Using files for for shared memory IPC

Essentially, I'm trying to understand what happens when two processes have the same file open at the same time, and if one could use this to safely and performantly offer communication between to processes.

If you are using regular files using read and write operations (i.e. not memory mapping them) then the two processes do not share any memory.

  • User-space memory in the Java Buffer objects associated with the file is NOT shared across address spaces.
  • When a write syscall is made, data is copied from pages in one processes address space to pages in kernel space. (These could be pages in the page cache. That is OS specific.)
  • When a read syscall is made, data is copied from pages in kernel space to pages in the reading processes address space.

It has to be done that way. If the operating system shared pages associated with the reader and writer processes buffers behind their backs, then that would be an security / information leakage hole:

  • The reader would be able to see data in the writer's address space that had not yet been written via write(...), and maybe never would be.
  • The writer would be able to see data that the reader (hypothetically) wrote into its read buffer.
  • It would not be possible to address the problem by clever use of memory protection because the granularity of memory protection is a page versus the granularity of read(...) and write(...) which is as little as a single byte.

Sure: you can safely use reading and writing files to transfer data between two processes. But you would need to define a protocol that allows the reader to know how much data the writer has written. And the reader knowing when the writer has written something could entail polling; e.g. to see if the file has been modified.

If you look at this in terms of just the data copying in the communication "channel"

  • With memory mapped files you copy (serialize) the data from application heap objects to the mapped buffer, and a second time (deserialize) from the mapped buffer to application heap objects.

  • With ordinary files there are two additional copies: 1) from the writing processes (non-mapped) buffer to kernel space pages (e.g. in the page cache), 2) from the kernel space pages to the reading processes (non-mapped) buffer.

The article below explains what is going on with conventional read / write and memory mapping. (It is in the context of copying a file and "zero-copy", but you can ignore that.)


  • Zero Copy I: User-Mode Perspective