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Looking at the stack trace for `ls`

captainsafia profile image Safia Abdalla ・2 min read

You know what Mondays mean. A new blog post!

I’m trying something new this week. Instead of writing my thrice-weekly blog posts on my commute to and from work, I’ll write all of them on a single day over the weekend.

Today, I’m going to be looking at a command that I previously looked at the codebase for, the ls command. To be honest, it feels like that happened so long ago I don’t even remember it. In any case, I hopped over to my Debian VM instance on Google Cloud and ran strace on the ls command in my home directory.

It starts off by running the open system call on the current working directory. It’s passing quite a few flags to the call. Some I already knew about and some I didn’t. Nonetheless, here’s a breakdown of what all those flags are doing.

  1. O_RDONLY: Open the file for reading only. No file modifications allowed!
  2. O_NONBLOCK: Return from the open call without any delay.
  3. O_DIRECTORY: Open a directory with the intent of examining its contents.
  4. O_CLOEXEC: Automatically close the file descriptor when the current process being execed returns.
[pid 13721] open(".", O_RDONLY|O_NONBLOCK|O_DIRECTORY|O_CLOEXEC) = 3
[pid 13721] fstat(3, {st_mode=S_IFDIR|0755, st_size=4096, ...}) = 0

The next system call invoked is the getdents system call which, according to the docs, returns the contents of a directory.

[pid 13721] getdents(3, /* 13 entries */, 32768) = 400

The next couple of lines are invocations of the lstat function on each of the contents of the directory. This is used by ls to determine the size of the file and the owner and so on. This is the kind of information that you would see when you run ls with the -l flag.

[pid 13721] lstat("test-4.txt", {st_mode=S_IFREG|0644, st_size=13, ...}) = 0

The last two calls in the stack trace did mystify me a bit. The function makes another call to the getdents system call. Why is it doing this? I tried to spot the differences between the two system calls. In the first one, the second parameter points to a list of 13 directory entry structs and the system call returns 400. In the second call listed below, the second parameter points to a list of 0 directory entry structs and returns 0. I figured that perhaps the invocation was made twice because there was some for-loop iterating until the getdents function returned 0.

[pid 13721] getdents(3, /* 0 entries */, 32768) = 0
[pid 13721] close(3)

The last line in the stack trace closes the file descriptor associated with the current directory that we are reading.

And with that, I close off this blog post! I know this blog post is short, but that’s because I’m preparing you for what’s coming later this week. It’s gonna be a doozy…

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