How To Use Pipes And Named Pipes In Linux, Explained With Examples

Use Linux pipes to manage how command-line utilities work together.

How To Use Pipes And Named Pipes In Linux Commands

One of the most powerful shell operators in Linux is the pipe. In this article we will see how regular and named pipes work, how to use them and how they differ from each other.

The vertical bar symbol | denotes a pipe. Because of the pipe, you can take the output from one command and feed it to another command as input. In other words, a pipe is a form of redirection that is used in Linux to send the output of one program to another program for further processing.

Of course, you’re not limited to a single piped command. You can stack them as many times as you like.

The syntax for the pipe or unnamed pipe command is the | character between any two commands:

command1 | command2 | ... | commandN

How does a pipe work in Linux

To see how pipe work, let’s take a look at examples bellow.

Let’s say we have a directory full of many different types of files. We want to know how many files of a certain type are in this directory. We can get a list of files easily using ls:

conf            license.txt          wp-activate.php       wp-comments-post.php
wp-content      wp-links-opml.php    wp-mail.php           wp-trackback.php
favicon.ico     readme.html          wp-admin              wp-config-sample.php
wp-cron.php     wp-load.php          wp-settings.php       xmlrpc.php
index.php       robots.txt           wp-blog-header.php    wp-config.php
wp-includes     wp-login.php         wp-signup.php

To separate the type of file we are interested in, we will use grep. We want to find files that have the word “txt” in their name or file extension.

We will use the special shell character | to direct the output of ls to grep.

ls | grep txt

The output of ls was not sent to the terminal window. Therefore the result is not displayed on the screen, and is instead redirected to the input of the grep command. The output we see above comes from grep, which is the last command in this chain.

Now, let’s start extending our chain. We can count files “txt” by adding the wc command . We will use the -l option (number of lines) with wc.

ls | grep txt | wc -l

grep is no longer the last command in the chain, so we do not see its output. The output of grep is fed into the wc command. The output that we see in the terminal window comes from wc. wc reports that there are 2 files “txt” in the directory.

What is a named pipe in Linux

As the name itself suggests, these are pipes with names. One of the key differences between regular pipes and named pipes is that named pipes have a presence in the file system. That is, they show up as files.

The named pipe in Linux is a method for passing information from one computer process to another using a pipe which is given a specific name. Named pipes are also known as FIFO, which stands for First In, First Out.

You can create a named pipe using the mkfifo command. For example:

mkfifo mypipe

You can tell if a file is a named pipe by the p bit in the file permissions section.

ls -l mypipe
prw-r--r--  1 root     root         0 Mar 20 12:58 mypipe

The named pipes are actually files on the file system itself. Unlike a standard pipe, a named pipe is accessed as part of the filesystem, just like any other type of file.

The named pipe content resides in memory rather than being written to disk. It is passed only when both ends of the pipe have been opened. And you can write to a pipe multiple times before it is opened at the other end and read. By using named pipes, you can establish a process in which one process writes to a pipe and another reads from a pipe without much concern about trying to time or carefully orchestrate their interaction.

To see how named pipe work, let’s take a look at examples bellow. Let’s first create our named pipe:

mkfifo mypipe

Now let’s consume messages with this pipe.

tail -f mypipe

Open another terminal window, write a message to this pipe:

echo "hi" >> mypipe

Now in the first window you can see the “hi” printed out:

tail -f pipe1

Because it is a pipe and message has been consumed, if we check the file size, you can see it is still 0:

ls -l mypipe
prw-r--r-- 1 root root 0 Mar 20 14:11 mypipe

Since a named pipe is just a file in Linux, to remove one we can use the rm command. Therefore, to remove the pipe we created in the previous examples, we would run:

rm mypipe

When to use regular or named pipes

Using a regular pipe instead of a named pipe in Linux depends on the characteristics we’re looking for. Some of them can be persistence, two-way communication, having a filename, creating a filter, and restricting access permissions among others.

For example, if we want to filter the output of a command multiple times, using an anonymous pipe seems the most appropriate option. On the other hand, if we need a filename and we don’t want to store data on disk, what we’re looking for is a named pipe.

In conclusion, the next time you’re working with commands at the Linux terminal and find yourself moving data between commands, hopefully a pipe will make the process quick and easy.

For more about pipe command in Linux, consult its manual page.

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