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Chapter 22. Process Substitution

Piping the stdout of a command into the stdin of another is a powerful technique. But, what if you need to pipe the stdout of multiple commands? This is where process substitution comes in.

Process substitution feeds the output of a process (or processes) into the stdin of another process.


Command list enclosed within parentheses



Process substitution uses /dev/fd/<n> files to send the results of the process(es) within parentheses to another process. [1]

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

bash$ echo >(true)

bash$ echo <(true)
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:

read -a list < <( od -Ad -w24 -t u2 /dev/urandom )
#  Read a list of random numbers from /dev/urandom,
#+ process with "od"
#+ and feed into stdin of "read" . . .

#  From "insertion-sort.bash" example script.
#  Courtesy of JuanJo Ciarlante.
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, StИphane 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)  
#    ^ ^  First < is redirection, second is process substitution.

# 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
# U 0 0 0 lo
# --------------------------------------------------------------#

#  As StИphane 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.



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

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