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The Art of Unix Programming
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Unix Programming - Basics of the Unix Philosophy - Rule of Composition: Design programs to be connected with other programs.

Rule of Composition: Design programs to be connected with other programs.

It's hard to avoid programming overcomplicated monoliths if none of your programs can talk to each other.

Unix tradition strongly encourages writing programs that read and write simple, textual, stream-oriented, device-independent formats. Under classic Unix, as many programs as possible are written as simple filters, which take a simple text stream on input and process it into another simple text stream on output.

Despite popular mythology, this practice is favored not because Unix programmers hate graphical user interfaces. It's because if you don't write programs that accept and emit simple text streams, it's much more difficult to hook the programs together.

Text streams are to Unix tools as messages are to objects in an object-oriented setting. The simplicity of the text-stream interface enforces the encapsulation of the tools. More elaborate forms of inter-process communication, such as remote procedure calls, show a tendency to involve programs with each others' internals too much.

To make programs composable, make them independent. A program on one end of a text stream should care as little as possible about the program on the other end. It should be made easy to replace one end with a completely different implementation without disturbing the other.

GUIs can be a very good thing. Complex binary data formats are sometimes unavoidable by any reasonable means. But before writing a GUI, it's wise to ask if the tricky interactive parts of your program can be segregated into one piece and the workhorse algorithms into another, with a simple command stream or application protocol connecting the two. Before devising a tricky binary format to pass data around, it's worth experimenting to see if you can make a simple textual format work and accept a little parsing overhead in return for being able to hack the data stream with general-purpose tools.

When a serialized, protocol-like interface is not natural for the application, proper Unix design is to at least organize as many of the application primitives as possible into a library with a well-defined API. This opens up the possibility that the application can be called by linkage, or that multiple interfaces can be glued on it for differenttasks.

(We discuss these issues in detail in Chapter7.)


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The Art of Unix Programming
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