Technical Terms and Definitions

Null Modem - Hardware

Null modem is a communication method to connect two DTEs (computer, terminal, printer etc.) directly using a RS-232 serial cable. The original RS-232 standard only defined the connection of DTEs with DCEs i.e. modems. With a null modem connection the transmit and receive lines are crosslinked. Depending on the purpose, sometimes also one or more handshake lines are crosslinked. Several wiring layouts are in use because the null modem connection is not covered by a standard.

Null modems are commonly used for file transfer between computers, or remote operation. Under the Microsoft Windows operating system, the direct cable connection can be used over a null modem connection. The later versions of MS-DOS were shipped with the InterLnk program. Both pieces of software allow the mapping of a hard disk on one computer as a network drive on the other computer. No Ethernet hardware (such as a network interface card or a modem) is required for this.

The popularity and availability of faster information exchange systems such as Ethernet made the use of null-modem cables less common. Nowadays, such a cable can still be useful to kernel hackers though, since it allows the user to remotely debug a kernel with a minimum of device drivers and code (a serial driver mainly consists of two FIFO buffers and an interrupt service routine). ddb or KGDB can be used to remotely debug BSD systems, for instance. This can also provide a serial console through which the in-kernel debugger can be dropped to in case of kernel panics, in which case the local monitor and keyboard may not be usable anymore (the X11 server reserves those resources if a GUI is used, and dropping to the debugger in the case of a panic won't free them).