A fork() in the road

May 8, 2020

The received wisdom suggests that Unix’s unusual combination of fork() and exec() for process creation was an inspired design. In this paper, we argue that fork was a clever hack for machines and programs of the 1970s that has long outlived its usefulness and is now a liability. We catalog the ways in which fork is a terrible abstraction for the modern programmer to use, describe how it compromises OS implementations, and propose alternatives.

As the designers and implementers of operating systems, we should acknowledge that fork’s continued existence as a first-class OS primitive holds back systems research, and deprecate it. As educators, we should teach fork as a historical artifact, and not the first process creation mechanism students encounter.

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