A piece from a private message I posted in a forum, which I thought it could be useful to share.
As advice for somebody just starting out writing system utils, what resources have you found the most useful/valuable over the years? What is worth spending lots of time to understand? Best books? Advice that you wish you knew 8 years ago?
Oh, good questions. I can only think of general pieces of advice; you may already know some, most or all of them, but let’s see:
If you want to write system utils, do it in C. Yes, sometimes it’s annoying, pointers, cumbersome string handling, etc. I like other languages better too. But it’s the most portable option and the only thing that’s guaranteed to stay around in Unix in the long run. You’re writing code today but you may end up using it 15 years from now. Today’s Python may be the 90’s Tcl. I do write stuff in other languages (actually, my research work was in the Programming Languages field, so I’m all for language diversity) but if you’re doing system stuff which you want to be as widely available as possible, do it in C.
- The so-called “pitfalls” of C are more a matter of discipline than anything else. Whenever you allocate a structure to start passing pointers of it around, define which one pointer will be the “owner” of that structure; the one responsible for deleting it. Make sure other pointers don’t outlive the owner and make sure the owner frees the memory. It’s no black magic.
- One of my motivations for writing htop was actually improving my C skills, which were weak (and some of the early parts of htop still show it, look at the amount of asserts in Vector.c), but nowadays I’m work as a C coder.
- If you’re writing for Unix only, C99 is fine (and much nicer to write than ANSI C). If you’re planning to support Visual Studio, stick to ANSI C. Depending on what you’re doing you can get away with C99 and using GNU compilers on Windows, too.
Learn the GNU Autotools. Same thing: it’s even more annoying than C, but in the end it’s what provides the best experience to end users. You do get a lot of features for free, such as support for cross-compiling, etc. Things you may not need now, but that will pop up as feature requests once you have a user base. And to grow a user base, you want your installation to be just “type in ./configure; make; sudo make install” and not “install this-and-that build tool”. Distro packagers will thank you, and cooperation with them is fundamental to get your app out there.
- A neat side effect of learning Autotools as a developer is that you develop skills in troubleshooting problems when installing other packages. Autotools is ubiquitous, so being proficient at it is another professionally useful skill.
- Similarly, if you’re writing libraries, learn Pkgconfig. If you’re using libraries, learn how to use Pkgconfig from within Autotools. Pkgconfig is nice and will make your life much simpler, the more you use it.
I haven’t used many physical books, but there are tons of online resources that will help you with the above. The “Autobook” is something you’ll quickly end up in right after your first Google searches for Autotools stuff.
- man-pages are your friends. You’ll code more efficiently by refering to them (when you need to check the order of the arguments for strncmp for the 1000th time) instead of relying on online search for everything (which is more distracting).
- I use pinfo as my man reader (with “alias man=pinfo -m” in my shell) because it makes hyperlinks between man-pages. Very efficient.
You don’t need to use an IDE, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t rely on debugging tools.
- Valgrind is your best friend. In comparison, C programming was miserable before it.
- Build with “-g”, run with “ulimit -c unlimited” in your shell at all times. Learn to load core files with gdb and examine backtraces for post-mortem analysis when your program
- If you decide to open the can of worms of multithreading, you can set custom thread names with the prctl command (and then examine them with nice names in htop)
- Other tools I use often: strace, lsof.
That’s all I can think of for the moment, I hope that helps!
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