ frobify --log-file=/dev/null

# We are not interested in the compiled binary, just seeing if there are errors.
$ gcc foo.c -o /dev/null  || echo "foo.c does not compile!".

# Easy way to force an empty list of exceptions.
$ start_firewall --exception_list=/dev/null

These are all cases where using a program as a source or sink would be extremely cumbersome. Even in the shell pipeline case, stdout and stderr may be redirected to files independently, something that is difficult to do with executables as sinks:

# Suppress errors, but print output.
$ grep foo * 2>/dev/null

In fairness, it’s not a regular file per se; it’s a character special device:

$ file /dev/null
/dev/null: character special (3/2)

It functioning as a device rather than as a file or program means that it’s a simpler operation to redirect input to or output from it, as it can be attached to any file descriptor, including standard input/output/error.

I suspect the why has a lot to do with the vision/design that shaped Unix (and consequently Linux), and the advantages stemming from it.

No doubt there’s a non-negligible performance benefit to not spinning up an extra process, but I think there’s more to it: Early Unix had an “everything is a file” metaphor, which has a non-obvious but elegant advantage if you look at it from a system perspective, rather than a shell scripting perspective.

Say you have your null command-line program, and /dev/null the device node. From a shell-scripting perspective, the foo | null program is actually genuinely useful and convenient, and foo >/dev/null takes a tiny bit longer to type and can seem weird.

But here’s two exercises:

  1. Let’s implement the program null using existing Unix tools and /dev/null – easy: cat >/dev/null. Done.

  2. Can you implement /dev/null in terms of null?

You’re absolutely right that the C code to just discard input is trivial, so it might not yet be obvious why it’s useful to have a virtual file available for the task.

Consider: almost every programming language already needs to work with files, file descriptors, and file paths, because they were part of Unix’s “everything is a file” paradigm from the beginning.

If all you have are programs that write to stdout, well, the program doesn’t care if you redirect them into a virtual file that swallows all writes, or a pipe into a program that swallows all writes.

Now if you have programs that take file paths for either reading or writing data (which most programs do) – and you want to add “blank input” or “discard this output” functionality to those programs – well, with /dev/null that comes for free.

Notice that the elegance of it is that is reduces the code complexity of all involved programs – for each common-but-special usecase that your system can provide as a “file” with an actual “filename”, your code can avoid adding custom command-line options and custom code paths to handle.

Good software engineering often depends on finding good or “natural” metaphors for abstracting some element of a problem in a way that becomes easier to think about but remains flexible, so that you can solve basically the same range of higher-level problems without having to spend the time and mental energy on reimplementing solutions to the same lower-level problems constantly.

“Everything is a file” seems to be one such metaphor for accessing resources: You call open of a given path in a heirarchical namespace, getting a reference (file descriptor) to the object, and you can read and write, etc on the file descriptors. Your stdin/stdout/stderr are also file descriptors that just happened to be pre-opened for you. Your pipes are just files and file descriptors, and file redirection lets you glue all these pieces together.

Unix succeeded as much as it did in part because of how well these abstractions worked together, and /dev/null is best understood as part of that whole.


P.S. It’s worth looking at the Unix version of “everything is a file” and things like /dev/null as the first steps towards a more flexible and powerful generalization of the metaphor that has been implemented in many systems that followed.

For example, in Unix special file-like objects like /dev/null had to be implemented in the kernel itself, but it turns out that it’s useful enough to expose functionality in file/folder form that since then multiple systems have been made that provide a way for programs to do that.

One of the first was the Plan 9 operating system, made by some of the same people who made Unix. Later, GNU Hurd did something similar with its “translators”. Meanwhile, Linux ended up getting FUSE (which has spread to the other mainstream systems by now as well).

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