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What is a Terminal?

WezTerm is a Terminal Emulator, but what actually is that, and what is a PTY, and what is a shell? This section of the docs aims to summarize how these things relate to each other to help clarify how things work.

This section tries to group concepts together to aid in understanding; it is not intended to be a historically accurate chronology of the development of terminals!


A computer terminal is a device that can be used for entering data into (input) and presenting data from (output) a computer system.

Early terminals were very limited devices with basic keyboard data entry and that would print the output onto paper. These devices communicated with the computer system using a simple serial data connection.

That early heritage strongly influences the way that terminals are integrated even in modern operating systems.

On unix operating systems, the kernel has a subsystem for managing Terminal TeletYpes (TTYs) which is essentially a stream of input data, a stream of output data, and some flow control and signal/interrupt management. A TTY is typically strongly associated with a physical serial communication device installed in the system.

The kernel doesn't know any details of the connected device as there isn't a defined way for it to do that; it only knows how to transmit data over that serial line.

To accomodate this the TTY interface in the kernel allows for some basic stream operations such as line-buffering and canonicalization of unix newlines to carriage-return-line-feed as was needed for printer style output to correctly move to the first column and move down a line.


The Terminal and TTY interface are essentially low-level hardware specifications for moving bytes around. On their own they don't provide any pre-defined function on the connected computer system. For them to do something there needs to be a program that can interpret the input and produce some output.

That program is a shell program, such as zsh or bash. Shell programs provide the user with an interactive way to navigate the computer system and launch other programs.

A shell indirectly communicates with the terminal via the TTY interface to the kernel, which manages the actual communication with the terminal.

flowchart LR
    subgraph Kernel
        direction LR
        TTY["TTY device\n(e.g. /dev/tty/0)"] 

    subgraph Userspace
    SHELL["Shell Program (e.g. zsh)"] <-- "input\noutput" --> TTY
    TTY  <-- "input\noutput" -->  TE["Terminal Device"]:::td
    classDef td stroke:#00F,stroke-width:2px

Again, the TTY interface doesn't provide a way for the shell program to know what kind of terminal is attached, which sounds awkward. How is that managed?

ANSI and ECMA-48

You've probably heard talk of ANSI escape sequences in the context of the terminal, what are they?

The various terminal devices typically used ASCII to represent English text and then a range of special byte sequences to control things like bold text. Different vendors may have selected different byte sequences for the same concept.

ANSI is the American National Standards Institute and is organizational body that works to create standards that make it (theoretically!) easier to interoperate across different implementations of things.

One product of ANSI is X3.64 with the aim of replacing vendor-specific codes in terminals and related computer equipment.

You can read more about ANSI escape codes on Wikipedia.

It's not free to read the ANSI specification itself, but that same specification was also published by ECMA (the European Computer Manufacturers Association) as the freely available ECMA-48

Terminfo and termcap

Even though ANSI/ECMA provided information on standardizing communication, there are devices that either pre-date the standards or that aren't fully comformant, or that have more flexibility than the standards could foresee.

A database of terminal capabilities (termcap) was created that is essentially a mapping of the kind of function (eg: "switch to bold rendering") to the associated set of bytes that need to be sent to the terminal in order to trigger that function.

Later, as the set of functions expanded, terminfo was developed as a successor to termcap, which is more extensible.

These databases are consumed by applications using libraries such as curses and its successors.

The way that they work is that the administrator of the system would define the TERM environment variable to the name of the appropriate entry in the terminal database as part of configuring the terminal and shell on the system.

The value of the TERM environment variable would then be used to resolve the data from the terminal database by the library linked into the shell so that it could produce appropriately formatted output.

Running other programs

When a shell spawns a child process it passes to it the input/output streams associated with the TTY and allows it to run. The shell is not involved in the transfer of data between the spawned program and the TTY; that program is directly sending data to the TTY interface and the kernel then sends it on to the attached hardware.

That means that any program that wants to produce nicely formatted information on the associated terminal also needs to respect the setting of TERM and use an appropriate library to resolve the correct escape sequences.

    subgraph Kernel
        direction TB
        TTY["TTY device\n(e.g. /dev/tty/0)"] 

    subgraph Userspace
    SHELL["Shell Program (e.g. zsh)"] <-- input/output --> TTY
    SHELL -. "starts" .-> APP
    APP["Application\n(e.g. vim)"] <-- input/output --> TTY

    TTY  <-- input/output -->  TE["Terminal Device"]:::td
    classDef td stroke:#00F,stroke-width:2px

What about stdin, stdout and stderr?

The unix environment defines the standard input/output streams and maps them to specific file descriptors.

The shell program is started up with stdin assigned to the input stream from the associated TTY and both stdout AND stderr are assigned to the output stream. stderr is a duplicate of the stdout stream, and writing to either of them will send data to the terminal output.

