5.1. What are standard input and standard output?

Most Linux commands read input, such as a file or another attribute for the command, and write output. By default, input is being given with the keyboard, and output is displayed on your screen. Your keyboard is your "standard input" (stdin) device, and the screen is the "standard output" (stdout) device.

However, since Linux is a flexible system, these default settings don't necessarily have to be applied. The standard output, for example, on a heavily monitored server in a large environment may be a printer.

5.1.1. The redirection operators Output redirection with > and |

Sometimes you will want to put output of a command in a file, or you may want to issue another command on the output of one command. This is known as redirecting output. Redirection is done using either the ">" (greater-than symbol), or using the "|" (pipe) operator which sends the standard output of one command to another command as standard input.

As we saw before, the cat command concatenates files and puts them all together to the standard output. By redirecting this output to a file, this file name will be created - or overwritten if it already exists, so take care.

nancy:~>cat test1
some words

nancy:~>cat test2
some other words

nancy:~>cat test1 test2 > test3

nancy:~>cat test3
some words
some other words

Redirecting "nothing" to an existing file is equal to emptying the file:

[jean@saturnus ~/Documents] ls -l list
-rw-rw-r--    1 jean	jean	117 Apr  2 18:09 list

[jean@saturnus ~/Documents] > list

[jean@saturnus ~/Documents] ls -l list
-rw-rw-r--    1 jean    jean      0 Apr  4 12:01 list

This process is called truncating. The same redirection to an nonexistent file will create a new empty file with the given name:

[jean@saturnus ~] ls -l newlist
ls: newlist: No such file or directory

[jean@saturnus ~] > newlist

[jean@saturnus ~] ls -l newlist
-rw-rw-r--  1 jean    jean	  0 Apr  4 12:05 newlist

Chapter 7 gives some more examples on the use of this sort of redirection.

Some examples using piping of commands:

  • To find a word within some text, display all lines matching pattern1, or exclude lines also matching pattern2 from being displayed:

    grep pattern1 file | grep -v pattern2

  • To display output of a directory listing one page at a time:

    ls -la | less

  • To find a file in a directory:

    ls -l | grep part_of_file_name Input redirection

In another case, you may want a file to be the input for a command that normally wouldn't accept a file as an option. This redirecting of input is done using the "<" (less-than symbol) operator.

Below is an example of sending a file to somebody, using input redirection.

andy:~>mail mike@somewhere.org < to_do

If the user mike exists on the system, you don't need to type the full address. If you want to reach somebody on the Internet, enter the fully qualified address as an argument to mail.

This reads a bit more difficult than the beginner's cat file | mail someone, but it is of course a much more elegant way of using the available tools. Combining redirections

The following example combines input and output redirection. The file text.txt is first checked for spelling mistakes, and the output is redirected to an error log file:

aspell < text.txt > error.log

The following command lists all commands that you can issue to examine another file when using less:

mike:~> less --help | grep -i examine
  :e [file]      Examine a new file.
  :n          *  Examine the (N-th) next file from the command line.
  :p          *  Examine the (N-th) previous file from the command line.
  :x          *  Examine the first (or N-th) file from the command line.

If you want to save output of this command for future reference, redirect the output to a file:

mike:~> less --help | grep -i examine > examine-files-in-less

mike:~> cat examine-files-in-less
  :e [file]      Examine a new file.
  :n          *  Examine the (N-th) next file from the command line.
  :p          *  Examine the (N-th) previous file from the command line.
  :x          *  Examine the first (or N-th) file from the command line.

Output of one command can be piped into another command virtually as many times as you want, just as long as these commands would normally read input from standard input and write output to the standard output. Sometimes they don't, but then there may be special options that instruct these commands to behave according to the standard definitions; so read the documentation (man and info pages) of the commands you use if you should encounter errors.

NoteDon't overwrite!

Be careful not to overwrite existing (important) files when redirecting output. Many shells, including Bash, have a built-in feature to protect you from that risk: noclobber. See the Info pages for more information. In Bash, you would want to add the set -o noclobber command to your .bashrc configuration file in order to prevent accidental overwriting of files. The > > operator

Instead of overwriting file data, you can also append text to an existing file.


mike:~>date > > wishlist

mike:~>cat wishlist
more money
less work
Thu Feb 28 20:23:07 CET 2002

The date command would normally put the last line on the screen; now it is appended to the file wishlist.

5.1.2. Advanced redirection features Use of file descriptors

There are three types of I/O, which each have their own identifier, called a file descriptor:

  • standard input: 0

  • standard output: 1

  • standard error: 2

In the following descriptions, if the file descriptor number is omitted, and the first character of the redirection operator is <, the redirection refers to the standard input (file descriptor 0). If the first character of the redirection operator is >, the redirection refers to the standard output (file descriptor 1).

Some practical examples will make this more clear:

ls > dirlist 2>&1

will direct both standard output and standard error to the file dirlist, while the command

ls 2>&1 > dirlist

will only direct standard output to dirlist. This can be a useful option for programmers.

All this is explained in detail in the Bash Info pages. Examples Analyzing errors

If your process generates a lot of errors, this is a way to thoroughly examine them:

command 2>&1 | less

This is often used when creating new software using the make, such as in:

andy:~/newsoft> make all 2>&1 | less
--output ommitted-- Separating standard output from standard error

Constructs like these are often used by programmers, so that output is displayed in one terminal window, and errors in another. Find out which pseudo terminal you are using issuing the tty command first:

andy:~/newsoft> make all 2> /dev/pts/7

5.1.3. Filters

When a program performs operations on input and writes the result to the standard output, it is called a filter. One of the most common uses of filters is to restructure output. We'll discuss a couple of the most important filters below. More about grep

As we saw in Section, grep scans the output line per line, searching for matching patterns. All lines containing the pattern will be printed to standard output. This behavior can be reversed using the -v option.

Some examples: suppose we want to know which files in a certain directory have been modified in February:

jenny:~>ls -la | grep Feb

The grep command, like most commands, is case sensitive. Use the -i option to make no difference between upper and lower case. A lot of GNU extensions are available as well, such as --colour, which is helpful to highlight searchterms in long lines, and --after-context, which prints the number of lines after the last matching line. You can issue a recursive grep that searches all subdirectories of encountered directories using the -r option. As usual, option can be combined.

Regular expressions can be used to further detail the exact character matches you want to select out of all the input lines. The best way to start with regular expressions is indeed to read the grep documentation. An excellent chapter is included in the info grep page. Since it would lead us too far discussing the ins and outs of regular expressions, it is strongly advised to start here if you want to know more about them.

Play around a bit with grep, it will be worth the trouble putting some time in this most basic but very powerful filtering command. The exercises at the end of this chapter will help you started, see Section 5.3. Filtering output

The command sort arranges lines in alphabetical order by default:

thomas:~>cat people-I-like | sort
Auntie Emmy
My boss

But there are many more things sort can do. Looking at the file size, for instance. With this command, directory content is sorted smallest files first, biggest files last:

ls -la | sort -nk 5

NoteOld sort syntax

You might obtain the same result with ls -la | sort +4n, but this is an old form which does not comply with the current standards.

The sort command is also used in combination with the uniq program (or sort -u) to sort output and filter out double entries.