When you want to do input or output to a file, you have a choice of two
basic mechanisms for representing the connection between your program
and the file: file descriptors and streams. File descriptors are
represented as objects of type int, while streams are represented
as FILE * objects.
File descriptors provide a primitive, low-level interface to input and
output operations. Both file descriptors and streams can represent a
connection to a device (such as a terminal), or a pipe or socket for
communicating with another process, as well as a normal file. But, if
you want to do control operations that are specific to a particular kind
of device, you must use a file descriptor; there are no facilities to
use streams in this way. You must also use file descriptors if your
program needs to do input or output in special modes, such as
nonblocking (or polled) input (see File Status Flags).
Streams provide a higher-level interface, layered on top of the
primitive file descriptor facilities. The stream interface treats all
kinds of files pretty much alike—the sole exception being the three
styles of buffering that you can choose (see Stream Buffering).
The main advantage of using the stream interface is that the set of
functions for performing actual input and output operations (as opposed
to control operations) on streams is much richer and more powerful than
the corresponding facilities for file descriptors. The file descriptor
interface provides only simple functions for transferring blocks of
characters, but the stream interface also provides powerful formatted
input and output functions (printf and scanf) as well as
functions for character- and line-oriented input and output.
Since streams are implemented in terms of file descriptors, you can
extract the file descriptor from a stream and perform low-level
operations directly on the file descriptor. You can also initially open
a connection as a file descriptor and then make a stream associated with
that file descriptor.
In general, you should stick with using streams rather than file
descriptors, unless there is some specific operation you want to do that
can only be done on a file descriptor. If you are a beginning
programmer and aren't sure what functions to use, we suggest that you
concentrate on the formatted input functions (see Formatted Input)
and formatted output functions (see Formatted Output).
If you are concerned about portability of your programs to systems other
than GNU, you should also be aware that file descriptors are not as
portable as streams. You can expect any system running ISO C to
support streams, but non-GNU systems may not support file descriptors at
all, or may only implement a subset of the GNU functions that operate on
file descriptors. Most of the file descriptor functions in the GNU
library are included in the POSIX.1 standard, however.
Published under the terms of the GNU General Public License