Chapter 29. Of Zeros and Nulls

/dev/zero and /dev/null

Uses of /dev/null

Think of /dev/null as a "black hole". It is the nearest equivalent to a write-only file. Everything written to it disappears forever. Attempts to read or output from it result in nothing. Nevertheless, /dev/null can be quite useful from both the command line and in scripts.

Suppressing stdout.

cat $filename >/dev/null
# Contents of the file will not list to stdout.

Suppressing stderr (from Example 12-2).

rm $badname 2>/dev/null
#           So error messages [stderr] deep-sixed.

Suppressing output from both stdout and stderr.

cat $filename 2>/dev/null >/dev/null
# If "$filename" does not exist, there will be no error message output.
# If "$filename" does exist, the contents of the file will not list to stdout.
# Therefore, no output at all will result from the above line of code.
#  This can be useful in situations where the return code from a command
#+ needs to be tested, but no output is desired.
# cat $filename &>/dev/null
#     also works, as Baris Cicek points out.

Deleting contents of a file, but preserving the file itself, with all attendant permissions (from Example 2-1 and Example 2-2):

cat /dev/null > /var/log/messages
#  : > /var/log/messages   has same effect, but does not spawn a new process.

cat /dev/null > /var/log/wtmp

Automatically emptying the contents of a logfile (especially good for dealing with those nasty "cookies" sent by Web commercial sites):

Example 29-1. Hiding the cookie jar

if [ -f ~/.netscape/cookies ]  # Remove, if exists.
  rm -f ~/.netscape/cookies

ln -s /dev/null ~/.netscape/cookies
# All cookies now get sent to a black hole, rather than saved to disk.
Uses of /dev/zero

Like /dev/null, /dev/zero is a pseudo file, but it actually contains nulls (numerical zeros, not the ASCII kind). Output written to it disappears, and it is fairly difficult to actually read the nulls in /dev/zero, though it can be done with od or a hex editor. The chief use for /dev/zero is in creating an initialized dummy file of specified length intended as a temporary swap file.

Example 29-2. Setting up a swapfile using /dev/zero


# Creating a swapfile.
# This script must be run as root.

ROOT_UID=0         # Root has $UID 0.
E_WRONG_USER=65    # Not root?


if [ "$UID" -ne "$ROOT_UID" ]
  echo; echo "You must be root to run this script."; echo
  exit $E_WRONG_USER

blocks=${1:-$MINBLOCKS}          #  Set to default of 40 blocks,
                                 #+ if nothing specified on command line.
# This is the equivalent of the command block below.
# --------------------------------------------------
# if [ -n "$1" ]
# then
#   blocks=$1
# else
#   blocks=$MINBLOCKS
# fi
# --------------------------------------------------

if [ "$blocks" -lt $MINBLOCKS ]
  blocks=$MINBLOCKS              # Must be at least 40 blocks long.

echo "Creating swap file of size $blocks blocks (KB)."
dd if=/dev/zero of=$FILE bs=$BLOCKSIZE count=$blocks  # Zero out file.

mkswap $FILE $blocks             # Designate it a swap file.
swapon $FILE                     # Activate swap file.

echo "Swap file created and activated."


Another application of /dev/zero is to "zero out" a file of a designated size for a special purpose, such as mounting a filesystem on a loopback device (see Example 13-6) or securely deleting a file (see Example 12-42).

Example 29-3. Creating a ramdisk


#  A "ramdisk" is a segment of system RAM memory
#+ that acts as if it were a filesystem.
#  Its advantage is very fast access (read/write time).
#  Disadvantages: volatility, loss of data on reboot or powerdown.
#                 less RAM available to system.
#  What good is a ramdisk?
#  Keeping a large dataset, such as a table or dictionary on ramdisk
#+ speeds up data lookup, since memory access is much faster than disk access.

E_NON_ROOT_USER=70             # Must run as root.

SIZE=2000                      # 2K blocks (change as appropriate)
BLOCKSIZE=1024                 # 1K (1024 byte) block size
DEVICE=/dev/ram0               # First ram device

username=`id -nu`
if [ "$username" != "$ROOTUSER_NAME" ]
  echo "Must be root to run \"`basename $0`\"."

if [ ! -d "$MOUNTPT" ]         #  Test whether mount point already there,
then                           #+ so no error if this script is run
  mkdir $MOUNTPT               #+ multiple times.

dd if=/dev/zero of=$DEVICE count=$SIZE bs=$BLOCKSIZE  # Zero out RAM device.
mke2fs $DEVICE                 # Create an ext2 filesystem on it.
mount $DEVICE $MOUNTPT         # Mount it.
chmod 777 $MOUNTPT             # So ordinary user can access ramdisk.
                               # However, must be root to unmount it.

echo "\"$MOUNTPT\" now available for use."
# The ramdisk is now accessible for storing files, even by an ordinary user.

#  Caution, the ramdisk is volatile, and its contents will disappear
#+ on reboot or power loss.
#  Copy anything you want saved to a regular directory.

# After reboot, run this script again to set up ramdisk.
# Remounting /mnt/ramdisk without the other steps will not work.

exit 0