A lot of the power of the *nix shell is in redirection. The model is called “streams”, and we even have “pipes” for these “streams”. It’s not the best metaphor ever, but it’s good enough, I suppose. There are 3 streams associated with a process: the standard input (stdin), standard output (stdout) and standard error output (stderr). As you might expect, you get user input on stdin, output to stderr, and send errors to stderr.

stdout : Redirecting Output

Let’s start with stdout, the output stream, since that is the most common:

$ ls > /tmp/foo.txt

This will run the “ls” (list files) command, but instead of showing you the results, it will write to the file you specify (/tmp/foo.txt, in this example). If there is already a /tmp/foo.txt file, then it gets replaced.

$ ls >> /tmp/foo.txt

By using >> instead of the single >, we can append to the file instead of overwriting it.

If we want to see the output like we normally would, but log it to a file as well, we can use the “tee” utility:

$ ls | tee /tmp/foo.txt
[ the usual ls output shown here ]
$ ls | tee -a /tmp/foo.txt
[ the usual ls output shown here ]

The first command will write to /tmp/foo.txt; the second (with “-a“) will append to /tmp/foo.txt.

We have used a different redirector here; “|” (pipe) instead of “>” and “>>” . This is because we’re not funnelling the output to a different place (/tmp/foo.txt), but passing it to a program (tee) which does some more funky redirection.

Another common use of the pipe (“|“) is to go to the more (or less) utility. If a command would produce loads of output, faster than you can read it, then more will pause after the screen is full, and prompt you with a “— more” prompt (hence the name). SPACE will show the next screen; RETURN will show the next line. less is just like more, but it can also go backwards (PgUp and PgDn):

$ ls | more
--- more  (PRESS SPACE)
--- more (PRESS SPACE)

stderr : Redirecting Errors

Well-written programs will send their errors to a different “device” than they send their normal output to. Both stdout and stderr are usually the same place (your terminal), but they can be treated separately:

$ ls
$ ls fo.txt
ls: fo.txt: No such file or directory
$ ls fo.txt > output.txt 2>errors.txt
$ ls
foo.txt    output.txt   errors.txt
$ cat output.txt
$ cat errors.txt
ls: fo.txt: No such file or directory

What happened there? Well, we asked for “ls fo.txt“, but fo.txt doesn’t exist (foo.txt does). So we see an error from ls. If we direct stdout to “output.txt” and stderr to “errors.txt”, then we can see the difference. What ls actually did, was that it wrote *nothing* to stdout and the error message was sent to stderr. (stderr has file descriptor #2, so we say “2>” to direct stderr.) So when we “cat output.txt“, we get nothing (there was no output), but when we “cat errors.txt“, we see the error.

stdin: Redirecting Input

This is most commonly done by system utilities, but many shell scripts use the functionality.
The simple way is to use the “<” director:

$ mycommand < myfile.txt

This will take input from “myfile.txt” instead of from the keyboard.

The second way is probably more common. The more example above had more redirecting its input, via the pipe (“|“). We can create entire pipelines this way:

$ find . -print | grep foo | more

This will attach the stdout of the find command to the stdin of the grep command, and attach the stdout of grep to the stdin of more. Got that?! So what the *nix kernel will do, is that it will start more first, and then start grep telling it that its stdout is more‘s stdin. It will then start find, and tell it that its stdout is grep‘s stdin.

There’s actually more to it than that, but that’s got the basics of stdin, stdout and stderr covered briefly.

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