What is a shell and how does it work?

This post is part of my ongoing experiment in grokking xv6. In it I will teach you what a shell is and how it works.

If you haven’t read first part in this series, you can read it here.

In my experience, most technical explanations are full of jargon and implicit knowledge. Throughout the text I’ve deliberately italicized the first use of all terms that can be seen as domain-specific. In cases where I think an elaboration seems necessary, I’ve included either a short in-line explanation or a footnote. Does this type of explanation - being explicit about the words you use - help with understanding, or is the italicization just getting in the way of reading?

In general, any explanation that is clear and concise is good. This type of explanation tries to err more on the side of clarity, rather than conciseness. 1

What is a shell?

A shell is just another computer program. It is the main user interface to operating systems that are similar to Unix. An operating system is responsible for having several programs run on one computer, and also to tries to abstract away the specific hardware the computer is running on, so the same program can run on many different types of computers. Unix is a special type of operating system that was developed at Bell Labs by programmers like Ken Thompson, Dennis Ritchie, and Brian Kernighan. A kernel is the part of the operating system that we will be concerned with. Modern operating systems also provide things like graphical interfaces.

The shell lives in user space, along with most other programs, as opposed to in kernel space which is where the kernel lives. Software living in kernel space can execute privileged instructions, such as dealing directly with hardware. We don’t want any software to be able to do this, as it could overwrite the operating system itself. The way the shell talks to the kernel is by system calls 2. These system calls allows the user to do things like open files and create processes. Since software in user space always have to go through the kernel to perform such operations, the kernel can make sure the shell doesn’t do anything it doesn’t want to allow. Note that this is different from a super-user or running as root, which is about user privilege that software in user space have.

Hello shell

If you want to see a list of what’s inside the directory in your present working directory 3 you can use the program ls. Typing ls in a shell and pressing enter runs it and returns the contents of that folder. When you press enter the shell first parses 4 what you wrote into some internal representation. What does it mean to run ls? To answer that we must first understand what the fork system call does and what a child process is.

Recall that an operating systems allows several programs to run on one computer, and processes are a big part of how it does that. A process in Unix-like systems is a program that runs and has access to its own piece of memory which contains the program’s instructions, data and stack. The operating system then makes sure each process gets to do what it wants to do in some reasonable manner. Fork is a system call that allows a process to create another process. The process calling fork is called the parent process, and the process it creates is called the child process. When a child process starts, its memory is initally almost an exact, but separate, copy of its parent process’s memory.

In the case of our ls command, the shell runs the parsed command in a forked child process. In C code it would look something like this:

int pid = fork();
if(pid == 0)

When we call fork we create a child process, and we get back an integer that we call pid for process id. We now have two different processes running independently, and the variable pid is different in the two. In the parent process, the pid is some number that is used to uniquely identify the process, whereas in the child process it’s simply equal to 0.

A good way to think about the above piece of code is to see it as being two different programs. In the parent process, the if-statement returns false and it gets stuck at wait, which is another system call that just waits until a child process is finished. The kernel makes sure the parent is notified when that happens. In the child process, the if-statement returns true and it runs the command. This executes ls and gives over all control to ls for that process.

Once the child process has finished running - and when that happens is completely up to ls and how it is implemented - the parent process, i.e. the shell, will resume running, and we can type another command.

I/O Redirection

Let’s say we want to save the output from running ls above. We can do so using something called I/O redirection (I/O stands for input/output):

ls > foo

There are three parts to this command. When the shell parses the command, it figures out that it’s a redirection from ls to foo. After the shell has forked to a child process it runs ls and saves the output in a file called foo. An ordinary file contains either symbolic or binary data, is written in some format, and has some metadata associated with it (such as who is allowed to read and write to it), and we can access it by using its pathname. One of the most common type of file is a text file, which contains a string of characters. There are special files too, and in fact even devices and directories are represented as files.

How does the output of ls end up in foo? To understand that we have to know a bit more about files work in Unix. The system call open is used to see the contents of a file. When we open a file to read or write to it, we get a file descriptor back. This file descriptor is just an integer that represents a specific file that a process can read or write to. There are three special integers, 0, 1, and 2. These are called, in order, STDIN (standard input), STDOUT (standard output), and STDERR (standard error). Another word for these is standard streams. By default, when the shell reads something, such as a command you typed in, it does this from STDIN. Likewise, when the shell prints something, such as the result of running some command, it does this to STDOUT.

