Section 3.6. lseek Function

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3.6. lseek Function

Every open file has an associated "current file offset," normally a non-negative integer that measures the number of bytes from the beginning of the file. (We describe some exceptions to the "non-negative" qualifier later in this section.) Read and write operations normally start at the current file offset and cause the offset to be incremented by the number of bytes read or written. By default, this offset is initialized to 0 when a file is opened, unless the O_APPEND option is specified.

An open file's offset can be set explicitly by calling lseek.

 #include <unistd.h> off_t lseek(int filedes, off_t offset, int whence);

Returns: new file offset if OK, 1 on error

The interpretation of the offset depends on the value of the whence argument.

  • If whence is SEEK_SET, the file's offset is set to offset bytes from the beginning of the file.

  • If whence is SEEK_CUR, the file's offset is set to its current value plus the offset. The offset can be positive or negative.

  • If whence is SEEK_END, the file's offset is set to the size of the file plus the offset. The offset can be positive or negative.

Because a successful call to lseek returns the new file offset, we can seek zero bytes from the current position to determine the current offset:

     off_t    currpos;     currpos = lseek(fd, 0, SEEK_CUR); 

This technique can also be used to determine if a file is capable of seeking. If the file descriptor refers to a pipe, FIFO, or socket, lseek sets errno to ESPIPE and returns 1.

The three symbolic constantsSEEK_SET, SEEK_CUR, and SEEK_ENDwere introduced with System V. Prior to this, whence was specified as 0 (absolute), 1 (relative to current offset), or 2 (relative to end of file). Much software still exists with these numbers hard coded.

The character l in the name lseek means "long integer." Before the introduction of the off_t data type, the offset argument and the return value were long integers. lseek was introduced with Version 7 when long integers were added to C. (Similar functionality was provided in Version 6 by the functions seek and tell.)


The program in Figure 3.1 tests its standard input to see whether it is capable of seeking.

If we invoke this program interactively, we get

    $ ./a.out < /etc/motd    seek OK    $ cat < /etc/motd | ./a.out    cannot seek    $ ./a.out < /var/spool/cron/FIFO    cannot seek 

Figure 3.1. Test whether standard input is capable of seeking
 #include "apue.h" int main(void) {     if (lseek(STDIN_FILENO, 0, SEEK_CUR) == -1)        printf("cannot seek\n");     else        printf("seek OK\n");     exit(0); } 

Normally, a file's current offset must be a non-negative integer. It is possible, however, that certain devices could allow negative offsets. But for regular files, the offset must be non-negative. Because negative offsets are possible, we should be careful to compare the return value from lseek as being equal to or not equal to 1 and not test if it's less than 0.

The /dev/kmem device on FreeBSD for the Intel x86 processor supports negative offsets.

Because the offset (off_t) is a signed data type (Figure 2.20), we lose a factor of 2 in the maximum file size. If off_t is a 32-bit integer, the maximum file size is 231-1 bytes.

lseek only records the current file offset within the kernelit does not cause any I/O to take place. This offset is then used by the next read or write operation.

The file's offset can be greater than the file's current size, in which case the next write to the file will extend the file. This is referred to as creating a hole in a file and is allowed. Any bytes in a file that have not been written are read back as 0.

A hole in a file isn't required to have storage backing it on disk. Depending on the file system implementation, when you write after seeking past the end of the file, new disk blocks might be allocated to store the data, but there is no need to allocate disk blocks for the data between the old end of file and the location where you start writing.


The program shown in Figure 3.2 creates a file with a hole in it.

Running this program gives us

     $ ./a.out     $ ls -l file.hole                  check its size     -rw-r--r-- 1 sar          16394 Nov 25 01:01 file.hole     $ od -c file.hole                  let's look at the actual contents     0000000   a  b  c  d  e  f  g  h  i  j \0 \0 \0 \0 \0 \0     0000020  \0 \0 \0 \0 \0 \0 \0 \0 \0 \0 \0 \0 \0 \0 \0 \0     *     0040000   A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J     0040012 

We use the od(1) command to look at the contents of the file. The -c flag tells it to print the contents as characters. We can see that the unwritten bytes in the middle are read back as zero. The seven-digit number at the beginning of each line is the byte offset in octal.

To prove that there is really a hole in the file, let's compare the file we've just created with a file of the same size, but without holes:

     $ ls -ls file.hole file.nohole    compare sizes       8 -rw-r--r-- 1 sar        16394 Nov 25 01:01 file.hole      20 -rw-r--r-- 1 sar        16394 Nov 25 01:03 file.nohole 

Although both files are the same size, the file without holes consumes 20 disk blocks, whereas the file with holes consumes only 8 blocks.

In this example, we call the write function (Section 3.8). We'll have more to say about files with holes in Section 4.12.

Figure 3.2. Create a file with a hole in it
 #include "apue.h" #include <fcntl.h> char    buf1[] = "abcdefghij"; char    buf2[] = "ABCDEFGHIJ"; int main(void) {     int     fd;     if ((fd = creat("file.hole", FILE_MODE)) < 0)         err_sys("creat error");     if (write(fd, buf1, 10) != 10)         err_sys("buf1 write error");     /* offset now = 10 */     if (lseek(fd, 16384, SEEK_SET) == -1)         err_sys("lseek error");     /* offset now = 16384 */     if (write(fd, buf2, 10) != 10)         err_sys("buf2 write error");     /* offset now = 16394 */     exit(0); } 

Because the offset address that lseek uses is represented by an off_t, implementations are allowed to support whatever size is appropriate on their particular platform. Most platforms today provide two sets of interfaces to manipulate file offsets: one set that uses 32-bit file offsets and another set that uses 64-bit file offsets.

The Single UNIX Specification provides a way for applications to determine which environments are supported through the sysconf function (Section 2.5.4.). Figure 3.3 summarizes the sysconf constants that are defined.

Figure 3.3. Data size options and name arguments to sysconf

Name of option


name argument


int, long, pointer, and off_t types are 32 bits.



int, long, and pointer types are 32 bits; off_t types are at least 64 bits.



int types are 32 bits; long, pointer, and off_t types are 64 bits.



int types are 32 bits; long, pointer, and off_t types are at least 64 bits.


The c99 compiler requires that we use the getconf(1) command to map the desired data size model to the flags necessary to compile and link our programs. Different flags and libraries might be needed, depending on the environments supported by each platform.

Unfortunately, this is one area in which implementations haven't caught up to the standards. Confusing things further is the name changes that were made between Version 2 and Version 3 of the Single UNIX Specification.

To get around this, applications can set the _FILE_OFFSET_BITS constant to 64 to enable 64-bit offsets. Doing so changes the definition of off_t to be a 64-bit signed integer. Setting _FILE_OFFSET_BITS to 32 enables 32-bit file offsets. Be aware, however, that although all four platforms discussed in this text support both 32-bit and 64-bit file offsets by setting the _FILE_OFFSET_BITS constant to the desired value, this is not guaranteed to be portable.

Note that even though you might enable 64-bit file offsets, your ability to create a file larger than 2 TB (231-1 bytes) depends on the underlying file system type.

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    Advanced Programming in the UNIX Environment
    Advanced Programming in the UNIX Environment, Second Edition (Addison-Wesley Professional Computing Series)
    ISBN: 0321525949
    EAN: 2147483647
    Year: 2005
    Pages: 370

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