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The Art of Unix Programming
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Unix Programming - Unix Interface Design Patterns

In the Unix tradition, the tradeoffs we described above are met by well-established interface design patterns. Here is a bestiary of these patterns, with analyses and examples. We'll follow it with a discussion of how to apply them.

Note that this bestiary does not include GUI design patterns (though it includes a design pattern that can use a GUI as a component). There are no design patterns in graphical user interfaces themselves that are specifically native to Unix. A promising beginning of a discussion of GUI design patterns in general can be found at Experiences — A Pattern Language for User Interface Design [Coram-Lee].

Also note that programs may have modes that fit more than one interface pattern. A program that has a compiler-like interface, for example, may behave as a filter when no file arguments are specified on the command line (many format converters behave like this).

The interface-design pattern most classically associated with Unix is the filter . A filter program takes data on standard input, transforms it in some fashion, and sends the result to standard output. Filters are not interactive; they may query their startup environment, and are typically controlled by command-line options, but they do not require feedback or commands from the user in their input stream.

Two classic examples of filters are tr(1) and grep(1). The tr(1) program is a utility that translates data on standard input to results on standard output using a translation specification given on the command line. The grep(1) program selects lines from standard input according to a match expression specified on the command line; the resulting selected lines go to standard output. A third is the sort(1) utility, which sorts lines in input according to criteria specified on the command line and issues the sorted result to standard output.

Both grep(1) and sort(1) (but not tr(1)) can alternatively take data input from a file (or files) named on the command line, in which case they do not read standard input but act instead as though that input were the catenation of the named files read in the order they appear. (In this case it is also expected that specifying “-” as a filename on the command line will direct the program explicitly to read from standard input.) The archetype of such ‘catlike’ filters is cat(1), and filters are expected to behave this way unless there are application-specific reasons to treat files named on the command line differently.

When designing filters, it is well to bear in mind some additional rules, partly developed in Chapter1:

  1. Remember Postel's Prescription: Be generous in what you accept, rigorous in what you emit. That is, try to accept as loose and sloppy an input format as you can and emit as well-structured and tight an output format as you can. Doing the former reduces the odds that the filter will be brittle in the face of unexpected inputs, and break in someone's hand (or in the middle of someone's toolchain). Doing the latter increases the odds that your filter will someday be useful as an input to other programs.

  2. When filtering, never throw away information you don't need to. This, too, increases the odds that your filter will someday be useful as an input to other programs. Information you discard is information that no later stage in a pipeline can use.

  3. When filtering, never add noise. Avoid adding nonessential information, and avoid reformatting in ways that might make the output more difficult for downstream programs to parse. The most common offenders are cosmetic touches like headers, footers, blank/ruler lines, summaries and conversions like adding aligned columns, or writing a factor of "1.5" as "150%". Times and dates are a particular bother because they're hard for downstream programs to parse. Any such additions should be optional and controlled by switches. If your program emits dates, it's good practice to have a switch that can force them into ISO8601 YYYY-MM-DD and hh:mm:ss formats — or, better yet, use those by default.

The term “filter” for this pattern is long-established Unix jargon.

“Filter” is indeed long-established. It came into use on day one of pipes. The term was a natural transferral from electrical-engineering usage: data flowed from source through filters to sink. Source or sink could be either process or file. The collective EE term, “circuit”, was never considered, since the plumbing metaphor for data flow was already well established.

-- Doug McIlroy

Some programs have interface design patterns like the filter, but even simpler (and, importantly, even easier to script). They are cantrips, sources, and sinks.


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The Art of Unix Programming
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