There is some confusion about the difference between files and streams, and people can mean different things when they talk about them. For our present purposes, we can treat them as equivalent - as long we let go of our preconceptions of what a file is. As alluded to before, many things are seen as as files from the kernel’s point of view in Unix-like systems.

When we run ls, it returns the result by printing it 5 to STDOUT, and STDOUT is what we see in the shell. File descriptors are handed out by the kernel starting from the lowest available file descriptor, and when the shell starts it opens the three standard streams. We can use this fact to get I/O redirection with something like this:

open(file, mode);

This is a simplified version of the actual code and it has no error handling. The second argument to open is mode, which is where we say if we want to read or write to the file. Assuming we want to redirect using >, we close STDOUT. When we then open the file, foo in this case, to write to it, it will pick the lowest available file descriptor, which is 1. When we then run the command ls, it will print to STDOUT - which is bound to our file foo.


Let’s look at another example. There’s a program called ps that shows the status of processes. If we want to have a list of all my processes sorted by their process id we can pipe the result of running ps to the program sort.

ps | sort

When the shell parses this command it sees the symbol “|” and knows it’s a pipe command. A pipe command has two sides: a left and a right side. When the program on the left side writes to STDOUT it can be read from the program on the right side through STDIN. A pipe is a small buffer 6 that lives in kernel space and allows processes to talk to each other, which is called inter-process communication. This communication happens continuously as new data is written to the pipe. It’s also a queue, so even if new data comes in faster than you can process it in the right process the data doesn’t disappear, and it doesn’t block 7 either.

How does this work? Let’s look at the code.

int p[2];

if(fork() == 0) {
if(fork() == 0) {

We create an array of two integers, which is where we will keep track of our file descriptors. We then use the system call pipe, which creates a pipe between two file descriptors and and puts these in p, where p[0] is for reading and p[1] is for writing. After that, we create two child processes - one for the left process and one for the right one. These are the two if-blocks that check if fork returns 0, which it does in the child processes.

In the left process we close STDOUT. Then we use another system call dup that duplicates a file descriptor. What this means is that we can refer to the same file or stream but using a different file descriptor. Since STDOUT is closed and it’s the lowest available file descriptor, the write-end of our pipe gets connected to STDOUT in this process.

Recall that a child process has almost exactly the same memory as a parent process. This includes file descriptors, so after we have connected the left process to STDOUT we want to close the file descriptors in p. If we don’t, we might get a deadlock where we don’t ever see anything printed. For example, if we forget to close the write-end of the pipe (p[1]) in the right child process, the read-end of the pipe (p[0]) will keep waiting for data. This means that the left child process won’t ever finish, and the the parent process will wait forever. It’s only when the write-end of a pipe is closed that the read-end stops waiting. This is similar to how ordinary files have a specific end-of-file character that tells us when a file is finished.

Depending on the exact command, things might still work out fine even if you forget to close a file descriptor. However, in order to avoid subtle bugs, consider it good hygiene to close a file descriptor when you are done with it.

After all that, we run the left process and it prints to STDOUT. Similarly, the right process does almost the exact same thing but for STDIN. And finally, the parent closes the file descriptors for the pipe and waits for both child processes to finish (which, if it’s a long-running process, may never happen).


In this article we’ve looked at how the shell executes a simple command, how I/O redirection works, and how pipes allow for inter-process comunication. We’ve also looked briefly at what files and process are, and how to use some basic system calls.

I hope I have managed to paint a clear picture of the shell. If you wish to solidify your understanding of the shell, I recommend you to do what I did and go through the xv6 shell in detail, and perhaps do some of the suggested homework in MIT’s operating systems class. If you have any comments, please don’t hesitate to email or tweet me.

Thanks to Mark Dominus, Margo Kulkarni, and Kamal Marhubi for reading drafts of this post.

(If you liked this, you might enjoy What’s on the stack?.)

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  1. But conciseness is still more important than completeness. [return]
  2. System calls: Things you can tell the kernel to do in kernel space. [return]
  3. Present working directory: Where you are in the file hierarchy at any given time. [return]
  4. Parsing: Figures out the parts of what you told it are. [return]
  5. Printing: Writing it in a place where you can see it. [return]
  6. Buffer: A place where temporary data is stored. [return]
  7. Block: Get stuck waiting. [return]