In the P2P network project, we were asked to simultaneously monitor user input and also potential in-coming messages, yet we're not supposed to use multiple threads or processes. That leaves us no choice but the select function.

In short, select allows you to monitor multiple file descriptors at the same time, and tells you when some of them are available to read or write.

fd_set Operations

fd_set is fixed-size buffer that can host a few (up to FD_SETSIZE) file descriptors. sys/select.h provide a few macros to manipulate the fd_set.

void FD_CLR(int fd, fd_set *set);
int  FD_ISSET(int fd, fd_set *set);
void FD_SET(int fd, fd_set *set);
void FD_ZERO(fd_set *set);


  • FD_CLR will remove a fd from the fd_set
  • FD_ISSET will test if a certain fd in the fd_set or not.
  • FD_SET will add a fd to the fd_set
  • FD_ZERO will clear the fd_set

Improved fd_set Wrappers

In practice, you'll often need to maintain a fd_set together with the maximun fd in that set (more on this later). So I use a few wrappers to update the fd_set and the max_fd at the same time.

#include <sys/select.h>
#include <assert.h>

/* add a fd to fd_set, and update max_fd */
safe_fd_set(int fd, fd_set* fds, int* max_fd) {
    assert(max_fd != NULL);

    FD_SET(fd, fds);
    if (fd > *max_fd) {
        *max_fd = fd;
    return 0;

/* clear fd from fds, update max fd if needed */
safe_fd_clr(int fd, fd_set* fds, int* max_fd) {
    assert(max_fd != NULL);

    FD_CLR(fd, fds);
    if (fd == *max_fd) {
    return 0;

The select Function

The prototype of the function looks like this:

int select(int nfds, fd_set *readfds, fd_set *writefds, fd_set *exceptfds, struct timeval *timeout);

In our case, we only want to monitor a set of fds that are available to read, so we don't really care about the writefds or exceptfds, just leave them as NULL.

A key point here is that, console is also a file, with fd is STDIN_FILENO, just as other files (socket, normal file, etc.). So to monitor user input as well as socket, we only need to add their fds to the readfds.

Another trick is that, nfds is the highest-numbered file descriptor in readfds, plus 1. So you'll want to set nfds as max_fd+1.

Also, note that select will modify the readfds you passed in, so you'll definitely back up your readfds before calling select.

In this project, if nothing happens (no user input and no incoming message), we just wait, so timeout parameter is not used here.

Connect the Dots

We usually call select inside a while loop to keep monitoring possible inputs. Here is the code snippets that demonstrate the typical usage of select.

fd_set master;

/* add stdin and the sock fd to master fd_set */
safe_fd_set(STDIN_FILENO, &master, &max_fd);
safe_fd_set(server_sock, &master, &max_fd);

char prompt[512];
sprintf(prompt, "[%s@%s] $ ", is_server?"server":"client", hostname);

while (1) {
    printf("\r%s", prompt);

    /* back up master */
    fd_set dup = master;

    /* note the max_fd+1 */
    if (select(max_fd+1, &dup, NULL, NULL, NULL) < 0) {
        return -1;

    /* check which fd is avaialbe for read */
    for (int fd = 0; fd <= max_fd; fd++) {
        if (FD_ISSET(fd, &dup)) {
            if (fd == STDIN_FILENO) {
            else if (fd == server_sock) {
            else {