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Environment variable

The meaning of «environment variable»

An environment variable is a dynamic-named value that can affect the way running processes will behave on a computer. They are part of the environment in which a process runs. For example, a running process can query the value of the TEMP environment variable to discover a suitable location to store temporary files, or the HOME or USERPROFILE variable to find the directory structure owned by the user running the process.

They were introduced in their modern form in 1979 with Version 7 Unix, so are included in all Unix operating system flavors and variants from that point onward including Linux and macOS. From PC DOS 2.0 in 1982, all succeeding Microsoft operating systems, including Microsoft Windows, and OS/2 also have included them as a feature, although with somewhat different syntax, usage and standard variable names.

In all Unix and Unix-like systems, as well as on Windows, each process has its own separate set of environment variables. By default, when a process is created, it inherits a duplicate run-time environment of its parent process, except for explicit changes made by the parent when it creates the child. At the API level, these changes must be done between running fork and exec. Alternatively, from command shells such as bash, a user can change environment variables for a particular command invocation by indirectly invoking it via env or using the ENVIRONMENT_VARIABLE=VALUE <command> notation. A running program can access the values of environment variables for configuration purposes.

Shell scripts and batch files use environment variables to communicate data and preferences to child processes. They can also be used to store temporary values for reference later in a shell script. However, in Unix, non-exported variables are preferred for this as they don't leak outside the process.

In Unix, an environment variable that is changed in a script or compiled program will only affect that process and possibly child processes. The parent process and any unrelated processes will not be affected. Similarly, changing or removing a variable's value inside a DOS batch file will change the variable for the duration of COMMAND.COM's existence.

In Unix, the environment variables are normally initialized during system startup by the system init startup scripts, and hence inherited by all other processes in the system. Users can, and often do, augment them in the profile script for the command shell they are using. In Microsoft Windows, each environment variable's default value is stored in the Windows registry or set in the AUTOEXEC.BAT file.

On Unix, a setuid program is given an environment chosen by its caller, but it runs with different authority from its caller. The dynamic linker will usually load code from locations specified by the environment variables $LD_LIBRARY_PATH and $LD_PRELOAD and run it with the process's authority. If a setuid program did this, it would be insecure, because its caller could get it to run arbitrary code and hence misuse its authority. For this reason, libc unsets these environment variables at startup in a setuid process. setuid programs usually unset unknown environment variables and check others or set them to reasonable values.

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