What is a TTY?

Open a terminal and run tty. It will give you the unique ID of your terminal:

$ tty
/dev/ttys008

UNIX has this saying, “everything is a file”. Your terminal is just another file in the filesystem! What is its file path? /dev/ttys008, the output of tty.

Your terminal acts quite like a normal file. You can read from it and write to it:

$ echo "Hello, TTY" > /dev/ttys008
Hello, TTY
$ cat /dev/ttys008 > output.txt
Hello, file
~/dev/tmp/tty
$ cat output.txt
Hello, file

Because terminals are in the global filesystem, they can interact with each other. Now open a second terminal, and run echo "Hello, TTY" > /dev/ttys008 again. What happens? The text Hello, TTY appears in the original terminal! You can now chat to other people using the system. This is how programs like wall work.

A process gets three standard streams: stdin, stdout, and stderr. The process can inspect these streams to see which TTY it’s attached to, like this:

#include <unistd.h>
#include <stdio.h>
void print_tty(char* name, FILE * f) {
  printf("%s (fileno %d): ", name, fileno(f));
  if (isatty(fileno(f))) printf("TTY %s\n", ttyname(fileno(f)));
  else                   printf("not a TTY\n");
}
int main(void) {
  print_tty("stdin ", stdin);
  print_tty("stdout", stdout);
  print_tty("stderr", stderr);
}

When you start this process from your shell, all three streams are attached to your current TTY:

$ clang whatismytty.c
$ ./a.out
stdin  (fileno 0): TTY /dev/ttys008
stdout (fileno 1): TTY /dev/ttys008
stderr (fileno 2): TTY /dev/ttys008

We can use shell piping/redirection commands to change which TTYs the streams are attached to.

$ ./a.out | cat
stdin  (fileno 0): TTY /dev/ttys008
stdout (fileno 1): not a TTY
stderr (fileno 2): TTY /dev/ttys008
$ echo | ./a.out
stdin  (fileno 0): not a TTY
stdout (fileno 1): TTY /dev/ttys008
stderr (fileno 2): TTY /dev/ttys008
$ ./a.out < /dev/ttys003
stdin  (fileno 0): TTY /dev/ttys003
stdout (fileno 1): TTY /dev/ttys008
stderr (fileno 2): TTY /dev/ttys008
$ ./a.out < /dev/ttys003 2> /dev/ttys004
stdin  (fileno 0): TTY /dev/ttys003
stdout (fileno 1): TTY /dev/ttys008
stderr (fileno 2): TTY /dev/ttys004

Each process can also have a “controlling terminal”. A process’s controlling terminal is not necessarily the same as the terminals its streams are attached to. You can see these with the ps command:

$ sudo ps -ax -o pid,tty
  PID TTY
    1 ??
   50 ??
   51 ??
...
...
84721 ttys007
84722 ttys007
71296 ttys008
71297 ttys008
71305 ttys008

Also, notice that some processes have ?? as their TTY. Most of these processes are “daemons”, UNIX background processes.


I wrote this because I felt like it. This post is not associated with my employer.