21 February 2021

Bash redirections

File descriptors

An open file requires a "file descriptor", which is a special kind of data structure stored at the kernel level and mapped to some integer value for processes that have access to it.

For various reasons (i.e. performance), file descriptors are stored in specialized, fixed-size data structures, which is why it's important to remember to close files when you're finished with them.

Traditionally, unix processes are spawned with at least three open file descriptors: 0 is the standard input (a.k.a. stdin), 1 is the standard output (a.k.a. stdout), and 2 is a secondary output stream meant for error reporting (a.k.a. stderr). Most processes are created using a variation on the fork system call, which copies all file descriptors into the new process. In the case of simple Bash commands, this means that by default the stdxx of a command you run is the stdxx of the current Bash session (which is generally what you want for interactive programs).

Pipes

The most common form of redirection is the pipe: |. The expression

proc_a | proc_b

will create a special 'pipe' file, then start process proc_a with that file as its standard output and process proc_b with that file as its standard input. Note that the stderr of proc_a is not redirected, which means it is the same as the parent's (the Bash process that runs this command). For example:

$ (echo "this goes to stdout"; echo "this goes to stderr" >&2) | tr [:lower:] [:upper:]
this goes to stderr
THIS GOES TO STDOUT
$

As you can see, only the text sent to stdout is piped through the tr command (which in this case turns any lowercase letter into the corresponding uppercase letter). If you're wondering about the >&2 form, you're in luck, as that is what the next next section is about. Don't skip the next one, though.

Redirecting to a file

Pipes are great for chaining programs together, but they don't get rid of the ephemeral nature of standard input and outputs. Sometimes, it's nice to save the output of a command to file, or to drive a program from an existing file rather than having to type things out.

The most common file redirections are > and <, which will, in their naked form, respectively redirect stdout and stdin to/from the given file. We can illustrate this with the rev program, which reads its standard input one line at a time and prints it to its standard output in reverse:

$ rev
hello
olleh
this is not a palindrome
emordnilap a ton si siht
$ rev > out
hello
this is not a palindrome
$ cat out
olleh
emordnilap a ton si siht
$ <out rev
hello
this is not a palindrome
$ rev < out
hello
this is not a palindrome
$

Note that, while it does not matter to Bash, it is usually considered better form to put the redirections after the command.

The > and < commands actually take arguments that make them a lot more versatile than you might think at first. Obviously, from the examples above, they take an argument to their right, which is a path to the file you may want to open. There are, however, a couple variations here.

First off, it's probably better to think of them as "open for reading" and "open for writing" than as "redirect input" and "redirect output". They both can take another argument, to their left, to indicate which file descriptor they are opening; < just happens to default to 0 and > to 1. So you could start a process by making its file descriptor 0 (stdin) write-only (echo "hello" 0>file), or its file descriptor 1 (stdout) read-only (echo "hello" 1<file). Neither of these works in most circumstances because most programs are written under the assumption that they can read from 0 and write to 1. So that's not very useful so far.

This syntax is, however, useful in redirecting the stderr of a program. If you recall from the introduction of this post that stderr is file descriptor 2, you can now understand the notation 2>error.log as meaning "start this program with file descriptor 2 pointing to the file error.log in write-only mode". Quite frankly this is by far the most common use of this "first argument" of the > and < "redirections" (and the only one I have ever used), but I can imagine scenarios where opening other file descriptors may work, assuming the program you are running is designed to expect, say, a special file on file descriptor 3, e.g. 3>/tmp/trace_level_log or something.

Finally, it is worth noting that the > operator will truncate the given file if one already exists. This means that any existing content in the file is lost. If you want to instead append to an existing file, you can use >> instead.

Redirecting to a file descriptor

It is sometimes convenient to map a file descriptor to another, existing one. The syntax for this uses the & symbol followed by a number instead of a file name. For example, 2>&1 will redirect stderr on stdout. Note that this is actually done by cloning the file descriptor for stdout (and possibly making the result write-only if it wasn't already); it is not "piping" anything written to file descriptor 2 through to file descriptor 1.

This is important because it means that further modifications of file descriptor 1 are not propagated to file descriptor 2. Witness:

$ (echo "stdout"; echo "stderr" >&2) >out_first 2>&1
$ (echo "stdout"; echo "stderr" >&2) 2>&1 >out_second
stderr
$ cat out_first
stdout
stderr
$ cat out_second
stdout
$

You can see that, in the second case, because stdout is changed afterstderr has been set, stderr goes to the "old" stdout, i.e. the terminal instead of the file.

Note that the same syntax works for read redirection too, i.e. 4<&7 would create a file descriptor 4 as a clone of the existing file descriptor 7 (but read-only), but I have never had a need for that. Also, if using a - instead of a number to indicate which file descriptor to copy, this will close the file descriptor to the left (such that accessing it is an error):

$ echo hello 1>&-
bash: echo: write error: Bad file descriptor
$ echo hello 2>&-
hello
$ echo hello 0<&-
hello
$

Because echo hello does not try to write to stderr or read from stdin, closing them is not an issue. Closing stdout, however, does make it crash.

