Highlights of Cygwin Functionality


When a binary linked against the library is executed, the Cygwin DLL is loaded into the application's text segment. Because we are trying to emulate a UNIX kernel which needs access to all processes running under it, the first Cygwin DLL to run creates shared memory areas that other processes using separate instances of the DLL can access. This is used to keep track of open file descriptors and assist fork and exec, among other purposes. In addition to the shared memory regions, every process also has a per_process structure that contains information such as process id, user id, signal masks, and other similar process-specific information.

The DLL is implemented using the Win32 API, which allows it to run on all Win32 hosts. Because processes run under the standard Win32 subsystem, they can access both the UNIX compatibility calls provided by Cygwin as well as any of the Win32 API calls. This gives the programmer complete flexibility in designing the structure of their program in terms of the APIs used. For example, they could write a Win32-specific GUI using Win32 API calls on top of a UNIX back-end that uses Cygwin.

Early on in the development process, we made the important design decision that it would not be necessary to strictly adhere to existing UNIX standards like POSIX.1 if it was not possible or if it would significantly diminish the usability of the tools on the Win32 platform. In many cases, an environment variable can be set to override the default behavior and force standards compliance.

Supporting both Windows NT and 9x

While Windows 95 and Windows 98 are similar enough to each other that we can safely ignore the distinction when implementing Cygwin, Windows NT is an extremely different operating system. For this reason, whenever the DLL is loaded, the library checks which operating system is active so that it can act accordingly.

In some cases, the Win32 API is only different for historical reasons. In this situation, the same basic functionality is available under Windows 9x and NT but the method used to gain this functionality differs. A trivial example: in our implementation of uname, the library examines the sysinfo.dwProcessorType structure member to figure out the processor type under Windows 9x. This field is not supported in NT, which has its own operating system-specific structure member called sysinfo.wProcessorLevel.

Other differences between NT and 9x are much more fundamental in nature. The best example is that only NT provides a security model.

Permissions and Security

Windows NT includes a sophisticated security model based on Access Control Lists (ACLs). Cygwin maps Win32 file ownership and permissions to the more standard, older UNIX model by default. Cygwin version 1.1 introduces support for ACLs according to the system calls used on newer versions of Solaris. This ability is used when the `ntsec' feature is switched on which is described in the section called “NT security and usage of ntsec”. The chmod call maps UNIX-style permissions back to the Win32 equivalents. Because many programs expect to be able to find the /etc/passwd and /etc/group files, we provide utilities that can be used to construct them from the user and group information provided by the operating system.

Under Windows NT, users with Administrator rights are permitted to chown files. With version 1.1.3 Cygwin introduced a mechanism for setting real and effective UIDs under Windows NT/W2K. This is described in the section called “NT security and usage of ntsec”. As of version 1.5.13, the Cygwin developers are not aware of any feature in the Cygwin DLL that would allow users to gain privileges or to access objects to which they have no rights under Windows. However there is no guarantee that Cygwin is as secure as the Windows it runs on. Cygwin processes share some variables and are thus easier targets of denial of service type of attacks.

Under Windows 9x, the situation is considerably different. Since a security model is not provided, Cygwin fakes file ownership by making all files look like they are owned by a default user and group id. As under NT, file permissions can still be determined by examining their read/write/execute status. Rather than return an unimplemented error, under Windows 9x, the chown call succeeds immediately without actually performing any action whatsoever. This is appropriate since essentially all users jointly own the files when no concept of file ownership exists.

File Access

Cygwin supports both Win32- and POSIX-style paths, using either forward or back slashes as the directory delimiter. Paths coming into the DLL are translated from Win32 to POSIX as needed. As a result, the library believes that the file system is a POSIX-compliant one, translating paths back to Win32 paths whenever it calls a Win32 API function. UNC pathnames (starting with two slashes) are supported.

