An introduction to unix pipes

By Aurélien Brabant

Communication between programs is crucial, and is one of the topic any novice programmer needs to face at some point. On an UNIX system, one easy way of sharing data is to use pipes.

Pipes are often considered as a difficult topic when tackled by beginners, but in fact this is probably the easiest way to do inter-process communication on an UNIX based operating system.

This article aims to explain clearly what pipes are and how to use them in C, in a concise and clear way. First we're going to talk about what pipes are and why they are useful (which problem do they solve?), and we'll finally implement a really simple C program making use of these.

Inter process communication

What is Inter Process Communication (IPC)

In computer science, a process is an instance of a program which is executed by the CPU, making use of several pieces of the computer's hardware.

For example, when you run any command from a terminal, such as, let's say, ls, then a process is created and the code written for the ls utility is executed, inside a process that has a given identifier (PID).

In the case of ls, the code is really short, so the process does not have a really long lifetime, but most processes on your computer are actually constantly running, performing tasks that are essential to the operating system.

Sometimes, different processes that are part of a single application (but not necessarily) may want to communicate informations to each other. However, because the code and memory section of each process is absolutely separated from each other, this communication can't be achieved naturally. This is the problem of inter communication between processes.

Forms of inter process communication

Fortunately, operating systems provides ways to actually perform IPC without any problem. Below are some of them:

These different ways all have their pros and cons, but in this post, we'll concentrate on pipes which are really handy for doing simple IPC.

The pipe IPC mechanism

A quick reminder about file descriptors

When using pipes on an UNIX system, we'll need to manipulate what we refer to as file descriptors. File descriptors, often abbreviated fd, are small integer values that are local to a process and that refer to a file or a special device on the operating system.

As you may know, each time a process is created when running a command from the command line, three of them are automatically bound to the process:

As we said before, file descriptors are local to a process, which means that each process has its own set of file descriptors. However, it is perfectly possible and expected that these file descriptors refer to the same underlying operating system object (which is, in most cases, either a file or the terminal emulator device itself).

More about default file descriptors

Default file descriptors automatically made available to any program are usually 0 (standard input), 1 (standard output) and 2 (standard error).

Each one of these refer to the terminal emulator object, allowing to interact with it in a special way. Because they are bound to it, any write operation performed on fd 1 or 2 is going to print output on the terminal, while any read operation done on fd 0 will ask input to be provided from the terminal.

File descriptor limit per process

The number of file descriptors a process can open through the open system call is limited to a given number. It is therefore really important to never waste any file descriptor as it is a limited resource on the system.

The number of file descriptor a process can open on an UNIX based operating system can usually be obtained using the ulimit -n command.

$ ulimit -n
256

Note that this number includes the three default file descriptors, therefore a program can generally open n - 3 file descriptors, where n is the result given by ulimit -n.

Pipes

A pipe is basically an object on the system that has a fixed size and two ends: a read end and a write end.

A ordinary pipe is designed to be an unidirectional form of IPC. One process writes into the pipe's write end, while another process reads from the pipe.

Let's consider this simple C program:

int	main(void)
{
	int childPid = fork();
	if (childPid == 0) {
		char *av[] = {
			"/bin/echo",
			"h_e_l_l_o_ _w_o_r_l_d",
			NULL,
		};
		if (execv(av[0], av) == -1) {

This simple program creates a new child process, and execute the /bin/echo 'h_e_l_l_o_ _w_o_r_l_d' program, by using execv. If for any reason execv fails, the error is reported.

Let's say we want to remove every _ from the output generated by the echo program, but using the tr -d command. Using bash or any shell, it would be as easy as:

/bin/echo 'h_e_l_l_o_ _w_o_r_l_d' | tr -d '_'

Our goal is to reproduce this exact behaviour, but for that we'll need to use pipes.

Let's just do it!

At the moment, we already have a working call to the system echo program, which by default outputs on file descriptor 1.

We need to make a call to tr now, but we also need to give it the output of the echo command as input to work with.

