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Piping in Unix Or Linux

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A pipe is a form of redirection that is used in Linux and other Unix-like operating systems to send the output of one program to another program for further processing.

Redirection is the transferring of standard output to some other destination, such as another program, a file or a printer, instead of the display monitor (which is its default destination). Standard output, sometimes abbreviated stdout, is the destination of the output from command line (i.e., all-text mode) programs in Unix-like operating systems.

Pipes are used to create what can be visualized as a pipeline of commands, which is a temporary direct connection between two or more simple programs. This connection makes possible the performance of some highly specialized task that none of the constituent programs could perform by themselves. A command is merely an instruction provided by a user telling a computer to do something, such as launch a program. The command line programs that do the further processing are referred to as filters.

This direct connection between programs allows them to operate simultaneously and permits data to be transferred between them continuously rather than having to pass it through temporary text files or through the display screen and having to wait for one program to be completed before the next program begins.


Pipes rank alongside the hierarchical file system and regular expressions as one of the most powerful yet elegant features of Unix-like operating systems. The hierarchical file system is the organization of directories in a tree-like structure which has a single root directory (i.e., a directory that contains all other directories). Regular expressions are a pattern matching system that uses strings (i.e., sequences of characters) constructed according to pre-defined syntax rules to find desired patterns in text.

Pipes were first suggested by M. Doug McIlroy, when he was a department head in the Computing Science Research Center at Bell Labs, the research arm of AT&T (American Telephone and Telegraph Company), the former U.S. telecommunications monopoly. McIlroy had been working on macros since the latter part of the 1950s, and he was a ceaseless advocate of linking macros together as a more efficient alternative to series of discrete commands. A macro is a series of commands (or keyboard and mouse actions) that is performed automatically when a certain command is entered or key(s) pressed.

McIlroy’s persistence led Ken Thompson, who developed the original UNIX at Bell Labs in 1969, to rewrite portions of his operating system in 1973 to include pipes. This implementation of pipes was not only extremely useful in itself, but it also made possible a central part of the Unix philosophy, the most basic concept of which is modularity (i.e., a whole that is created from independent, replaceable parts that work together efficiently).


A pipe is designated in commands by the vertical bar character, which is located on the same key as the backslash on U.S. keyboards. The general syntax for pipes is: command_1 | command_2 [| command_3 . . . ]This chain can continue for any number of commands or programs.

A very simple example of the benefits of piping is provided by the dmesg command, which repeats the startup messages that scroll through the console (i.e., the all-text, full-screen display) while Linux is booting(i.e., starting up). dmesg by itself produces far too many lines of output to fit into a single screen; thus, its output scrolls down the screen at high speed and only the final screen full of messages is easily readable. However, by piping the output of dmesg to the filter less, the startup messages can conveniently be viewed one screenful at a time, i.e.,dmesg | lessless allows the output of dmesg to be moved forward one screenful at a time by pressing the SPACE bar and back one screenful at a time by pressing the b key. The command can be terminated by pressing the qkey. (The more command could have been used here instead of less; however, less is newer than more and has additional functions, including the ability to return to previous pages of the output.)The same result could be achieved by first redirecting the output of dmesg to a temporary file and then displaying the contents of that file on the monitor. For example, the following set of two commands uses the output redirection operator (designated by a rightward facing angle bracket) to first send the output of dmesg to a text file called tempfile1 (which will be created by the output redirection operator if it does not already exist), and then it uses another output redirection operator to transfer the output of tempfile1 to the display screen: dmesg > tempfile1tempfile1 > less

However, redirection to a file as an intermediate step is clearly less efficient, both because two separate commands are required and because the second command must await the completion of the first command before it can begin.

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