The layout of this POSIX view of the Windows file system space is stored in the Windows registry. While the slash ('/') directory points to the system partition by default, this is easy to change with the Cygwin mount utility. In addition to selecting the slash partition, it allows mounting arbitrary Win32 paths into the POSIX file system space. Many people use the utility to mount each drive letter under the slash partition (e.g. C:\ to /c, D:\ to /d, etc...).

The library exports several Cygwin-specific functions that can be used by external programs to convert a path or path list from Win32 to POSIX or vice versa. Shell scripts and Makefiles cannot call these functions directly. Instead, they can do the same path translations by executing the cygpath utility program that we provide with Cygwin.

Win32 file systems are case preserving but case insensitive. Cygwin does not currently support case distinction because, in practice, few UNIX programs actually rely on it. While we could mangle file names to support case distinction, this would add unnecessary overhead to the library and make it more difficult for non-Cygwin applications to access those files.

Symbolic links are emulated by files containing a magic cookie followed by the path to which the link points. They are marked with the System attribute so that only files with that attribute have to be read to determine whether or not the file is a symbolic link. Hard links are fully supported under Windows NT on NTFS file systems. On a FAT file system, the call falls back to simply copying the file, a strategy that works in many cases.

The inode number for a file is calculated by hashing its full Win32 path. The inode number generated by the stat call always matches the one returned in d_ino of the dirent structure. It is worth noting that the number produced by this method is not guaranteed to be unique. However, we have not found this to be a significant problem because of the low probability of generating a duplicate inode number.

Chroot is supported since release 1.1.3. Note that chroot isn't supported native by Windows. This implies some restrictions. First of all, the chroot call isn't a privileged call. Each user may call it. Second, the chroot environment isn't safe against native windows processes. If you want to support a chroot environment as, for example, by allowing an anonymous ftp with restricted access, you'll have to care that only native Cygwin applications are accessible inside of the chroot environment. Since that applications are only using the Cygwin POSIX API to access the file system their access can be restricted as it is intended. This includes not only POSIX paths but Win32 paths (containing drive letter and/or backslashes) and CIFS paths (//server/share or \\server\share) as well.

Text Mode vs. Binary Mode

Interoperability with other Win32 programs such as text editors was critical to the success of the port of the development tools. Most Red Hat customers upgrading from the older DOS-hosted toolchains expected the new Win32-hosted ones to continue to work with their old development sources.

Unfortunately, UNIX and Win32 use different end-of-line terminators in text files. Consequently, carriage-return newlines have to be translated on the fly by Cygwin into a single newline when reading in text mode.

This solution addresses the compatibility requirement at the expense of violating the POSIX standard that states that text and binary mode will be identical. Consequently, processes that attempt to lseek through text files can no longer rely on the number of bytes read as an accurate indicator of position in the file. For this reason, the CYGWIN environment variable can be set to override this behavior.

ANSI C Library

We chose to include Red Hat's own existing ANSI C library "newlib" as part of the library, rather than write all of the lib C and math calls from scratch. Newlib is a BSD-derived ANSI C library, previously only used by cross-compilers for embedded systems development.

The reuse of existing free implementations of such things as the glob, regexp, and getopt libraries saved us considerable effort. In addition, Cygwin uses Doug Lea's free malloc implementation that successfully balances speed and compactness. The library accesses the malloc calls via an exported function pointer. This makes it possible for a Cygwin process to provide its own malloc if it so desires.

Process Creation

The fork call in Cygwin is particularly interesting because it does not map well on top of the Win32 API. This makes it very difficult to implement correctly. Currently, the Cygwin fork is a non-copy-on-write implementation similar to what was present in early flavors of UNIX.

