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Erlang Reference Manual
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16 Ports and Port Drivers

Examples of how to use ports and port drivers can be found in Interoperability Tutorial. The BIFs mentioned are as usual documented in erlang(3).

16.1  Ports

Ports provide the basic mechanism for communication with the external world, from Erlang's point of view. They provide a byte-oriented interface to an external program. When a port has been created, Erlang can communicate with it by sending and receiving lists of bytes, including binaries.

The Erlang process which creates a port is said to be the port owner, or the connected process of the port. All communication to and from the port should go via the port owner. If the port owner terminates, so will the port (and the external program, if it is written correctly).

The external program resides in another OS process. By default, it should read from standard input (file descriptor 0) and write to standard output (file descriptor 1). The external program should terminate when the port is closed.

16.2  Port Drivers

It is also possible to write a driver in C according to certain principles and dynamically link it to the Erlang runtime system. The linked-in driver looks like a port from the Erlang programmer's point of view and is called a port driver.


An erroneous port driver will cause the entire Erlang runtime system to leak memory, hang or crash.

Port drivers are documented in erl_driver(4), driver_entry(1) and erl_ddll(3).

16.3  Port BIFs

To create a port:

open_port(PortName, PortSettings Returns a port identifier Portas the result of opening a new Erlang port. Messages can be sent to and received from a port identifier, just like a pid. Port identifiers can also be linked to or registered under a name using link/1and register/2.
Table 16.1:   Port Creation BIF.

PortName is usually a tuple {spawn,Command}, where the string Command is the name of the external program. The external program runs outside the Erlang workspace unless a port driver with the name Command is found. If found, that driver is started.

PortSettings is a list of settings (options) for the port. The list typically contains at least a tuple {packet,N} which specifies that data sent between the port and the external program are preceded by an N-byte length indicator. Valid values for N are 1, 2 or 4. If binaries should be used instead of lists of bytes, the option binary must be included.

The port owner Pid can communicate with the port Port by sending and receiving messages. (In fact, any process can send the messages to the port, but the port owner must be identified in the message).

As of OTP-R16 messages sent to ports are delivered truly asynchronously. The underlying implementation previously delivered messages to ports synchronously. Message passing has however always been documented as an asynchronous operation, so this should not be an issue for an Erlang program communicating with ports, unless false assumptions about ports has been made.

Below, Data must be an I/O list. An I/O list is a binary or a (possibly deep) list of binaries or integers in the range 0..255.

{Pid,{command,Data}} Sends Datato the port.
{Pid,close} Closes the port. Unless the port is already closed, the port replies with {Port,closed}when all buffers have been flushed and the port really closes.
{Pid,{connect,NewPid}} Sets the port owner of Portto NewPid. Unless the port is already closed, the port replies with{Port,connected}to the old port owner. Note that the old port owner is still linked to the port, but the new port owner is not.
Table 16.2:   Messages Sent To a Port.
{Port,{data,Data}} Datais received from the external program.
{Port,closed} Reply to Port ! {Pid,close}.
{Port,connected} Reply to Port ! {Pid,{connect,NewPid}}
{'EXIT',Port,Reason} If the port has terminated for some reason.
Table 16.3:   Messages Received From a Port.

Instead of sending and receiving messages, there are also a number of BIFs that can be used.

port_command(Port,Data) Sends Datato the port.
port_close(Port) Closes the port.
port_connect(Port,NewPid) Sets the port owner of Portto NewPid. The old port owner Pidstays linked to the port and have to call unlink(Port)if this is not desired.
erlang:port_info(Port,Item) Returns information as specified by Item.
erlang:ports() Returns a list of all ports on the current node.
Table 16.4:   Port BIFs.

There are some additional BIFs that only apply to port drivers: port_control/3 and erlang:port_call/3.