LiS: Linux STREAMS
Before Linux was available, Dennis M. Ritchie designed STREAMS for the ninth edition of UNIX (see Resources 5). Since then, the STREAMS concept has been improved and revised by different operating systems. Variants ranging from UNIX SVR4 STREAMS (see Resources 1) to Plan 9 Streams (see Resources 3) exist today.
Unfortunately, SVR4 complicated the neat and clean design of the ninth edition's STREAMS mainly to add new features, such as atomic gather/scatter writes and multiprocessor support. Different devices such as pipes and fifos were also re-implemented using STREAMS (see Figure 3).
Despite being far more complex than Ritchie's Streams, SVR4 STREAMS simplify the construction of network software. Indeed, most networking software for UNIX System V machines is written using STREAMS (including the socket interface). We wanted to be able to run SVR4 driver software under Linux.
After some of us independently started to develop what would become LiS, we met on c.o.l.a. and decided to coordinate our efforts. An LiS project, LSM, was posted in March 1995 and the project began.
There are several reasons to use STREAMS: standard service interfaces to different layers (DLPI for the data link layer, NPI for the network layer and TPI for the transport layer), flexibility and SVR4 compatibility.
What we like about STREAMS under SVR4 is we can write device drivers conforming to a powerful but not Byzantine API (DLPI or TPI, in particular) and have existing network services (DLPI) or existing “applications” (read non-kernel code) work with the device with no additional effort.
Protocol stages (or modules) can be dynamically added/removed. Imagine you are debugging a transport layer interface (TLI) for X.25, and you can push and pop an x25_tli module many times. That is, it is an open framework. Those modules employed can, of course, be shared and reused in different places. With sockets, you have only what the kernel has.
The bottom line is that standards are a “Good Thing”. In the era of distributed systems, this applies equally to kernel-level network and communication interfaces. The STREAMS framework, APIs and service interfaces were designed by intelligent people at AT&T Bell Labs. The result is a mechanism which is clean, comprehensive and elegant to boot.
It has been argued against STREAMS that they are too complicated and too slow when compared to BSD sockets. A related argument is that TCP/IP networking is done more efficiently with BSD-style protocol stacks.
Consider this: Linux TCP/IP networking code can be used as-is with LiS. The purpose of LiS is simply to have the STREAMS framework available, not to replace the Linux TCP/IP protocol stack. Existing network software is perceived by STREAMS users as the dashed box in Figure 2. Fake modules interfacing with existing Linux drivers and protocol stacks are all we need.
With respect to simplicity, STREAMS make certain things, such as “deep” protocol stacks, more simple when compared to sockets. Sockets were designed for implementing TCP/IP-type networking and, although simple, are not extensible. That is, you can't easily use the sockets mechanism to build deep protocol stacks of which the sockets have no built-in knowledge. Each time the Internet protocol suite needs another layer, some hack is likely to be made to sockets.
The Internet protocol suites are deeper than the kernel implementors like to think they are. Consider TCP/IP when IP is sent using X.25 packets, transmitted with LAPB frames through a driver. Now you have a TCP/IP <-> X.25 <-> LAPB <-> driver stack. Then add another protocol over TCP/IP (say, NFS) and interpose frame relay (FR). The stack becomes: NFS <-> TCP/IP <-> X.25 <-> LAPB <-> FR <-> driver. Sockets are not equipped to build protocol stacks such as these that were not originally designed into it. It can be done, but is much easier and cleaner with STREAMS.
SVR4 STREAMS and LiS are much more complex than ninth edition STREAMS, but the added complexity is mostly to the STREAMS implementation and is hidden from the driver or module programmer.
Most UNIX features have been available in source form for people to read and use. STREAMS was a notable exception. Therefore, even though we could have designed LiS to support just the STREAMS interface, we also tried to follow its design. If SVR4 STREAMS code had been available, the project could have been reduced to a simple port. As a result, the design guide was a mixture of a couple of books showing how STREAMS work (see Resources 2 and 4).
Availability of source code for the Linux kernel was crucial, as LiS requires small changes to existing kernel subsystems.
Starting from scratch, our aim was to make LiS portable so that other people could avoid rewriting it for use on different systems. By replacing a single small module, the whole framework can be ported to different operating systems. LiS portability is demonstrated by the fact that Gcom has ported it to QNX (a UNIX flavor). Ports for BSD UNIX system and even NT could be done without much effort in the future.
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