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Man Pages

Manual Reference Pages  -  0INTRO (1)


intro - introduction to Plan 9 from User Space


     User-level file servers
     External databases
     Porting programs
     Porting to new systems
See Also


Plan 9 is a distributed computing environment built at Bell Labs starting in the late 1980s. The system can be obtained from Bell Labs at and runs on PCs and a variety of other platforms. Plan 9 became a convenient platform for experimenting with new ideas, applications, and services.

Plan 9 from User Space provides many of the ideas, applications, and services from Plan 9 on Unix-like systems. It runs on FreeBSD (x86), Linux (x86 and PowerPC), Mac OS X (PowerPC), OpenBSD (x86), and SunOS (Sparc).


Plan 9 from User Space expects its own directory tree, conventionally /usr/local/plan9. When programs need to access files in the tree, they expect the $PLAN9 environment variable to contain the name of the root of the tree. See install(1) for details about installation.

Many of the familiar Unix commands, for example cat(1), ls(1), and wc(1), are present, but in their Plan 9 forms: cat takes no options, ls does not columnate its output when printing to a terminal, and wc counts UTF characters. In some cases, the differences are quite noticeable: grep(1) and sed(1) expect Plan 9 regular expressions (see regexp(7)), which are closest to what Unix calls extended regular expressions. Because of these differences, it is not recommended to put $PLAN9/bin before the usual system bin directories in your search path. Instead, put it at the end of your path and use the 9(1) script when you want to invoke the Plan 9 version of a traditional Unix command.

Occasionally the Plan 9 programs have been changed to adapt to Unix. Mk(1) now allows mkfiles to choose their own shell, and rc(1) has a ulimit builtin and manages $PATH.

Many of the graphical programs from Plan 9 are present, including sam(1) and acme(1). An X11 window manager rio(1) mimics Plan 9’s window system, with command windows implemented by the external program 9term(1). Following the style of X Windows, these programs run in new windows rather than the one in which they are invoked. They all take a -W option to specify the size and placement of the new window. The argument is one of widthxheight, widthxheight@xmin,xmax, xmin ymin xmax ymax, or xmin,ymin,xmax,ymax.

The plumber(4) helps to connect the various Plan 9 programs together, and fittings like web(1) connect it to external programs such as web browsers; one can click on a URL in acme and see the page load in Firefox.

    User-level file servers

In Plan 9, user-level file servers present file trees via the Plan 9 file protocol, 9P. Processes can mount arbitrary file servers and customize their own name spaces. These facilities are used to connect programs. Clients interact with file servers by reading and writing files.

This cannot be done directly on Unix. Instead the servers listen for 9P connections on Unix domain sockets; clients connect to these sockets and speak 9P directly using the 9pclient(3) library. Intro(4) tells more of the story. The effect is not as clean as on Plan 9, but it gets the job done and still provides a uniform and easy-to-understand mechanism. The 9p(1) client can be used in shell scripts or by hand to carry out simple interactions with servers. Netfiles(1) is an experimental client for acme.

    External databases

Some programs rely on large databases that would be cumbersome to include in every release. Scripts are provided that download these databases separately. These databases can be downloaded separately. See $PLAN9/dict/README and $PLAN9/sky/README.


The shell scripts 9c and 9l (see 9c(1)) provide a simple interface to the underlying system compiler and linker, similar to the 2c and 2l families on Plan 9. 9c compiles source files, and 9l links object files into executables. When using Plan 9 libraries, 9l infers the correct set of libraries from the object files, so that no -l options are needed.

The only way to write multithreaded programs is to use the thread(3) library. Rfork(3) exists but is not as capable as on Plan 9. There are many unfortunate by necessary preprocessor diversions to make Plan 9 and Unix libraries coexist. See intro(3) for details.

The debuggers acid(1) and db(1) and the debugging library mach(3) are works in progress. They are platform-independent, so that x86 Linux core dumps can be inspected on PowerPC Mac OS X machines, but they are also fairly incomplete. The x86 target is the most mature; initial PowerPC support exists; and other targets are unimplemented. The debuggers can only inspect, not manipulate, target processes. Support for operating system threads and for 64-bit architectures needs to be rethought. On x86 Linux systems, acid and db can be relied upon to produce reasonable stack traces (often in cases when GNU gdb cannot) and dump data structures, but that it is the extent to which they have been developed and exercised.

    Porting programs

The vast majority of the familiar Plan 9 programs have been ported, including the Unicode-aware troff(1).

Of the more recent additions to Plan 9, factotum(4), secstore(1), and secstored(1), vac(1), vacfs(4), and venti(8) are all ported.

A backup system providing a dump file system built atop Venti is in progress; see vbackup(8).

    Porting to new systems

Porting the tree to new operating systems or architectures should be straightforward, as system-specific code has been kept to a minimum. The largest pieces of system-specific code are <u.h>, which must include the right system files and set up the right integer type definitions, and libthread, which must implement spin locks, operating system thread creation, and context switching routines. Portable implementations of these using <pthread.h> and <ucontext.h> already exist. If your system supports them, you may not need to write any system specific code at all.

There are other smaller system dependencies, such as the terminal handling code in 9term(1) and the implementation of getcallerpc(3), but these are usually simple and are not on the critical path for getting the system up and running.


The rest of this manual describes Plan 9 from User Space. Many of the man pages have been brought from Plan 9, but they have been updated, and others have been written from scratch.

The manual pages are in a Unix style tree, with names like $PLAN9/man/man1/cat.1 instead of Plan 9’s simpler $PLAN9/man/1/cat, so that the Unix man(1) utility can handle it. Some systems, for example Debian Linux, deduce the man page locations from the search path, so that adding $PLAN9/bin to your path is sufficient to cause $PLAN9/man to be consulted for manual pages using the system man. On other systems, or to look at manual pages with the same name as a system page, invoke the Plan 9 man directly, as in 9 man cat.

The manual sections follow the Unix numbering conventions, not the Plan 9 ones.

describes general publicly accessible commands.

describes C library functions.

describes user-level file servers.

describes file formats and protocols. (On Unix, section(5) is technically for file formats but seems now to be used for describing specific files.)

describes commands used for system administration.

describes the Plan 9 file protocol 9P.

These pages describe parts of the system that are new or different from Plan 9 from Bell Labs:
9(1), 9c(1), 9p(1), 9term(1), acidtypes in acid(1), dial(1), hg(1), label(1), the MKSHELL variable in mk(1), namespace(1), netfiles(1), page(1), psfonts(1), rio(1), web(1), wintext(1)
intro(3), 9pclient(3), the unix network in dial(3), exits(3), get9root(3), getns(3), notify(3), post9pservice(3), rfork(3), searchpath(3), sendfd(3), udpread(3), venti(3), wait(3), wctl(3)
intro(4), 9pserve(4), import(4),


In Plan 9, a program’s exit status is an arbitrary text string, while on Unix it is an integer. Section (1) of this manual describes commands as though they exit with string statuses. In fact, exiting with an empty status corresponds to exiting with status 0, and exiting with any non-empty string corresponds to exiting with status 1. See exits(3).
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