Q: Why did you write UNIX Network Programming?
During the 1980s, while I was at Health Systems International,
we were doing Unix software development for a variety of platforms.
We went through the normal sequences of hardware that most startups went
through at that time: one VAX-11/750 running 4.2BSD, then a bigger VAX (785),
then multiple VAXes (added an 8650), throw in some PCs
running a flavor of operating systems (Venix, Xenix, DOS),
and for good measure one IBM mainframe running VM.
Naturally with multiple VAXes running 4.xBSD you connect them together
with an Ethernet and run TCP/IP, and TCP/IP was also available for
the PC-based Unices and the mainframe.
In addition to the standard utilities (ftp, rlogin) we started writing
our own applications using sockets.
Documentation was almost nonexistent (I had very worn copies of the two
[Leffler et al.] documents from the 4.3BSD manual set)
so when you needed an answer, you looked it up in the source code.
After doing this for a while I realized that everything I was digging up
should really be documented.
I started writing UNP in 1988, while working full time,
and finished 2 years later.
I really believe that my background is fundamental to the success
of UNP and my other books.
That is, I was not one of the developers at Berkeley or AT&T,
so the writing of UNP was not a "memory dump".
Everything that is in the book I had to dig out of somewhere and
This process of digging up the details and learning how things work
leads down many side streets and to many dead ends,
but is fundamental (I think) to understanding something new.
Many times in my books I have set out to write how something works,
thinking I know how it works,
only to write some test programs that lead me to things that I never knew.
I try to convey some of these missteps in my books,
as I think seeing the wrong solution to a problem
(and understanding why it is wrong)
is often as informative as seeing the correct solution.
Q: Why did you write
Advanced Programming in the UNIX Environment?
During the 1980s I used Marc Rochkind's Advanced UNIX Programming a lot.
But it only covered through System III and I knew he wasn't going to
update the book, so I decided to write my own version of an
advanced Unix book.
Q: Why did you write
TCP/IP Illustrated, Volume 1: The Protocols?
I first became interested in TCP/IP at the Summer 1987 Summer Usenix
conference in Phoenix when I bought a copy of Doug Comer's
Internetworking With Xinu book.
(I bought it at Jim Joyce's bookshop that was set up in one of the
hotel suites, possibly one of the first attempts to sell books at a
Usenix conference. Selling on the conference floor was forbidden.)
I read the entire book on the flight back to Connecticut.
While writing UNP and in the early 1990s I used Doug Comer's Volume I
so much that I broke the spines on both the first and second editions.
But I am a practitioner interested in more of the practical details
than the theory and I kept coming up with practical questions that were not
answered in Doug's texts.
At the same time a friend who was teaching TCP/IP at IBM kept asking me
questions that I couldn't find answers for in the RFCs or any text.
I started writing little test programs to see what happens
(the beginnings of the Sock program from Appendix C of the book),
and at some point realized that this would be a neat approach for a book.
I also realized that were numerous publicly-available tools out there
that aid in understanding the protocols (most written by Van Jacobson!)
and anyone could use them, when shown how.
Tcpdump, for example, is not just a tool for diagnosing network problems,
but is invaluable for understanding how the protocols work.
Finally, after years of working with network programming I came to
realize that 80% of all network programming problems were not
programming problems at all,
but were from a lack of understanding of how the protocols operate.
Q: Why did you write TCP/IP Illustrated, Volume 2:
Once again, I was a fan of Doug Comer's Volume II (the Xinu implementation
of TCP/IP) but was frustrated when I encountered features that were not
implemented, and Xinu was just not the standard.
The Berkeley implementation is the de facto standard
and the code base was "small enough" (15,000 lines of C)
to cover in a book, albeit a "big" book.
Q: Why did you write TCP/IP Illustrated, Volume 3:
TCP for Transactions, HTTP, NNTP, and the Unix Domain Protocols?
This book is really three smaller books in one.
Part 1 is TCP for Transactions and is a major expansion of Section 24.7
of Volume 1.
This presentation of T/TCP is in two pieces: the TCP protocol extensions
with examples (Chapters 1-4, which follow the style of Volume 1),
and the implementation of T/TCP within the 4.4BSD-Lite networking code
(Chapters 5-13, which follow the style of Volume 2).
Part 2, HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) and
NNTP (Network News Transfer Protocol) is an addition to Volume 1,
as it describes two application protocols built on top of TCP.
One chapter in this part is a detailed examination of the actual packets
found on a busy World Wide Web server, showing how varied, and sometimes
downright weird, TCP behavior and implementations can be.
