tmp-directories

On all computers we have some concept of a tmp-directory. Typically it is /tmp on Linux- and Unix-systems and something like C:/TEMP plus some subdirectory in each users home directory on MS-Windows.

In terms of software development this tends to be some dark area. Programs like to create some files there, store some stuff there and then maybe remove it, maybe not. And we do not know for sure, when we can delete these files and we actually do not want to care. Linux and Unix-Systems sometimes clear their tmp-directories on reboot, while providing an additional /var/tmp-directory, that survives reboot. Sometimes the tmp-directory is deducted from shared memory, so it is kind of a RAM-disk, but usually stored in the swap partition (or swap file) of our OS. Now this cleanup on reboot does not help too much, when we want to keep our system running for a long time.

These days most computers are somehow dedicated. Either they are virtual computers that run exactly one server application or a set of closely related server applications. Or it is a mobile phone, tablet or desktop computer that is typically used by only one person. But still we should not forget that the system should allow being used by several applications and by several users. So sharing the same tmp-directory for everyone can cause some conflicts. The Unix- and Linux-family has a way of setting file permissions for the tmp-directory itself and for its entries that stop users from reading, changing or deleting each others files, but still there is some concurrency about using the namespace of this one directory, which is usually quite elegantly bypassed by each software by using smart naming or by having the OS create unique names. But I would not consider it ideal. On the other hand, sometimes we might actually want to use the tmp-directory to share something between users or between processes, where this one tmp-directory might come in handy.

The approach of having a separate tmp-directory in each home directory and in a sub directory of each server application’s installation is tempting, because it separates name spaces, allows to disallow reading the directory entries by others and does not mix totally unrelated stuff in one directory. There is a drawback to this. We usually have different storage technologies. Some are optimized for reading, maybe even avoiding redundancy, because the system can be reinstalled. Some use sporadic writing, some are strictly read-only. And some use a lot of reading and writing. Some data is transient, some can be easily restored and some data needs to be stored redundantly to be safe. Depending on that we should aim to put it on Flash disks, or on a different RAID setup of hard disks. This is getting harder with virtualization, but eventually we can get to the point where virtual computers have disks of different characteristics, that are mapped to the appropriate hardware.

So there is no real good answer to this question, but I think that a tmp-directory that is separate from the home directory, but specific to each user, would be the best approach. Will this change? Probably not so easily. But maybe in some distant future.

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