If you’ve ever used netstat, or gone to a website on OSX or Linux (or Windows for that matter) without a background in C (or perhaps systems programming), you may have struggled to fully appreciate the content there in. Or maybe you are just curious to know how sockets work in *nix.

sockets are a form of IPC, or inter process communication, allowing processes to bidirectionally share information with other processes. See other kinds of IPC in Beej’s Guide to Unix IPC.

sockets are commonly referred to by their Address Family, seen in constants such as AF_UNIX, or AF_LOCAL, representing local sockets specifically. You might also want to know about Protocol Family, seen in constants such as PF_UNIX and PF_LOCAL.

Valid socket types that should be known are:

SOCK_STREAMA stream oriented packet used for TCP
SOCK_DGRAMdatagram oriented packet, no reordering, used for UDP
SOCK_RAWProvides access to internal network protocols and interfaces. Only available to super-user
SOCK_SEQPACKETA sequence-packet socket that is connection oriented, delivering messages in the order sent

You can learn more about various types of valid sockets on the man page for the socket SystemCall:

Now that we’ve discussed what sockets are, and some of the well known constants that sockets use, let’s look at the example in the man page.

Unix Socket Example

The given snippet in the man page is a bit terse, but practical:

       #include <sys/socket.h>
       #include <sys/un.h>

       unix_socket = socket(AF_UNIX, type, 0);
       error = socketpair(AF_UNIX, type, 0, int *sv);

In the example above, we import the definitions for socket and unix domain sockets, then construct a unix_socket, and assign error the exit code of calling socketpair.

It is helpful to consult the manual, let’s take a look at the two syscall signatures from their respective man pages:

int socket(int domain, int type, int protocol);
int socketpair(int domain, int type, int protocol, int sv[2]);

Using what we’ve learned about valid types, we can construct a simple program that creates a socket, and prints its file descriptors or any relevant error:

#include <stdio.h>
#include <sys/socket.h>
#include <sys/un.h>

    int unix_socket, error;
    // socket vector, sv, is a vector pointer to two file descriptors
    // representing new sockets for server and client bindings
    int *sv[2];

    unix_socket = socket(AF_UNIX, SOCK_DGRAM, 0);
    // socketpair below is constructed for the OSX variant. The linux variant has a different signature, instead use:
    // error = socketpair(AF_UNIX, 0, *sv)
    error = socketpair(AF_UNIX, SOCK_DGRAM, 0, *sv);

    if (error != 0)
      printf("Encountered error: %d\n", error);
      return error;

    printf("Socket descriptor: %d\n", unix_socket);

Compiling and running our example can be done by running:

clang -o socket ./socket.c; ./socket

Socket descriptor: 3

Ok, so we created a socket, and it returned a descriptor, 3. What does that mean?

You are likely familiar with file descriptors 0, 1, 2 if you’ve ever redirected output. They are stdin, stdout, and stderr.


  1. Beej’s Guide to Unix IPC
  2. unix-7 man page
  3. socket-2 man page
  4. unix domain socket wikipedia
  5. What’s the difference between Unix sockets and TCP/IP sockets
  6. File Descriptors
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