section   next section   upper level

Section 7: Pipelines and Filters

CONCEPT: UNIX allows you to connect processes, by letting the standard output of one process feed into the standard input of another process. That mechanism is called a pipe.

Connecting simple processes in a pipeline allows you to perform complex tasks without writing complex programs.

EXAMPLE: Using the more command, and a pipe, send the contents of your .profile and .shrc files to the screen by typing

cat .profile .shrc | more
to the shell.

EXERCISE: How could you use head and tail in a pipeline to display lines 25 through 75 of a file?

ANSWER: The command

cat file | head -75 | tail -50
would work. The cat command feeds the file into the pipeline. The head command gets the first 75 lines of the file, and passes them down the pipeline to tail. The tail command then filters out all but the last 50 lines of the input it received from head. It is important to note that in the above example, tail never sees the original file, but only sees the part of the file that was passed to it by the head command.

It is easy for beginners to confuse the usage of the input/output redirection symbols < and >, with the usage of the pipe. Remember that input/output redirection connects processes with files, while the pipe connects processes with other processes.


The grep utility is one of the most useful filters in UNIX. Grep searches line-by-line for a specified pattern, and outputs any line that matches the pattern. The basic syntax for the grep command is grep [-options] pattern [file]. If the file argument is omitted, grep will read from standard input. It is always best to enclose the pattern within single quotes, to prevent the shell from misinterpreting the command.

The grep utility recognizes a variety of patterns, and the pattern specification syntax was taken from the vi editor. Here are some of the characters you can use to build grep expressions:

EXAMPLE: Type the command

grep 'jon' /etc/passwd
to search the /etc/passwd file for any lines containing the string "jon".

EXAMPLE: Type the command

grep '^jon' /etc/passwd
to see the lines in /etc/passwd that begin with the character string "jon".

EXERCISE:List all the files in the /tmp directory owned by the user root.

EXPLANATION: The command

ls -l /tmp | grep 'root'
would show all processes with the word "root" somewhere in the line. That doesn't necessarily mean that all the process would be owned by root, but using the grep filter can cut the down the number of processes you will have to look at.
section   next section   upper level