This is a wonderful example which brings together numerous topics
from both Volumes 1 and 2, in the context of an important and popular
Part 3, the Unix Domain Protocols, is an addition to Volume 2,
as it concentrates on the implementation of these protocols within
the 4.4BSD-Lite networking code.
So this latest volume is really a continuation of both previous volumes.
Q: Which of these books do I need?
It depends where your interests lie.
UNP is a network programming text: lots of details on network programming
with about 15,000 lines of C code presented in the book.
But UNP has minimal coverage of Unix and TCP/IP.
APUE, on the other hand, is entirely Unix programming
with no coverage of network programming.
In fact APUE started as a major expansion of Chapter 2 of UNP.
TCP/IPIv1 is purely the protocols--how and why they operate as they do
(a major expansion of Section 5.2 of UNP).
There is not one line of C code in this book.
TCP/IPIv2 is the actual implementation of TCP/IP--about 15,000 lines
of C code from the kernel.
TCP/IPIv3 is a combination of the protocols (T/TCP, HTTP, NNTP) along with
some implementation (about 2,200 lines of kernel C code).
My interest is network programming but I've found that to do this
one needs to understand the underlying operating system (APUE)
and the underlying protocols (TCP/IPIv).
Q: Didn't you write some books with Doug Comer?
No, that's David L. Stevens at Purdue.
We're different people.
Q: How long does it take to write a book?
It takes me about 2 hours per page.
That time includes everything required to produce camera-ready
PostScript files for the publisher.
So for a 600-page book, it's about 1,200 hours.
You could cut this down a little if you didn't produce camera-ready files
(i.e., let the publisher do the page layout and indexing)
but I like complete control over the final result.
Q: How did you learn everything to write these books?
I read lots of source code.
In fact, the art of reading source code is something that most
universities do not teach, but something that is easy to do on your own.
(Remember Lions' fantastic
A Commentary on the UNIX Operating System
from 1977, which was a complete presentation and analysis of the
UNIX Version 6 source code?
I was fortunate to sit in on a graduate class taught by
Dave Hanson that used this as the text.)
Although the source code for most commercial versions of Unix is
unavailable today, fortunately there are still lots of systems for which
the source code is available: 4.4BSD-Lite,
I also read select Usenet newsgroups.
It is worthwhile because you see other approaches to problems,
find out things you never knew, and can see the types of problems
people are encountering.
I average about 25 minutes per day reading and posting to Usenet.
Here are the newsgroups that I read:
Q: Do you respond to email?
Yes. My email address is at the end of the Preface of each of my books
and I read all the email that I receive.
Unfortunately the quantity of email that I receive has forced me
to develop a few form letters over the past years.
The quickest way to receive a form letter from me is to send me
source code that you want me to debug for you
(don't laugh, you would be surprised how many of these I get).
The next quickest way is to send me the make output
from trying to build some of the source code from one of my books,
asking me to tell you what to fix--my publishers graciously allow all the
code to be made available, but the code is provided "as is" with no
support implied. Most of the these problems should be posted to the
I also get lots of detailed questions on things that I wrote years ago,
and, believe it or not, I do not have immediate recall of all these details.
My basic rule is that if I can answer a question on the top of my head,
in a few lines, I always do.
But it it requires that I pull out a book to understand more of the topic,
or exchange numerous emails with the sender to figure out more details about
the problem, I simply do not have the time.
Many of the programming questions that readers send me
should be posted to some Usenet newsgroup
(comp.unix.programmer is typical).
Q: I am interested in writing a book. What should I do?
The technical book market is totally different from the fiction market.
Technical publishers are always looking for good books,
even from unknown authors.
My suggestion is to first write something (a few chapters that are
typical of the book) and then contact a publisher.
The best way to contact publishers is to go to a technical conference
(Usenix, Interop, etc.) and go to their booths and talk to them.
They normally do not bite.
Some explicit suggestions:
- Don't spend too much time on an extremely detailed outline.
I guarantee 90% of it will change as you write.
- Don't spend lots of time on the introduction chapter (normally Chapter 1)
until you've finished writing the book.
This chapter is probably the most important of the entire book since
it introduces the rest of the book to the reader.
But until you've finished writing the entire book, things will change.
- Don't write a book if you cannot take criticism.
Here are some of the comments I received on various drafts of
the first edition of UNP:
"Argh! Doesn't this guy know anything about grammar or style?",
"How come I never heard of this guy?",
"Take out parenthesized editorializing",
"The terminology is often muddled."
The second edition of UNP generated the comment:
"Sentence beginning ... is incomprehensible gobbledegook."
Also be prepared to rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite.
Here is a page (280K GIF image) from
UNIX Network Programming, Second Edition, Volume 1
that shows the kind of rewriting that I do.
