I have found out that in Linux there are "real files" and there are "virtual files", real files are files that resides on the hard disk, while virtual files are just data represented by the kernel as files.

For example, the files in the /proc directory are virtual files.

I want to understand how a function like read() knows how to read a real file and how to read a virtual file. I have created the following diagram to show my understanding of this subject, please correct me if I am wrong about my understanding:

enter image description here

  • read(2) is a system call. Once the userland process calls read() control passes to the kernel, who of course knows perfectly well where to go for the data; the source can be a filesystem backed by persistent local storage, or a socket, or a FIFO, or a named pipe, or, yes, a virtual file.
    – AlexP
    Sep 28, 2017 at 17:14
  • 1
    @AlexP I believe that read() issues a system call, but it is not itself a system call.
    – Paul
    Sep 28, 2017 at 17:17
  • @AlexP read() is a POSIX-standard function. Per the POSIX standard: "The read() function shall attempt to read nbyte bytes ... if nbyte is zero, the read() function may detect and return errors ..." As @ Paul says, it may issue a system call, but read() itself is a function. Sep 29, 2017 at 13:32

2 Answers 2


In VFS layer all files are virtual (it was actually invented by SunOS engineers to tie UFS (disk-based) and NFS (network-based) filesystem).

Each open file has table of functions f_op that provide implementations for common routines (some of them may be generic) and each inode has an attached address_space object that also has table of C functions (a_ops) containing necessary implementations. The sequence is this:

  1. sys_read(): Application initiates file reading using system call
  2. Call is passed to VFS stack top layer (vfs_read())
  3. Call is passed to filesystem driver using file->f_op->read() or do_sync_read() or new_sync_read()
  4. If file is opened in direct input output mode, appropriate function (a_ops->direct_IO(), ext4_direct_IO() for ext4) is called and data is returned
  5. If page is found in page cache, data is returned file_get_page()
  6. If page was not found in page cache, it is read from filesystem using a_ops->readpage(), which is implemented by ext4_readpage() from ext4 driver
  7. VFS stack creates block input-output request using submit_bio()

From http://myaut.github.io/dtrace-stap-book/kernel/fs.html, it is a bit outdated as VFS stack was refactored a bit after I'd written this


I am not going to give an exhaustive answer on this by any means...

You're essentially correct, except for one important separation: read() asks the kernel what a file descriptor contains, the kernel handles the rest. Whether it's a physical filesystem, a network filesystem, a virtual filesystem (/proc, /sys, ...) is irrelevant to read(). The kernel has underlying code to service the request (or not), which is what you're referring to as a driver.

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