9

Here's something that kept me wondering for a while:

[15:40:50][/tmp]$ mkdir a
[15:40:52][/tmp]$ strace rmdir a
execve("/usr/bin/rmdir", ["rmdir", "a"], [/* 78 vars */]) = 0
brk(0)                                  = 0x11bb000
mmap(NULL, 4096, PROT_READ|PROT_WRITE, MAP_PRIVATE|MAP_ANONYMOUS, -1, 0) = 0x7ff3772c3000
access("/etc/ld.so.preload", R_OK)      = -1 ENOENT (No such file or directory)
open("/etc/ld.so.cache", O_RDONLY|O_CLOEXEC) = 3
fstat(3, {st_mode=S_IFREG|0644, st_size=245801, ...}) = 0
mmap(NULL, 245801, PROT_READ, MAP_PRIVATE, 3, 0) = 0x7ff377286000
close(3)                                = 0
open("/lib64/libc.so.6", O_RDONLY|O_CLOEXEC) = 3
read(3, "\177ELF\2\1\1\3\0\0\0\0\0\0\0\0\3\0>\0\1\0\0\0p\36\3428<\0\0\0"..., 832) = 832
fstat(3, {st_mode=S_IFREG|0755, st_size=2100672, ...}) = 0
mmap(0x3c38e00000, 3924576, PROT_READ|PROT_EXEC, MAP_PRIVATE|MAP_DENYWRITE, 3, 0) = 0x3c38e00000
mprotect(0x3c38fb4000, 2097152, PROT_NONE) = 0
mmap(0x3c391b4000, 24576, PROT_READ|PROT_WRITE, MAP_PRIVATE|MAP_FIXED|MAP_DENYWRITE, 3, 0x1b4000) = 0x3c391b4000
mmap(0x3c391ba000, 16992, PROT_READ|PROT_WRITE, MAP_PRIVATE|MAP_FIXED|MAP_ANONYMOUS, -1, 0) = 0x3c391ba000
close(3)                                = 0
mmap(NULL, 4096, PROT_READ|PROT_WRITE, MAP_PRIVATE|MAP_ANONYMOUS, -1, 0) = 0x7ff377285000
mmap(NULL, 8192, PROT_READ|PROT_WRITE, MAP_PRIVATE|MAP_ANONYMOUS, -1, 0) = 0x7ff377283000
arch_prctl(ARCH_SET_FS, 0x7ff377283740) = 0
mprotect(0x609000, 4096, PROT_READ)     = 0
mprotect(0x3c391b4000, 16384, PROT_READ) = 0
mprotect(0x3c38c1f000, 4096, PROT_READ) = 0
munmap(0x7ff377286000, 245801)          = 0
brk(0)                                  = 0x11bb000
brk(0x11dc000)                          = 0x11dc000
brk(0)                                  = 0x11dc000
open("/usr/lib/locale/locale-archive", O_RDONLY|O_CLOEXEC) = 3
fstat(3, {st_mode=S_IFREG|0644, st_size=106070960, ...}) = 0
mmap(NULL, 106070960, PROT_READ, MAP_PRIVATE, 3, 0) = 0x7ff370d5a000
close(3)                                = 0
rmdir("a")                              = 0
close(1)                                = 0
close(2)                                = 0
exit_group(0)                           = ?
+++ exited with 0 +++
[15:40:55][/tmp]$ touch a
[15:41:16][/tmp]$ strace rm a
execve("/usr/bin/rm", ["rm", "a"], [/* 78 vars */]) = 0
brk(0)                                  = 0xfa8000
mmap(NULL, 4096, PROT_READ|PROT_WRITE, MAP_PRIVATE|MAP_ANONYMOUS, -1, 0) = 0x7f3b2388a000
access("/etc/ld.so.preload", R_OK)      = -1 ENOENT (No such file or directory)
open("/etc/ld.so.cache", O_RDONLY|O_CLOEXEC) = 3
fstat(3, {st_mode=S_IFREG|0644, st_size=245801, ...}) = 0
mmap(NULL, 245801, PROT_READ, MAP_PRIVATE, 3, 0) = 0x7f3b2384d000
close(3)                                = 0
open("/lib64/libc.so.6", O_RDONLY|O_CLOEXEC) = 3
read(3, "\177ELF\2\1\1\3\0\0\0\0\0\0\0\0\3\0>\0\1\0\0\0p\36\3428<\0\0\0"..., 832) = 832
fstat(3, {st_mode=S_IFREG|0755, st_size=2100672, ...}) = 0
mmap(0x3c38e00000, 3924576, PROT_READ|PROT_EXEC, MAP_PRIVATE|MAP_DENYWRITE, 3, 0) = 0x3c38e00000
mprotect(0x3c38fb4000, 2097152, PROT_NONE) = 0
mmap(0x3c391b4000, 24576, PROT_READ|PROT_WRITE, MAP_PRIVATE|MAP_FIXED|MAP_DENYWRITE, 3, 0x1b4000) = 0x3c391b4000
mmap(0x3c391ba000, 16992, PROT_READ|PROT_WRITE, MAP_PRIVATE|MAP_FIXED|MAP_ANONYMOUS, -1, 0) = 0x3c391ba000
close(3)                                = 0
mmap(NULL, 4096, PROT_READ|PROT_WRITE, MAP_PRIVATE|MAP_ANONYMOUS, -1, 0) = 0x7f3b2384c000
mmap(NULL, 8192, PROT_READ|PROT_WRITE, MAP_PRIVATE|MAP_ANONYMOUS, -1, 0) = 0x7f3b2384a000
arch_prctl(ARCH_SET_FS, 0x7f3b2384a740) = 0
mprotect(0x60d000, 4096, PROT_READ)     = 0
mprotect(0x3c391b4000, 16384, PROT_READ) = 0
mprotect(0x3c38c1f000, 4096, PROT_READ) = 0
munmap(0x7f3b2384d000, 245801)          = 0
brk(0)                                  = 0xfa8000
brk(0xfc9000)                           = 0xfc9000
brk(0)                                  = 0xfc9000
open("/usr/lib/locale/locale-archive", O_RDONLY|O_CLOEXEC) = 3
fstat(3, {st_mode=S_IFREG|0644, st_size=106070960, ...}) = 0
mmap(NULL, 106070960, PROT_READ, MAP_PRIVATE, 3, 0) = 0x7f3b1d321000
close(3)                                = 0
ioctl(0, SNDCTL_TMR_TIMEBASE or SNDRV_TIMER_IOCTL_NEXT_DEVICE or TCGETS, {B38400 opost isig icanon echo ...}) = 0
newfstatat(AT_FDCWD, "a", {st_mode=S_IFREG|0664, st_size=0, ...}, AT_SYMLINK_NOFOLLOW) = 0
geteuid()                               = 1000
newfstatat(AT_FDCWD, "a", {st_mode=S_IFREG|0664, st_size=0, ...}, AT_SYMLINK_NOFOLLOW) = 0
faccessat(AT_FDCWD, "a", W_OK)          = 0
unlinkat(AT_FDCWD, "a", 0)              = 0
lseek(0, 0, SEEK_CUR)                   = -1 ESPIPE (Illegal seek)
close(0)                                = 0
close(1)                                = 0
close(2)                                = 0
exit_group(0)                           = ?
+++ exited with 0 +++