The final version of this text is on pp. 92-93 of the book,
if you want to compare.
This was before any external reviewers saw it;
these are just my changes as I proofed what I had written.
Q: How did you get UNIX Network Programming published?
As I said earlier, I started writing UNP in 1988,
based on internal notes that I was putting together on how the
Berkeley networking code worked.
I am still not certain of why I decided to sit down and write a book
on this, but I think there are a number of small reasons.
First, I had been working at a startup (HSI) for 6 years,
and we were doing well, had a bigger programming staff,
so I had a little more time at work to do things other than
write code and put out fires.
It had also been 6 years since finishing my Ph.D. and I had done
no technical writing.
Finally, we had hired this new kid at HSI (Gary Wright),
fresh out of college, and when I realized how sharp he was,
I knew I had to keep growing technically just to keep up with him.
(Gary, you may note from the Preface of UNP,
was the first one to read everything that I wrote.)
Having decided to write a book, I had to decide what to write about.
My interests were a book on computer graphics or a networking book.
We went to Nantucket for Thanksgiving in 1987 and I remember taking along
Tanenbaum's Computer Networks and
Foley and Van Dam's Fundamentals of Interactive Computer Graphics.
When we got home I decided on a network programming book.
I started writing and the initial title was Network Programming.
As with most new authors,
I kept my day job while writing my first book during my "spare time".
I still have a Usenet posting from January 1989 that went:
"I am looking for a good Unix book (aren't we all?).
I've got a good feel for Unix and both C and Shell programming.
I'm now interested in learning about the communication aspect of Unix -
i.e., sockets, protocols, etc."
One week later there was another posting titled "IPC questions"
asking lots of details about the various methods for IPC,
above and beyond the coverage in Marc Rochkind's book.
These made me feel that I was on the right track.
I also have a Usenet posting by Rick Adams,
dated November 23, 1988, stating that
"At long last, the 4.3BSD files that do not contain ATT code
are available to anyone who wants them."
This meant I could include the Berkeley code in the book.
After writing for a few months I figured I should see if what I
had written was worth finishing.
I asked a friend at Bell Labs who had published a book with
Prentice Hall for a contact there,
and got the name and phone number of John Wait, an editor.
I called in June 1988, left a message with his secretary,
and he actually called back!
He was interested, asked to see what I had written,
and said he would be at the USENIX conference in July in San Francisco.
I was registered for the conference, but sent Gary Wright instead,
and he used my name badge.
Gary delivered the manuscript (278 pages) to John.
(Gary also ran into John months later at a Unix Expo conference,
again wearing a name tag with my name on it,
and John was wondering if Gary was doing all the writing under
If you encounter someone at a Unix conference with a badge that says
"Rich Stevens" you should say "Oh, you must be Gary Wright.")
John said he would send out the chapters for review,
and then he would either
(1) drive to New Haven immediately with a contract for me to sign,
(2) send a contract in the mail, or
(3) tell me I should be doing something other than writing.
I then headed off to Hawaii for a month's vacation
and when I returned there was a phone message to call John.
I didn't know ahead of time, but one of the reviewers was
Brian Kernighan and Brian's comments included
"It's quite a reasonable piece of work,
and certainly worth publishing. ...
Overall, I think there's the nucleus of quite a useful book here. ...
In any case, it's well worth pursuing."
John sent a contract in the mail, and I kept writing.
Q: You don't really write your books using troff, do you?
Of course. What else is there?
Troff is an industrial strength package that I have spent
years of my life learning.
I use a modified version of the -ms macros for everything that I write.
There are numerous "tweaks" that I apply to my troff input before troff
formats the pages, and I just can't imagine trying to implement some of
these details with something like Frame.
I also use pic for all the figures.
I can type faster than I can move a mouse,
so I find menu-driven drawing packages time consuming and frustrating.
I don't use TeX because for years TeX and PostScript really didn't
If my writing contained more math, I might consider switching to TeX.
As a side note about camera ready copy ...
In 1989 when I finished UNP,
publishers were not fully prepared to handle camera ready copy,
except from places like Bell Labs, which had their own typesetters.
So when UNP was all done, I wrote the PostScript files in 15-page pieces
to six 1.2 Mbyte MS-DOS diskettes and drove the diskettes myself
from New Haven to Typesetting Service Corp. in Providence, Rhode Island.
They sent the typeset pages via FedEx to Prentice Hall two days later,
and I paid for the typesetting on my Visa
(781 pages at $4 per page, for a total of $3,124),
which Prentice Hall reimbursed me for later.
Today one just sends the final PostScript to the publisher using ftp,
and they take care of the actual typesetting.
Q: What kind of Unix systems do you run?
