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1.5. Programs Are Designed to Work Together

As pointed out by Kernighan and Pike in The UNIX Programming Environment, there are a number of principles that distinguish the Unix environment. One key concept is that programs are tools. Like all good tools, they should be specific in function, but usable for many different purposes.

In order for programs to become general-purpose tools, they must be data independent. This means three things:

  1. Within limits, the output of any program should be usable as the input to another.

  2. All of the information needed by a program should be either contained in the data stream passed to it or specified on the command line. A program should not prompt for input or do unnecessary formatting of output. In most cases, this means that Unix programs work with plain text files that don't contain "nonprintable" or "control" characters.

  3. If no arguments are given, a program should read the standard input (usually the terminal keyboard) and write the standard output (usually the terminal screen).

Programs that can be used in this way are often called filters.

One of the most important consequences of these guidelines is that programs can be strung together in "pipelines" in which the output of one program is used as the input of another. A vertical bar (|) represents pipe and means "take the output of the program on the left and feed it into the program on the right."

For example, you can pipe the output of a search program to another program that sorts the output, and then pipe the result to the printer program or redirect it to a file (Section 43.1).

Not all Unix programs work together in this way. An interactive program like the Emacs editor (Section 19.1) generally doesn't read from or write to pipes you'd create on the command line. Instead, once the shell has started Emacs, the editor works independently of the shell (Section 1.4), reading its input and output directly from the terminal. And there are even exceptions to this exception. A program like less (Section 12.3) can read its standard input from a pipe and still interact with you at the keyboard. It does that by reading directly from your tty (Section 2.7).

-- TOR

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