The first thing that happens when a parent process forks a child process is that the parent initializes a space in the Cygwin process table for the child. It then creates a suspended child process using the Win32 CreateProcess call. Next, the parent process calls setjmp to save its own context and sets a pointer to this in a Cygwin shared memory area (shared among all Cygwin tasks). It then fills in the child's .data and .bss sections by copying from its own address space into the suspended child's address space. After the child's address space is initialized, the child is run while the parent waits on a mutex. The child discovers it has been forked and longjumps using the saved jump buffer. The child then sets the mutex the parent is waiting on and blocks on another mutex. This is the signal for the parent to copy its stack and heap into the child, after which it releases the mutex the child is waiting on and returns from the fork call. Finally, the child wakes from blocking on the last mutex, recreates any memory-mapped areas passed to it via the shared area, and returns from fork itself.

While we have some ideas as to how to speed up our fork implementation by reducing the number of context switches between the parent and child process, fork will almost certainly always be inefficient under Win32. Fortunately, in most circumstances the spawn family of calls provided by Cygwin can be substituted for a fork/exec pair with only a little effort. These calls map cleanly on top of the Win32 API. As a result, they are much more efficient. Changing the compiler's driver program to call spawn instead of fork was a trivial change and increased compilation speeds by twenty to thirty percent in our tests.

However, spawn and exec present their own set of difficulties. Because there is no way to do an actual exec under Win32, Cygwin has to invent its own Process IDs (PIDs). As a result, when a process performs multiple exec calls, there will be multiple Windows PIDs associated with a single Cygwin PID. In some cases, stubs of each of these Win32 processes may linger, waiting for their exec'd Cygwin process to exit.


When a Cygwin process starts, the library starts a secondary thread for use in signal handling. This thread waits for Windows events used to pass signals to the process. When a process notices it has a signal, it scans its signal bitmask and handles the signal in the appropriate fashion.

Several complications in the implementation arise from the fact that the signal handler operates in the same address space as the executing program. The immediate consequence is that Cygwin system functions are interruptible unless special care is taken to avoid this. We go to some lengths to prevent the sig_send function that sends signals from being interrupted. In the case of a process sending a signal to another process, we place a mutex around sig_send such that sig_send will not be interrupted until it has completely finished sending the signal.

In the case of a process sending itself a signal, we use a separate semaphore/event pair instead of the mutex. sig_send starts by resetting the event and incrementing the semaphore that flags the signal handler to process the signal. After the signal is processed, the signal handler signals the event that it is done. This process keeps intraprocess signals synchronous, as required by POSIX.

Most standard UNIX signals are provided. Job control works as expected in shells that support it.


Socket-related calls in Cygwin simply call the functions by the same name in Winsock, Microsoft's implementation of Berkeley sockets. Only a few changes were needed to match the expected UNIX semantics - one of the most troublesome differences was that Winsock must be initialized before the first socket function is called. As a result, Cygwin has to perform this initialization when appropriate. In order to support sockets across fork calls, child processes initialize Winsock if any inherited file descriptor is a socket.

Unfortunately, implicitly loading DLLs at process startup is usually a slow affair. Because many processes do not use sockets, Cygwin explicitly loads the Winsock DLL the first time it calls the Winsock initialization routine. This single change sped up GNU configure times by thirty percent.


The UNIX select function is another call that does not map cleanly on top of the Win32 API. Much to our dismay, we discovered that the Win32 select in Winsock only worked on socket handles. Our implementation allows select to function normally when given different types of file descriptors (sockets, pipes, handles, and a custom /dev/windows Windows messages pseudo-device).

Upon entry into the select function, the first operation is to sort the file descriptors into the different types. There are then two cases to consider. The simple case is when at least one file descriptor is a type that is always known to be ready (such as a disk file). In that case, select returns immediately as soon as it has polled each of the other types to see if they are ready. The more complex case involves waiting for socket or pipe file descriptors to be ready. This is accomplished by the main thread suspending itself, after starting one thread for each type of file descriptor present. Each thread polls the file descriptors of its respective type with the appropriate Win32 API call. As soon as a thread identifies a ready descriptor, that thread signals the main thread to wake up. This case is now the same as the first one since we know at least one descriptor is ready. So select returns, after polling all of the file descriptors one last time.