My main, everyday system is a Sparc Ultra 5 running Solaris.
The reason is simple: in 1990 when I bought my first workstation,
the SparcStation SLC was the only workstation under $5,000.
Most workstation vendors ignored the low end market for years
(and some still do).
I later upgraded the SLC to an ELC,
and then replaced it with a SparcStation4,
and then replaced that with the Ultra 5.
(I upgrade or replace about every 3 years.)
I also run lots of publicly available software
(GNU C, GNU troff, etc.)
and I find most software of this form is ported to the Sun platform first,
making my life simpler.
For my kohala.com domain I run
on its server (HTTP, anonymous FTP, email, DNS, etc.).
BSD/OS is a very reliable, industrial-strength, system,
that just runs and runs without any problems.
I also like having the source code available,
mainly just to look at,
but also just in case I need to fix anything myself.
But I also buy their service contract,
letting them find and fix any bugs.
(I pay list price for everything from Sun and BSDI,
so the above comments are completely unbiased.)
I have a number of other computers in my office,
running various flavors of Unix
(nine when writing the second edition of UNP; see p. 21).
I use these mainly for compiling and testing the code that I write
on other systems,
and to allow me to run clients and servers on the various hosts.
I do all my own system administration on these systems and my Cisco router,
because if you cannot do this,
you shouldn't be writing about Unix networking and programming.
Q: What are your favorite technical books?
Here is my list, in no particular order.
The C Programming Language
by Kernighan and Ritchie.
I've always been amazed by people who say this book is too
complicated or inadequate. It is so concise, precise, and even
by Kernighan and Plauger.
This book shows how to design and then implement simple versions
of many Unix tools: grep, sort, ed,
and the like. (Yes, even ed, an editor that
every system administrator should know how to use.
I find myself still using it a few times a year,
often in single-user mode,
editing some basic configuration file.)
A favorite quote of mine is from p. 250:
"As always, if you propose to build something,
make sure it has some conceptual integrity--it should not be
merely a collection of unrelated "features".
And build it in increments, not all at once."
The UNIX Programming Environment
by Kernighan and Pike.
A classic that is still "current" IMHO.
This book describes the use of the standard Unix tools from a
command line (with a little C programming),
whereas Software Tools is a programming book.
The TeXbook by Knuth.
I don't use TeX but I continually use this book as a
The AWK Programming Language
by Aho, Kernighan, and Weinberger.
I use AWK a lot for most small programs that I write.
No, I don't use perl--I consider it an unreadable write-only language.
The Elements of Programming Style
by Kernighan and Plauger.
This book should still be required reading for all programmers.
On Writing Well
A great book on how to write.
Webster's New World Guide to Current American Usage
How to break all those stupid habits that you were taught in
high school English.
The only two books that I keep on my desk at all times are
Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary and
The Chicago Manual of Style.
Just so you don't think I only read technical books,
my favorite fiction authors (i.e., those authors whose hardcover books
I will buy as soon as they are published) are:
David Baldacci, Patricia Cornwell, Michael Crichton,
Patrick Davis, Nelson DeMille, Joseph Finder, Frederick Forsyth,
Stephen Frey, John Grisham, Payne Harrison,
Greg Isles, Douglas Kennedy, Phillip Margolin, Steve Martini,
Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Stuart Woods.
But the only time I seem to have for fun reading is on airplanes.
Q: What does the W. in your name stand for?
William. My parents wanted to name me after my Uncle Bill but also
wanted to call me Richard. They figured "William Richard" sounded
better than "Richard William".
Q: Why did you dedicate APUE to MTS (the Michigan Terminal System)?
I was an undergraduate at Michigan from 1968-1973 and the first computer
I used was an IBM 360/67 running MTS for the Fortran programming course
required of all Freshman engineers.
The textbook was a homegrown text by Brice Carnahan and James Wilkes
with Elliot Organick's Fortran IV book as a supplementary text.
MTS was a fantastic system with lots of neat ideas and was developed
around the same time as Unix.
Like Unix, MTS had ideas that were ahead of its time,
especially when compared to the other alternative OSes that were
available for an IBM mainframe.
Unfortunately for MTS, it ran on expensive IBM mainframes and Unix ran on
As they say, the rest is history.
Q: Why do your programs contain gotos?
Read Structured Programming with go to Statements
by Knuth in the ACM Computing Surveys, Vol. 6, No. 4, Dec. 1974 issue.
(In fact, this entire issue of Computing Surveys is a classic.)
My challenge to the goto-less programmer is to recode tcp_input()
(Chapters 27 and 28 of TCP/IPIv2) without any gotos ...
without any loss of efficiency (there has to be a catch).
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