Linux, like most operating systems, interacts with hardware devices via modularized software components called device drivers . A device driver hides the peculiarities of a hardware device's communication protocols from the operating system and allows the system to interact with the device through a standardized interface.
Under Linux, device drivers are part of the kernel and may be either linked statically into the kernel or loaded on demand as kernel modules. Device drivers run as part of the kernel and aren't directly accessible to user processes. However, Linux provides a mechanism by which processes can communicate with a device driver—and through it with a hardware device—via file-like objects. These objects appear in the file system, and programs can open them, read from them, and write to them practically as if they were normal files. Using either Linux's low-level I/O operations (see Appendix B, "Low-Level I/O") or the standard C library's I/O operations, your programs can communicate with hardware devices through these file-like objects.
Linux also provides several file-like objects that communicate directly with the kernel rather than with device drivers. These aren't linked to hardware devices; instead, they provide various kinds of specialized behavior that can be of use to application and system programs.
The techniques in this chapter provide direct access to device drivers running in the Linux kernel, and through them to hardware devices connected to the system. Use these techniques with care because misuse can cause impair or damage the GNU/Linux system. See especially the sidebar "Dangers of Block Devices."