A building block of my environment: sps, a better tree-based process list

May 19, 2014

Once upon what is now a very long time ago, it appears back in 1987 or so, Robert Ward wrote a better version of BSD ps that he called sps (cf). The highly useful signature feature of sps was that it displayed processes in sort of a tree form, with UID transitions marked. This was in the days before pstree and equivalents were even a gleam in anyone's eye, and anyways I maintain that sps's display is better than pstree, ptree, or the Linux ps option that will do process trees. I used SPS happily for a number of years on BSD-based machines but then wound up dealing with the System V based SGI Irix and really missed it. Rather than take on the epic work of rewriting code that grubbed around in kernel data structures, I redid the important features I cared about as a script that used a pile of awk code (well, nawk code) to post-process ps output (using the System V ps feature of printing out only specific columns in parseable ways).

(In the process I learned a great deal about how what are now ancient versions of awk and nawk handled attempts at things like recursion and how to fake local variables.)

Ever since then I have carried my sps script forward across OS after OS (SGI Irix 6, then Solaris, then Linux), adopting it slightly for each one. It remains my favorite way of getting process listings on Linux (partly because I fixed the Linux ps problem with long login names); on modern versions of Solaris ptree is almost as good, especially since our Solaris machines don't have users (and thus UID transitions).

(Jim Frost wrote a Linux version of sps back in 1998 and I used it for a while but it has to be compiled, I don't think it's been updated for a long time, and I don't know if it still works on modern Linuxes. For that matter I don't know where you'd still get the source code today.)

SPS output looks like this:

Ty     User            PID CMD
       root           1192 /usr/lib/postfix/master
        |postfix      1197 qmgr -l -t fifo -u
        |postfix     22675 cleanup -z -t unix -u -c
        |postfix     22676 trivial-rewrite -n rewrite -t unix -u -c
        |postfix     22677 smtp -t unix -u -c
        |postfix      6205 pickup -l -t fifo -u -c
       root           6899 /usr/sbin/sshd -D
        |            22741 sshd
         |cks        22760 sshd
pts/0     *          22761 -rc
pts/0      |         22856 /bin/sh /u/cks/bin/bin.i386-linux/sps -A
pts/0       |        22858 ps -A -o user

This is a very small excerpt from 'sps -A' that shows the essential features (it's a small excerpt because modern Linux systems have a lot of processes even if they're not doing much).

If this sounds interesting I've put my current version of sps for Linux on the web here and there's also a lightly tested OmniOS version. Adaptation for other Unixes is left as an exercise for the interested.

One of the reasons I quite like my script version of sps, apart from its sheer usefulness, is that it shows how Unix evolves useful capacities over time (and how more CPU power makes them more feasible). In the BSD era ps was sufficiently hard-coded and awk was sufficiently limited that you'd probably have had a hard time duplicating the C version of sps with a script and if you had, the result would have been pretty slow and resource intensive. Move forward a decade or two and there's no serious problem with either. Today I doubt you could measure the impact of using a script for this and committing to modern gawk features would probably make this even easier.

(A truly modern version of sps would probably use Perl instead of trying to mangle everything with awk and other shell tools; Perl is now ubiquitous enough to make that perfectly viable. Since I'm not really fond of Perl, I'm not the right person to write that version of sps but feel free to go wild. I'd expect a Perl version to be smaller, better, and possibly faster.)

Written on 19 May 2014.
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Last modified: Mon May 19 23:59:59 2014
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