Hey Heather, it's me again.

Building a shell - fork() in the road

Hey Heather, it's me again.

I went to the second workshop for building my own shell. I’m really enjoying being confused haha! I’ve been over the “Executing a command” section in the instructions of stage 1 and I think I only partially understand what is happening. It’s a key part so I think it’s important to go over it. Here’s the mock code relating to executing provided in the instructions:

pid = fork()
if pid == 0:

I’m doing it in Python so the links to the system calls will be to its documentation. So the first thing we do is fork() which forks a child process and does two things: returns 0 to the child and returns the child’s process id to the parent. At this point, we have “two parallel universes”, parent and child (I’m not sure what that means yet). After that we execvp(). This system call executes a new program by replacing the current process. Then we have another eponymously named system call waitpid() that waits for the child process to finish running.

I think I get it now!

As I was writing this post I was still trying to wrap my head around what this all meant. Thankfully, there’s a resource list in the Build your own shell repo. Going over another workshop’s repo (written by Kamal!), I found what I was looking for in section 4. The question I should’ve asked was why fork() at all? I mean we could just execute the command, couldn’t we? Indeed! We could. But the way execvp() works is that it changes the current process. Kamal sums it up super clearly:

The exec call transforms the current process into the command we specify. So our shell’s process is replaced by ls or whatever we chose to run. Once that program is done, the process exits—no more shell.

I did not catch that at first! I was following along but didn’t see the importance of fork(). It’s necessary because of the way execvp() works. If we didn’t use fork(), our shell would metamorphose into the command we give it and then die! What is wrong with it! Instead of watching our lonely shell seppuku itself, we let it fork, and of course this creates a child which gives our shell meaning of life as it awaits the child’s return. I know, right? Since the new process created by fork() is initially a copy of itself, I think of it more as a clone. If you want a better illustration of fork() in this initial state, you can check out this YouTube video that sums up what fork is to itself in a short but clear manner. Don’t associate it too much with clone though because there’s also clone() which is different than fork() but I won’t get into that now.

All this is pretty cool. I have some more work to do in stage 1 but I’m also going to start to look at stage 2 which is files and pipes. I’ll keep you posted!

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