The terminal only has a single stream of output data. As far as it is concerned, stdout and stderr do not exist, there is only "output".

Foreground process

Seeing the above diagram, you might wonder how the input/output is kept straight when there are multiple programs that are consuming/producing it.

There is no firm enforcement of who gets to read/write to the TTY data streams, and it's largely a cooperative effort. Usually, only a single program at a time is actively doing something to the output, but it is easy to produce a garbled mess by running multiple programs at once using the & background operator available in many shell programs.

Some shells have job control concept that allows informing the kernel which process is considered to be the active one; that helps when delivering interrupt signals, but doesn't really do anything with the output.


It is common to use CTRL-C to generate an interrupt signal, how does that work?

The TTY layer in the kernel is configured, usually via the stty utility, to interpret the byte sequence that corresponds to CTRL-C (0x03) as an interrupt signal. When the input stream matches the configured value, rather than propagating that byte the kernel will instead translate it to SIGINT and deliver that signal to the foreground process that is associated with the TTY.

The shell typically registers a SIGINT handler that clears the current line of input, but keeps running. When the shell spawns a child process, it starts it with the SIGINT handler set to the default behavior of terminating the program, and then makes that child process the foreground process. Then it will go to sleep waiting for the child to terminate.

When you subsequently hit CTRL-C, the kernel will send SIGINT to that child foreground process which will then terminate and cause the shell to wake up and continue.

If your shell supports job control, the suspend signal that is typically associated with CTRL-Z will cause the foreground process to suspend which in turn will wakup the shell in a similar way to that of the child getting terminated, but it can tell that it was suspended rather than terminated.

Terminal Emulators and PTYs

As computer systems got more sophisticated and evolved to desktop environments with multiple windows it was desirable to move the terminal into a window on the desktop and it became necessary to expand the interface to allow for a TTY that wasn't strongly coupled with a physical communication device, and to provide a mechanism for communicating the window size changing.

The Pseudo Terminal teletYpe (PTY) is that evolution of the TTY interface; it allows a userspace application to define additional virtual TTY interfaces as needed.

A PTY has a controller side and a client side (the unfortunate legacy terminology for those is master and slave, respectively), with the controller side allowing for passing information about the window size, and the client side essentially just being the I/O stream.

    subgraph Kernel
        direction TB
        PTYC["PTY client\n(e.g. /dev/pts/0)"] 
        PTYM[PTY master]
        PTYC <--> PTYM

    subgraph Userspace
    SHELL["Shell Program (e.g. zsh)"] <-- input/output --> PTYC
    SHELL -. "starts" .-> APP
    APP["Application\n(e.g. vim)"] <-- input/output --> PTYC
    PTYM  <-- input/output -->  TE["Terminal Emulator\n(e.g. wezterm)"]:::wezterm
    classDef wezterm stroke:#00F,stroke-width:2px

A Terminal Emulator is a program that creates a PTY and then spawns a child program (typically a shell program) into that PTY, passing it the client-side of the PTY.

The Terminal Emulator then reads the output from the client-side and interprets the escape sequences to produce a display, and decodes keyboard/mouse input from the windowing environment and encodes it as escape sequences to send to the running program (See keyboard encoding) thereby emulating in software the behavior of the classic hardware terminal devices.

Windows and ConPTY

So far we've been talking about the architecture of UNIX systems, how does Windows compare/relate to this?

While Windows has had the classic "dosbox" as an analogy of the unix terminal emulator, the way it works is so fundamentally different from the unix approach that it has caused headaches for portable software.

There was no PTY equivalent and the terminal emulation was closed off and restricted to that provided by the system. Some enterprising developers were able to build terminal emulators that worked a little more like the unix equivalents with clever tricks that were essentially screen-scraping, but there were many cases that got in the way of a perfect experience.

In relatively recent times, Windows grew support for ConPTY which has opened things up a great deal for terminal emulation. The linked article explains in detail how ConPTY works, so I'm only going to summarize the main points here:

When running on Windows with ConPTY, an additional helper program (for wezterm, that helper is typically named openconsole.exe, but in some circumstances it may be conhost.exe) is spawned to help manage the PTY.

The purpose of this helper process is to translate escape sequences into the native windows equivalent requests and send them to the window console driver.

Because Windows needs to have backwards compatibility with native windows programs that use traditional windows console APIs, the ConPTY PTY implementation is much more complex than the unix PTY/TTY kernel layer, and is essentially its own terminal emulator sitting in between the terminal emulator perceived by the user, and the application(s) that it has spawned inside.

The result of this is pretty good, but still has a few edge cases where the ConPTY layer has some surprising behavior. I expect this to improve over time, but what it means for wezterm users is that they may wish to bypass ConPTY in some cases by using wezterm ssh to directly communicate with a "real" unix pty either on a remote system or inside a WSL or VM running on the local machine.