Pipelines and their quirks

Pipelines are an amazing feature of bash. I use them all the time. And I noticed a lot of situations when the shell code abuses the pipelines. It’s this abuse that’s bothering me so much that I decided to write a post exclusively about how to use pipelines properly.

What are pipelines?

A pipeline connects the standard output of a command to the standard input of the next. Assuming you want to print out the names of all users with a /bin/bash shell, a way of achieving this is:

grep /bin/bash /etc/passwd | cut -d: -f1

The | character signifies where the first command ends, and the next command begins. So the first command, grep, writes to its standard output all the lines that contain /bin/bash. The cut command receives that text at its standard input. Furthermore, it displays the first field, which is the username.

More pipes equal less performance

You can extend the command and include as many pipes as you want. However, you have to know that each pipe means that the shell executes another process in parallel. So the more pipes you have, the more processes will run at the same time on your machine. This might not seem like a problem, but when you’re running some QA performance testing script or a monitoring script, you might want to reduce the impact your scripts have, to the minimum.

By far the most used commands in pipelines are cat followed by grep. First and foremost, cat is not needed because running:

cat file | grep pattern

is equivalent to:

grep pattern file


grep pattern <file

both of which only run a single execution and not two.

So you see that grep accepts a file as an argument. Moreover, it’s the case for many if not most commands. Try to run it with --help and check if it accepts a file as an argument and use that instead of a pipe starting with cat.

You can reduce the number of grep calls using its own -e or -E arguments. Instead of using:

command | grep pattern1 | grep pattern2 | grep pattern3

you can use:

command | grep -e pattern1 -e pattern2 -e pattern3

Alternatively, for more complex patterns, you can use regular expressions to filter lines via -E:

command | grep -E "pattern1|pattern2|pattern3"

Of course, other commands might accept similar arguments.

Write optimised pipelines

When you’re running commands on a machine that’s already having a high load average, you need to keep the executions to the minimum, especially in the business environment, and here’s why:

  • if the machine runs customer applications, those applications are negatively impacted if you generate even more load with your commands
  • when your monitoring application (like Nagios or Sensu) is running a bunch of commands once every minute or even less, and they aren’t optimised, they can do more bad than good
  • in case the OS is already loaded, the executables that are part of your pipeline are no longer cached or are swapped to the disk, so the retrieval of those caches becomes expensive
  • during the run of a performance/benchmarking testing suite, the fingerprint of your commands have to be kept at a minimum to get the best out of that test – and that’s what you’re aiming for in general

The above list can go on and on. I’ve seen with my own eyes people kneeling machines because of running some silly long pipelines to investigate and try to fix the load, and it only ended up with a machine reboot, which impacted the customers. You just can’t afford to play with these things in a business environment.

I talked a lot about business, and you might think that scripts that run at home are okay to be looser with following the rules. However, getting in the habit of writing sloppy commands is going to come back and bite your arse whenever you want to use your skills in a business environment. Whether you are consulting, an employee, or running your startup, don’t plan for failure.

Time and resources consumed

As I have previously written, adding the time keyword at the beginning of a pipeline, with the optional argument of -p (for POSIX mode), can determine bash to display some metrics for the entire pipeline.

The TIMEFORMAT variable can also determine which resources to display and how. You can read my entire post about time for more details.

What about the standard error?

By default, stderr (short for Standard Error) content is not transmitted through the pipeline, which means that the terminal displays it freely, so the following pipeline displays:

$ ls /etc /non-existent | grep passwd
ls: cannot access '/non-existent': No such file or directory

The first line containing No such file or directory is written by the ls command at standard error. It’s not filtered by grep because this is not the default behaviour. If you thought that adding a 2>&1 redirection fixes it, consider the |& shortcut, so the pipeline:

$ ls /etc /non-existent 2>&1 | grep passwd

is equivalent to the shorter version:

$ ls /etc /non-existent |& grep passwd

To prove that stderr also gets filtered through grep, try to run:

$ ls /etc /non-existent |& grep -e passwd -e non-existent
ls: cannot access '/non-existent': No such file or directory

A handy example of redirecting both stdout and stderr is when your last command is a tee call to a log file. You want to catch everything and write it to that log file, not just the messages written to stdout.

Exit codes

By default, the exit code of a pipeline is the exit code of the last command (the rightmost one).

Taking the example above:

ls /non-existent |& grep passwd

The final exit code of the whole pipeline is grep‘s own one:

$ ls /non-existent | grep non-existent

$ echo $?

Notice that ls returned an error and this is something you want to handle in most cases. From a security standpoint, this is something you want to handle in all situations.

Handling failing command

There are two solutions for entirely handling failing commands in a pipeline.

First is using the PIPESTATUS array variable. It contains as many elements as commands in the previous pipeline, with each element being the exit code of that command.

$ ls /non-existent | grep non-existent

$ echo $? - ${PIPESTATUS[@]}
0 - 2 0

Notice the error code 2 of the ls command. So if a pipeline is fully successful, then the sum of all elements of PIPESTATUS should be zero.

$ ls /non-existent | grep non-existent

$ for EXIT in ${PIPESTATUS[*]}; do let SUM+=EXIT; done

$ if (( SUM )); then
echo there was an error >&2
exit $SUM

or simpler, just bail out at the first non zero code:

$ ls /non-existent | grep non-existent

$ for EXIT in ${PIPESTATUS[*]}; do
if (( EXIT )); then
echo there was an error >&2
exit $EXIT

If you don’t want to go through every exit code of the pipeline, you can use the pipefail shell option. If set (via shopt -s pipefail), this option causes the entire pipeline to fail with the exit code of the rightmost command that has a non-zero exit code. In our simple example above, the pipeline would fail with code 2 (exit code of ls.


You can even negate the exit code of the pipeline. That’s a logical negation. Logical means that any value different than zero is considered false and zero is considered true. Negation means that if the entire pipeline returns an exit code different than zero, then the condition is considered true, or false otherwise.

This a straight logical condition:

if ls /non-existent | grep non-existent; then
echo everything ok with the pipeline
echo something\'s wrong with the pipeline

And this is its negation:

if ! ls /non-existent | grep non-existent; then
echo something\'s wrong with the pipeline

You can see that the message indicates an error, but the condition that is passed to the if condition has to evaluate to true in order to execute the echo command. Which is exactly the else branch of the direct condition.

There you have it, I hope this helps you write better and more optimal pipelines in the future. And as an exercise, you can try and fix the existing ones, if you find any.

Now tell me, what’s the longest pipeline you ever wrote?

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