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Understanding the Linux Kernel, 3rd Edition by Marco Cesati, Daniel P. Bovet

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FIFOs

Although pipes are a simple, flexible, and efficient communication mechanism, they have one main drawback—namely, that there is no way to open an already existing pipe. This makes it impossible for two arbitrary processes to share the same pipe, unless the pipe was created by a common ancestor process.

This drawback is substantial for many application programs. Consider, for instance, a database engine server, which continuously polls client processes wishing to issue some queries and which sends the results of the database lookups back to them. Each interaction between the server and a given client might be handled by a pipe. However, client processes are usually created on demand by a command shell when a user explicitly queries the database; server and client processes thus cannot easily share a pipe.

To address such limitations, Unix systems introduce a special file type called a named pipe or FIFO (which stands for "first in, first out;" the first byte written into the special file is also the first byte that is read). Each FIFO is much like a pipe: rather than owning disk blocks in the filesystems, an opened FIFO is associated with a kernel buffer that temporarily stores the data exchanged by two or more processes.

Thanks to the disk inode, however, a FIFO can be accessed by every process, because the FIFO filename is included in the system's directory tree. Thus, in our example, the communication between server and clients may be easily established by using FIFOs instead ...

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