Note that you can create file descriptors that are not used by the program, with no other adverse effect than an open file descriptor that won't be closed until the end of life of that process. (Remember, file descriptors are a precious resource.) This can be used, for example, to swap stdout and stderr:

$ (echo stdout; echo stderr >&2) 3>&1 1>&2 2>&3 | sed 's/std//'
stdout
err
$

In this case we have created file descriptor 3 just to hold the data that was associated with stdout so we can swap stdout and stderr.

At this point, you may be wondering: if > creates a write-only file descriptor and < creates a read-only one, wouldn't it also be useful to have a way to create a read-write file descriptor? If so, you're in luck. Sort of. Bash does have a way to create a read-write file descriptor, using the <> operator, which takes the same arguments using the same syntax as the other two. I've never had a use for it, though, so I'm not entirely sure about how useful it is.

Finally, because the form >file 2>&1 is so common, there is a shorthand for it: >&file (where file is not a number nor a dash). Or &>file; both are equivalent.

Subshells as files

Because everything is a file, we can use an entire subshell as a file descriptor. This is the same idea as a pipe, except that the pipe is strictly defined as connecting the file descriptor 0 of a process onto the file descriptor 1 of another process.

Many programs use other files than the three default ones. As a very simple example, the cat command takes a file name and displays its contents:

$ cat out
line 1
line2
line3
$

In any situation where you need a file to pass into a program for reading, you can substitute a subshell using the syntax <():

$ cat <(echo "hello" | tr e z)
hzllo
$

Obviously the benefit of using cat in this way is limited, but hopefully you get the idea. This also works for output redirection, using the >() syntax. For example, the tee command will copy its stdin to its stdout as well as to any number of file names given as arguments. This is very useful for extracting intermediate logs from long pipe expressions. Here is an example of using tee to illustrate the >() syntax:

$ echo "hello" | tee >(cat) >(cat | tr [:lower:] [:upper:]) log > out
hello
HELLO
$ cat log
hello
$ cat out
hello
$

The first hello output line is the result of the first argument to tee, namely >(cat). The second output line, HELLO, is the result of the second file tee writes to: >(cat | tr [:lower:] [:upper:]). Finally, the third argument of tee instruct it to write to the log file, while the stdout of tee is redirected to the out file.

HERE documents and inline strings

Bash can also turn plain strings into input files. The <<< notation will pipe a string through to stdin; for example:

$ bc
bc 1.06
Copyright 1991-1994, 1997, 1998, 2000 Free Software Foundation, Inc.
This is free software with ABSOLUTELY NO WARRANTY.
For details type `warranty'.
1+3
4
^D$ bc <<< "1 + 3"
4
$ echo "1 + 3" | bc
4
$

As you can see, piping the 1 + 3 expression using echo is the same same as creating it directly as stdin using <<< and (minus the banner) also the same as just typing it manually as interactive input to the program.

If your string is a bit longer, you can use what is known as the "HERE document" notation, for reasons that will hopefully become clear soon enough. The syntax starts with the symbol << followed by a word, and ends with the same word alone on a single line. The word used is arbitrary, but HERE and EOF are the most common ones I've seen.

$ tr [:lower:] [:upper:] <<HERE
> first line
> second line
> third line
> HERE
FIRST LINE
SECOND LINE
THIRD LINE
$

There are a couple things to note about HERE documents. First, the document actually starts on the next line. So you can have more content on the original line:

$ tr [:lower:] [:upper:] <<HERE | sed 's/I/A/g'
> first line
> second line
> third line
> HERE
FARST LANE
SECOND LANE
THARD LANE
$

Second, by default, the HERE document behaves like a double-quoted string, meaning you can use Bash variables and subshells within it. If that is not what you want, you can surround the end word with single quotes:

$ var="replace me"
$ cat <<HERE
> var: $var
> HERE
var: replace me
$ cat <<'HERE'
> var: $var
> HERE
var: $var
$

Honorable mention: /dev/null

This is not a redirection feature, but it is often used with redirections, so I think it is worth mentioning. On any unix system, there is a special device file called /dev/null that will accept any write and just discard it immediately. This is useful when you are running a program and only care about a subset of its (possibly many) output streams. For example:

$ du -hs /* 2>/dev/null | sort -h

In this case, because we are trying to collect information about /, it is very lilely there will be files du cannot read. Normally, it would print a line on stderr for every such line. However, in this case, I don't really care about that and I accept that the final result may not be entirely accurate due to such errors.

If you had a program that requires multiple files to write to, you could also use it in combination with the subshell redirection feature:

$ ./annoying-program --info-logs /var/log/keep-this \
                     --debug-logs >(cat > /dev/null) \
                     --trace-logs >(cat > /dev/null)

Other useful devices are /dev/random and /dev/zero, which will both accept any read request and respond to it with, respectively, random bytes and zeroed bytes.

Tags: bash unix