For the Love of Pipes
My top used shell command is
|. This is called a pipe.
In brief, the
| allows for the output of one program (on the left) to become
the input of another program (on the right). It is a way of connecting two
For example, if I were to run the following:
I get the output
But if I run:
echo "hello" | figlet
figlet program, changes the letters in
hello to look all bubbly and
This is a really blunt way of describing something that, in my opinion, is brilliant software design, but I will get into that in a second.
Let’s go back to the origin of pipes.
According to doc.cat-v.org/unix/pipes/, the origin of pipes came long before Unix. Pipes can be traced back to this note from Doug McIlroy in 1964:
- 10 - Summary--what's most important. To put my strongest concerns into a nutshell: 1. We should have some ways of coupling programs like garden hose--screw in another segment when it becomes when it becomes necessary to massage data in another way. This is the way of IO also. 2. Our loader should be able to do link-loading and controlled establishment. 3. Our library filing scheme should allow for rather general indexing, responsibility, generations, data path switching. 4. It should be possible to get private system components (all routines are system components) for buggering around with. M. D. McIlroy October 11, 1964
The Unix philosophy is documented by Doug McIlroy as:
Make each program do one thing well. To do a new job, build afresh rather than complicate old programs by adding new “features”.
Expect the output of every program to become the input to another, as yet unknown, program. Don’t clutter output with extraneous information. Avoid stringently columnar or binary input formats. Don’t insist on interactive input.
Design and build software, even operating systems, to be tried early, ideally within weeks. Don’t hesitate to throw away the clumsy parts and rebuild them.
Use tools in preference to unskilled help to lighten a programming task, even if you have to detour to build the tools and expect to throw some of them out after you’ve finished using them.
From the Bell Systems Technical Journal
What I love about Unix is the philosophy of “do one thing well” and “expect the output of every program to become the input to another”. This philosophy is built on the use of tools. These tools can be used separately or combined to get a job done. This is in stark contrast to monolithic programs that do everything or one-off programs used to solve a specific problem.
System programs and commands like
echo, which we saw above, output information to your terminal by
default. For example,
cat will “concatenate” (its namesake)
files and print the result to your terminal.
While reading Program design in Unix,
I realized that printing the output of the tool to the user’s terminal was actually the
“Perhaps surprisingly, in practice it turns out that the special case is the main use of the program.”
When a user redirects the output of
cat via a
| to some other program,
cat becomes so much more than what
the original author intended. This is one of the most brilliant design
patterns, in my opinion. For one, programs being simple and doing one thing
well makes them easy to grok. The beautiful part, though, is the fact that in
combination with a operator like
| the program becomes one step in a much larger plan. The original author of
cat does not even need to know about the larger plan. That is the beauty of
| it allows for solving problems by combining small,
simple programs together.
I love software design that enables creativity, values simplicity, and doesn’t put users in a box.
The pipe, is a key element for keeping programs simple while enabling
extensibility. A simple program in combination with a
| becomes so much more than what the
original author could have dreamed of.
I hope this post helped you learn something, if not, just pipe it to