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What are global variables?

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In computer programming, a global variable is a variable with global scope, meaning that it is visible (hence accessible) throughout the program, unless shadowed. The set of all global variables is known as the global environment or global state. In compiled languages, global variables are generally static variables, whose extent (lifetime) is the entire runtime of the program, though in interpreted languages (including command-line interpreters), global variables are generally dynamically allocated when declared, since they are not known ahead of time.

In some languages, all variables are global, or global by default, while in most modern languages variables have limited scope, generally lexical scope, though global variables are often available by declaring a variable at the top level of the program. In other languages, however, global variables do not exist; these are generally modular programming languages that enforce a module structure, or class-based object-oriented programming languages that enforce a class structure.


Interaction mechanisms with global variables are called global environment (see also global state) mechanisms. The global environment paradigm is contrasted with the local environment paradigm, where all variables are local with no shared memory (and therefore all interactions can be reconducted to message passing).

Global variables are used extensively to pass information between sections of code that do not share a caller/callee relation like concurrent threads and signal handlers. Languages (including C) where each file defines an implicit namespace eliminate most of the problems seen with languages with a global namespace though some problems may persist without proper encapsulation. Without proper locking (such as with a mutex), code using global variables will not be thread-safe except for read only values in protected memory.

Environment variables

Environment variables are a facility provided by some operating systems. Within the OS's shell (ksh in Unix, bash in Linux, COMMAND.COM in DOS and CMD.EXE in Windows) they are a kind of variable: for instance, in unix and related systems an ordinary variable becomes an environment variable when the export keyword is used. Program code other than shells has to access them by API calls, such as getenv() and setenv().

They are local to the process in which they were set. That means if we open two terminal windows (Two different processes running shell) and change value of environment variable in one window, that change will not be seen by other window.

When a child process is created, it inherits all the environment variables and their values from the parent process. Usually, when a program calls another program, it first creates a child process by forking, then the child adjusts the environment as needed and lastly the child replaces itself with the program to be called. Child processes therefore cannot use environment variables to communicate with their peers, avoiding the action at a distance problem.

Global-only and global-by-default

A number of non-structured languages, such as (early versions of) BASIC, COBOL and Fortran I (1956) only provide global variables. Fortran II (1958) introduced subroutines with local variables, and the COMMON keyword for accessing global variables. Usage of COMMON in FORTAN continued in FORTAN 77,[1] and influenced later languages such as PL/SQL. Named COMMON groups for globals behave somewhat like structured namespaces.[2] Variables are also global by default in FORTH, Lua, Perl, and most shells.
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