The Universe of Discourse

Mon, 21 May 2018

More about disabling standard I/O buffering

In yesterday's article I described a simple and useful feature that could have been added to the standard I/O library, to allow an environment variable to override the default buffering behavior. This would allow the invoker of a program to request that the program change its buffering behavior even if the program itself didn't provide an option specifically for doing that.

Simon Tatham directed me to the GNU Coreutils stdbuf command which does something of this sort. It is rather like the pseudo-tty-pipe program I described, but instead of using the pseudo-tty hack I suggested, it works by forcing the child program to dynamically load a custom replacement for stdio. There appears to be a very similar command in FreeBSD.

Roderick Schertler pointed out that Dan Bernstein wrote a utility program, pty, in 1990, atop which my pseudo-tty-pipe program could easily be built; or maybe its ptybandage utility is exactly what I wanted. Jonathan de Boyne Pollard has a page explaining it in detail, and related packages.

A later version of pty is still available. Here's M. Bernstein's blurb about it:

ptyget is a universal pseudo-terminal interface. It is designed to be used by any program that needs a pty.

ptyget can also serve as a wrapper to improve the behavior of existing programs. For example, ptybandage telnet is like telnet but can be put into a pipeline. nobuf grep is like grep but won't block-buffer if it's redirected.

Previous pty-allocating programs — rlogind, telnetd, sshd, xterm, screen, emacs, expect, etc. — have caused dozens of security problems. There are two fundamental reasons for this. First, these programs are installed setuid root so that they can allocate ptys; this turns every little bug in hundreds of thousands of lines of code into a potential security hole. Second, these programs are not careful enough to protect the pty from access by other users.

ptyget solves both of these problems. All the privileged code is in one tiny program. This program guarantees that one user can't touch another user's pty.

ptyget is a complete rewrite of pty 4.0, my previous pty-allocating package. pty 4.0's session management features have been split off into a separate package, sess.

Leonardo Taccari informed me that NetBSD's stdio actually has the environment variable feature I was asking for! Christos Zoulas suggested adding stdbuf similar to the GNU and FreeBSD implementations, but the NetBSD people observed, as I did, that it would be simpler to just control stdio directly with an environment variable, and did it. Here's the relevant part of the NetBSD setbuf(3) man page:

The default buffer settings can be overwritten per descriptor (STDBUFn) where n is the numeric value of the file descriptor represented by the stream, or for all descriptors (STDBUF). The environment variable value is a letter followed by an optional numeric value indicating the size of the buffer. Valid sizes range from 0B to 1MB. Valid letters are:

U unbuffered

L line buffered

F fully buffered

Here's the discussion from the NetBSD tech-userlevel mailing list. The actual patch looks almost exactly the way I imagined it would.

Finally, Mariusz Ceier pointed out that there is an ancient bug report in glibc suggesting essentially the same environment variable mechanism that I suggested and that was adopted in NetBSD. The suggestion was firmly and summarily rejected. (“Hell, no … this is a terrible idea.”) Interesting wrinkle: the bug report was submitted by Pádraig Brady, who subsequently wrote the stdbuf command I described above.

Thank you, Gentle Readers!

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