An Introduction to libuv

Basics of libuv

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Basics of libuv

libuv enforces an asynchronous, event-driven style of programming. Its core job is to provide an event loop and callback based notifications of I/O and other activities. libuv offers core utilities like timers, non-blocking networking support, asynchronous file system access, child processes and more.

Event loops

In event-driven programming, an application expresses interest in certain events and respond to them when they occur. The responsibility of gathering events from the operating system or monitoring other sources of events is handled by libuv, and the user can register callbacks to be invoked when an event occurs. The event-loop usually keeps running forever. In pseudocode:

while there are still events to process:
    e = get the next event
    if there is a callback associated with e:
        call the callback

Some examples of events are:

  • File is ready for writing
  • A socket has data ready to be read
  • A timer has timed out

This event loop is encapsulated by uv_run() – the end-all function when using libuv.

The most common activity of systems programs is to deal with input and output, rather than a lot of number-crunching. The problem with using conventional input/output functions (read, fprintf, etc.) is that they are blocking. The actual write to a hard disk or reading from a network, takes a disproportionately long time compared to the speed of the processor. The functions don’t return until the task is done, so that your program is doing nothing. For programs which require high performance this is a major roadblock as other activities and other I/O operations are kept waiting.

One of the standard solutions is to use threads. Each blocking I/O operation is started in a separate thread (or in a thread pool). When the blocking function gets invoked in the thread, the processor can schedule another thread to run, which actually needs the CPU.

The approach followed by libuv uses another style, which is the asynchronous, non-blocking style. Most modern operating systems provide event notification subsystems. For example, a normal read call on a socket would block until the sender actually sent something. Instead, the application can request the operating system to watch the socket and put an event notification in the queue. The application can inspect the events at its convenience (perhaps doing some number crunching before to use the processor to the maximum) and grab the data. It is asynchronous because the application expressed interest at one point, then used the data at another point (in time and space). It is non-blocking because the application process was free to do other tasks. This fits in well with libuv’s event-loop approach, since the operating system events can be treated as just another libuv event. The non-blocking ensures that other events can continue to be handled as fast as they come in [1].


How the I/O is run in the background is not of our concern, but due to the way our computer hardware works, with the thread as the basic unit of the processor, libuv and OSes will usually run background/worker threads and/or polling to perform tasks in a non-blocking manner.

Bert Belder, one of the libuv core developers has a small video explaining the architecture of libuv and its background. If you have no prior experience with either libuv or libev, it is a quick, useful watch.

libuv’s event loop is explained in more detail in the documentation.

Hello World

With the basics out of the way, lets write our first libuv program. It does nothing, except start a loop which will exit immediately.


#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>
#include <uv.h>

int main() {
    uv_loop_t *loop = malloc(sizeof(uv_loop_t));

    printf("Now quitting.\n");
    uv_run(loop, UV_RUN_DEFAULT);

    return 0;

This program quits immediately because it has no events to process. A libuv event loop has to be told to watch out for events using the various API functions.

Starting with libuv v1.0, users should allocate the memory for the loops before initializing it with uv_loop_init(uv_loop_t *). This allows you to plug in custom memory management. Remember to de-initialize the loop using uv_loop_close(uv_loop_t *) and then delete the storage. The examples never close loops since the program quits after the loop ends and the system will reclaim memory. Production grade projects, especially long running systems programs, should take care to release correctly.

Default loop

A default loop is provided by libuv and can be accessed using uv_default_loop(). You should use this loop if you only want a single loop.


node.js uses the default loop as its main loop. If you are writing bindings you should be aware of this.

Error handling

Initialization functions or synchronous functions which may fail return a negative number on error. Async functions that may fail will pass a status parameter to their callbacks. The error messages are defined as UV_E* constants.

You can use the uv_strerror(int) and uv_err_name(int) functions to get a const char * describing the error or the error name respectively.

I/O read callbacks (such as for files and sockets) are passed a parameter nread. If nread is less than 0, there was an error (UV_EOF is the end of file error, which you may want to handle differently).

Handles and Requests

libuv works by the user expressing interest in particular events. This is usually done by creating a handle to an I/O device, timer or process. Handles are opaque structs named as uv_TYPE_t where type signifies what the handle is used for.

libuv watchers

/* Handle types. */
typedef struct uv_loop_s uv_loop_t;
typedef struct uv_handle_s uv_handle_t;
typedef struct uv_stream_s uv_stream_t;
typedef struct uv_tcp_s uv_tcp_t;
typedef struct uv_udp_s uv_udp_t;
typedef struct uv_pipe_s uv_pipe_t;
typedef struct uv_tty_s uv_tty_t;
typedef struct uv_poll_s uv_poll_t;
typedef struct uv_timer_s uv_timer_t;
typedef struct uv_prepare_s uv_prepare_t;
typedef struct uv_check_s uv_check_t;
typedef struct uv_idle_s uv_idle_t;
typedef struct uv_async_s uv_async_t;
typedef struct uv_process_s uv_process_t;
typedef struct uv_fs_event_s uv_fs_event_t;
typedef struct uv_fs_poll_s uv_fs_poll_t;
typedef struct uv_signal_s uv_signal_t;

/* Request types. */
typedef struct uv_req_s uv_req_t;
typedef struct uv_getaddrinfo_s uv_getaddrinfo_t;
typedef struct uv_getnameinfo_s uv_getnameinfo_t;
typedef struct uv_shutdown_s uv_shutdown_t;
typedef struct uv_write_s uv_write_t;
typedef struct uv_connect_s uv_connect_t;
typedef struct uv_udp_send_s uv_udp_send_t;
typedef struct uv_fs_s uv_fs_t;
typedef struct uv_work_s uv_work_t;

/* None of the above. */
typedef struct uv_cpu_info_s uv_cpu_info_t;
typedef struct uv_interface_address_s uv_interface_address_t;
typedef struct uv_dirent_s uv_dirent_t;

Handles represent long-lived objects. Async operations on such handles are identified using requests. A request is short-lived (usually used across only one callback) and usually indicates one I/O operation on a handle. Requests are used to preserve context between the initiation and the callback of individual actions. For example, an UDP socket is represented by a uv_udp_t, while individual writes to the socket use a uv_udp_send_t structure that is passed to the callback after the write is done.

Handles are setup by a corresponding:

uv_TYPE_init(uv_loop_t *, uv_TYPE_t *)


Callbacks are functions which are called by libuv whenever an event the watcher is interested in has taken place. Application specific logic will usually be implemented in the callback. For example, an IO watcher’s callback will receive the data read from a file, a timer callback will be triggered on timeout and so on.


Here is an example of using an idle handle. The callback is called once on every turn of the event loop. A use case for idle handles is discussed in Utilities. Let us use an idle watcher to look at the watcher life cycle and see how uv_run() will now block because a watcher is present. The idle watcher is stopped when the count is reached and uv_run() exits since no event watchers are active.


#include <stdio.h>
#include <uv.h>

int64_t counter = 0;

void wait_for_a_while(uv_idle_t* handle) {

    if (counter >= 10e6)

int main() {
    uv_idle_t idler;

    uv_idle_init(uv_default_loop(), &idler);
    uv_idle_start(&idler, wait_for_a_while);

    uv_run(uv_default_loop(), UV_RUN_DEFAULT);

    return 0;

Storing context

In callback based programming style you’ll often want to pass some ‘context’ – application specific information – between the call site and the callback. All handles and requests have a void* data member which you can set to the context and cast back in the callback. This is a common pattern used throughout the C library ecosystem. In addition uv_loop_t also has a similar data member.

[1]Depending on the capacity of the hardware of course.

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