Why are there separate system calls for removing a directory and files? Why would these two operations be semantically distinct?

8

Directories are special in the sense that within a directory you can have references to several files and directories, so, if you remove the parent directory, all those files lose their reference point from where they can be accessed, the same with process. For such cases, rmdir() have different checks, that are different from unlink():

  • If the directory is not empty. If a directory is not empty it can't remove it until the contents are unlink'd/removed.

       ENOTEMPTY
          pathname contains entries other than . and .. ; or, pathname has
          ..  as its final component.  POSIX.1-2001 also allows EEXIST for
          this condition.
    
  • If the directory is in use. If a process losses their current directory, it could lead to problems and undefined behaviors. Is better to prevent them.

       EBUSY  pathname  is currently in use by the system or some process that
          prevents its removal.  On Linux this means pathname is currently
          used  as  a  mount point or is the root directory of the calling
          process.
    

In the case of unlink() these checks doesn't exist. In fact, you can delete the name of a file with unlink() and the process that is still using/making reference to it, can modify it without problems. The file exist until the file descriptor exist, just unaccessible to new process (unless you know where to search). This is part of the rainbow-colored-hands magic of the *NIX file systems.

Now, there's the unlinkat() which behaves as both, unlink() or rmdir(2) depending the path which is what you expect.

  • Well rm -rf "$PWD" works and does remove the current directory. I think the reason there's a rmdir() is probably historical (initially, directories were unlinked() and rmdir (the command) was unlinking dir/., dir/.. and dir, and when that was moved to the kernel, that had to be a new syscall doing all 3 at least for a transition period or something like that) – Stéphane Chazelas Aug 19 '14 at 14:41
  • @StéphaneChazelas agree, that's why I added unlinkat. – Braiam Aug 19 '14 at 15:02
  • If I read your answer properly, you're saying rmdir(dir) doesn't work if dir is in use. That is not true on Linux at least, where rmdir(getcwd()) works just fine (provided the current directory is empty). – Stéphane Chazelas Aug 19 '14 at 15:12
  • @StéphaneChazelas correct, used by a process or as mount point: EBUSY pathname is currently in use by the system or some process that prevents its removal. On Linux this means pathname is currently used as a mount point or is the root directory of the calling process. – Braiam Aug 19 '14 at 15:21
  • I'm not sure what they mean by or is the root directory of the calling process. mkdir test; sudo strace -e chroot,rmdir perl -e 'chroot("test"); rmdir("test")' shows both chroot and rmdir succeed. – Stéphane Chazelas Aug 19 '14 at 15:56

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