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The Art of Unix Programming
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Unix Programming - Taxonomy of Unix IPC Methods - Slave Processes

Slave Processes

Occasionally, child programs both accept data from and return data to their callers through pipes connected to standard input and output, interactively. Unlike simple shellouts and what we have called ‘bolt-ons’ above, both master and slave processes need to have internal state machines to handle a protocol between them without deadlocking or racing. This is a drastically more complex and more difficult-to-debug organization than a simple shellout.

Unix's popen(3) call can set up either an input pipe or an output pipe for a shellout, but not both for a slave process — this seems intended to encourage simpler programming. And, in fact, interactive master-slave communication is tricky enough that it is normally only used when either (a) the implied protocol is utterly trivial, or (b) the slave process has been designed to speak an application protocol along the lines we discussed in Chapter5. We'll return to this issue, and ways to cope with it, in Chapter8.

When writing a master/slave pair, it is good practice for the master to support a command-line switch or environment variable that allows callers to set their own slave command. Among other things, this is useful for debugging; you will often find it handy during development to invoke the real slave process from within a harness that monitors and logs transactions between slave and master.

If you find that master/slave interactions in your program are becoming nontrivial, it may be time to think about going the rest of the way to a more peer-to-peer organization, using techniques like sockets or shared memory.


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The Art of Unix Programming
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