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Process Substitution

Chapter 22. Process Substitution

Process substitution is the counterpart to command substitution. Command substitution sets a variable to the result of a command, as in dir_contents=`ls -al` or xref=$( grep word datafile). Process substitution feeds the output of a process to another process (in other words, it sends the results of a command to another command).

Command substitution template

command within parentheses

>(command)

<(command)

These initiate process substitution. This uses /dev/fd/<n> files to send the results of the process within parentheses to another process. [1]

Note

There is no space between the the "<" or ">" and the parentheses. Space there would give an error message.

bash$ echo >(true)
/dev/fd/63

bash$ echo <(true)
/dev/fd/63
	      
Bash creates a pipe with two file descriptors, --fIn and fOut--. The stdin of true connects to fOut (dup2(fOut, 0)), then Bash passes a /dev/fd/fIn argument to echo. On systems lacking /dev/fd/<n> files, Bash may use temporary files. (Thanks, S.C.)

Process substitution can compare the output of two different commands, or even the output of different options to the same command.

bash$ comm <(ls -l) <(ls -al)
total 12
-rw-rw-r--    1 bozo bozo       78 Mar 10 12:58 File0
-rw-rw-r--    1 bozo bozo       42 Mar 10 12:58 File2
-rw-rw-r--    1 bozo bozo      103 Mar 10 12:58 t2.sh
        total 20
        drwxrwxrwx    2 bozo bozo     4096 Mar 10 18:10 .
        drwx------   72 bozo bozo     4096 Mar 10 17:58 ..
        -rw-rw-r--    1 bozo bozo       78 Mar 10 12:58 File0
        -rw-rw-r--    1 bozo bozo       42 Mar 10 12:58 File2
        -rw-rw-r--    1 bozo bozo      103 Mar 10 12:58 t2.sh

Using process substitution to compare the contents of two directories (to see which filenames are in one, but not the other):

diff <(ls $first_directory) <(ls $second_directory)

Some other usages and uses of process substitution:

cat <(ls -l)
# Same as     ls -l | cat

sort -k 9 <(ls -l /bin) <(ls -l /usr/bin) <(ls -l /usr/X11R6/bin)
# Lists all the files in the 3 main 'bin' directories, and sorts by filename.
# Note that three (count 'em) distinct commands are fed to 'sort'.

 
diff <(command1) <(command2)    # Gives difference in command output.

tar cf >(bzip2 -c > file.tar.bz2) $directory_name
# Calls "tar cf /dev/fd/?? $directory_name", and "bzip2 -c > file.tar.bz2".
#
# Because of the /dev/fd/<n> system feature,
# the pipe between both commands does not need to be named.
#
# This can be emulated.
#
bzip2 -c < pipe > file.tar.bz2&
tar cf pipe $directory_name
rm pipe
#        or
exec 3>&1
tar cf /dev/fd/4 $directory_name 4>&1 >&3 3>&- | bzip2 -c > file.tar.bz2 3>&-
exec 3>&-


# Thanks, St´phane Chazelas

A reader sent in the following interesting example of process substitution.

# Script fragment taken from SuSE distribution:

while read  des what mask iface; do
# Some commands ...
done < <(route -n)  


# To test it, let's make it do something.
while read  des what mask iface; do
  echo $des $what $mask $iface
done < <(route -n)  

# Output:
# Kernel IP routing table
# Destination Gateway Genmask Flags Metric Ref Use Iface
# 127.0.0.0 0.0.0.0 255.0.0.0 U 0 0 0 lo



# As Stéphane Chazelas points out, an easier-to-understand equivalent is:
route -n |
  while read des what mask iface; do   # Variables set from output of pipe.
    echo $des $what $mask $iface
  done  #  This yields the same output as above.
        #  However, as Ulrich Gayer points out . . .
        #+ this simplified equivalent uses a subshell for the while loop,
        #+ and therefore the variables disappear when the pipe terminates.
	

	
#  However, Filip Moritz comments that there is a subtle difference
#+ between the above two examples, as the following shows.

(
route -n | while read x; do ((y++)); done
echo $y # $y is still unset

while read x; do ((y++)); done < <(route -n)
echo $y # $y has the number of lines of output of route -n
)

More generally spoken
(
: | x=x
# seems to start a subshell like
: | ( x=x )
# while
x=x < <(:)
# does not
)

# This is useful, when parsing csv and the like.
# That is, in effect, what the original SuSE code fragment does.

Notes

[1]

This has the same effect as a named pipe (temp file), and, in fact, named pipes were at one time used in process substitution.