What Happens When You Type ls

In preparation for another season of interviews, I want to write up a more complete answer to a question I was given over a year ago.

Starting From The Middle: The Shell

First, let’s assume that we’re sitting in front of a 32 bit IBM PC-like machine using some *nix like operating system. We’re at the shell and all we see is this


First we press down on the letter l. What happens? The shell is probably waiting for the next line to process from a call to fgets. fgets reads from a file descriptor into a buffer. It returns when either the buffer fills up or it reaches a newline.

A file descriptor is simply an integer index into the processes file descriptor table. The file descriptor we pass to fgets will probably be 0 which represents the standard input (stdin). In our case stdin will provide data from our keyboard.

When we press s still nothing happens because readline hasn’t reached the end of a line. When we press ENTER it gets converted to a \n, and readline returns the command back to the shell.

Now the shell needs to interpret the line ls. First it must break apart ls into its actual parts. Fortunately, there is only one part and that is the string ls.

Now, in order to do execute ls the shell needs to know which executable to execute. The common method of doing this on *nix like systems is to look in the PATH environment variable. It iterates through portions of the PATH trying to stat a file called ls in order to find the executable.

Once the shell finds the executable for ls, say at /bin/ls, it forks a child process and execs the executable.

Here is some sample code that might execute the command /bin/ls:

char *argv = {"/bin/ls", NULL};
if (fork() == 0) {
    execv(argv[0], argv);

Because of the semantics of the *nix like processes, the child will share the parent’s file descriptors. The child will end up writing to the same standard output (stdout) as the shell. The stdout will be written out to the console.

Outstanding Questions

Deeper: Inside ls

ls is a relatively simple program. ls expects some path to list, but if ls is not given a path it will assume the current working directory (cwd), also represented by ..

Once ls knows which path it wants to list, it will open and stat the path. It opens the file in case it’s a directory, and it stats the path to get some basic info about the path (like whether it’s a file or directory).

ls typically has two modes, one to handle a file, and one to handle a directory. Since we just typed ls, we’ll consider what happens when ls runs on a directory.

When ls runs on a directory, it reads each of the directory entries from the opened path, and it stats each of the directory entries. It prints out some info about the entry.

Here is some sample code from the xv6 operating system for ls:

ls(char *path)
  char buf[512], *p;
  int fd;
  struct dirent de;
  struct stat st;

  if((fd = open(path, 0)) < 0){
    printf(2, "ls: cannot open %s\n", path);

  if(fstat(fd, &st) < 0){
    printf(2, "ls: cannot stat %s\n", path);

  case T_FILE:
    printf(1, "%s %d %d %d\n", fmtname(path),
           st.type, st.ino, st.size);

  case T_DIR:
    if(strlen(path) + 1 + DIRSIZ + 1 > sizeof buf){
      printf(1, "ls: path too long\n");
    strcpy(buf, path);
    p = buf+strlen(buf);
    *p++ = '/';
    while(read(fd, &de, sizeof(de)) == sizeof(de)){
      if(de.inum == 0)
      memmove(p, de.name, DIRSIZ);
      p[DIRSIZ] = 0;
      if(stat(buf, &st) < 0){
        printf(1, "ls: cannot stat %s\n", buf);
      printf(1, "%s %d %d %d\n", fmtname(buf),
             st.type, st.ino, st.size);

Outstanding Questions

Up Above: The Console

Now we’ll address two of our outstanding questions:

When an operating system typically starts up it initializes an init process which hooks up some basic features. In xv6, it hooks up the console.

Here is the init code from xv6:

char *argv[] = { "sh", 0 };

  int pid, wpid;

  if(open("console", O_RDWR) < 0){
    mknod("console", 1, 1);
    open("console", O_RDWR);
  dup(0);  // stdout
  dup(0);  // stderr

    printf(1, "init: starting sh\n");
    pid = fork();
    if(pid < 0){
      printf(1, "init: fork failed\n");
    if(pid == 0){
      exec("sh", argv);
      printf(1, "init: exec sh failed\n");
    while((wpid=wait()) >= 0 && wpid != pid)
      printf(1, "zombie!\n");

The init code creates a special device file console (if it doesn’t exist) and sets it to file descriptors 0, 1, and 2 (stdin, stdout, and stderr).

All other processes are typically the child of the init process, so they all inherit these special file descriptors which point to the console device file.

Reading and writing to the device file is just like reading and writing to any other file. Using the inode’s major and minor device number, the operating system can figure out which read and write functions to call. These device specific read and write functions are the drivers that actually interface with the hardware.

Outstanding Questions

Down Below: The File System

Now we’ll answer our last two questions by exploring a typical *nix filesystem.

First, both files and directories have an associated inode and data. An inode is simply the metadata for the file or directory. The data inside a file is the file’s contents. The data for a directory is an array of directory entries. Each directory entry holds the name of a file inside that directory and the file’s corresponding inode number.

In xv6, this is the definition for a directory entry:

struct dirent {
  ushort inum;
  char name[DIRSIZ];

As long as we know the root / inode of the file system, we can recursively traverse directory entries to find the inode for a specific file.

stat simply looks up a path using this mechanism, and returns the inode information in a more presentable manner.

The operating system is in charge of organizing the inodes on disk so that it can access them easily. The os will use the same types of device files as described in the previous section to read and write from the disk.


This is only a brief exploration into what happens when you type ls. There’s still a whole ton more that happens. Here is a non-exhaustive list of some more things that happen, that aren’t really covered here:

Posted: September 17, 2014