In order to achieve that, we can use a pipe to make the child process that executes echo output in the pipe, while the master process calls the tr command, providing the read end of the pipe as input.

Initializing a pipe

First, we need to initialize a pipe. To do that, we must use the pipe function which is declared inside the unistd.h header.

int pipe(int pipefd[2]);

This function takes an array of 2 integers as a single parameter. If the pipe function succeeds, pipefd[0] is a file descriptor refering to the read end of the pipe while pipefd[1] refers to the write end of it.

We need to define the array and call the pipe function before the original process gets forked, because the child process will have to inherit the file descriptors refering to the pipe.

int main(void)
{
	int pipefd[2];

	if (pipe(pipefd) == -1) {
		perror("pipe: ");
		exit(1);
	}
	/* ... */
}

If pipe returns -1, it means that an error occured, so we don't want to continue in that case. If the call succeeds, 0 is returned and our pipe has been successfully initialized.

Redirecting echo's output

echo outputs on file descriptor 1 by default. That's what we normally expect from echo, but here what we want is to redirect its output directly into the pipe, using the write end of the pipe stored in pipefd[1].

When a process is forked, the child process is a copy of the process that just called the fork system call. Therefore, the opened file descriptors are inherited, which means that the child process has also access to the pipe.

In fact, it would be a good idea to make echo output in the write end of the pipe instead of the standard output. But how can we change the file descriptor echo outputs to? Well, we simply need to make the file descriptor 1 refer to the write end of the pipe instead of the standard output. How can we do that? Using dup2!

dup2 is another function declared in unistd.h which's role is to duplicate a file descriptor, but it's doing it in a particular fashion.

dup2(int fd, int fd2);

dup2 will simply close fd2 (if opened) and duplicate fd, giving it the same file descriptor as fd2.

Thus the following call:

dup2(2, 1);

Will close the fd 1, which refers to the standard output, duplicates the fd 2, which refers to the standard error, and attribute to the last the file descriptor 1.

After this call to dup2, any operation performed on the file descriptor 1 will in fact be performed on the standard error.

Given this demonstration, we can do exactly the same thing with our situation here. Before the call to execv is made, we can redirect the output of echo using dup2.

/* ... */
if (childPid == 0) {
	char *av[] = {
		"/bin/echo",
		"h_e_l_l_o_ _w_o_r_l_d",
		NULL,
	};
	dup2(pipefd[1], 1); /* stdout closed, fd 1 now refers to pipefd[1] in the child process */
	if (execv(av[0], av) == -1) {
		perror("execv: ");

We did it! Output generated by the echo command is now going to be redirected to the write end of the pipe.

The only thing missing now is the call to the tr command in the parent process.

Wiring up the write end of the pipe to the input of the tr command

To call the tr command from the parent process, we can use pretty much similar code than the one in the child process:

if (childPid == 0) { /* ... */ }

char *av[] = {
	"/usr/bin/tr",
	"-d",
	"_",
	NULL,
};

if (execv(av[0], av) == -1) {

This code replaces the parent process by the tr program, but before calling execv we need to wire up the read end of the pipe to the parent process input, in order for tr to process it.

To do so, we just need to perform the same call to dup2 that we just did in the child process, but here what we care about is input.

dup2(pipefd[0], 0);

Will close the standard input bound by default to the parent process, duplicate the file descriptor pipefd[0], giving to the duplicate the file descriptor 0.

Now try to run the entire program, and let's see what happens!

Let's see if the program works!

Well, if we run the program, here is the output we get:

$ ./a.out
hello world

Amazing, looks like it's working as expected! All the underscores have been removed by tr -d and now the "hello world" string is printed on the standard output.

However, it looks like the shell does not give the prompt back! It seems that we're stuck in a kind of "infinite loop" here.

In fact, this is to be expected, as we did not consider one of the most fundamental property of pipes. Let's see what this is about!

Pipes life span

One important thing to consider about pipes is their life span:

Investigating our code

Given these explanations, we can easily guess what is going on with our "infinite loop" here. tr is expecting input from the standard input (here, the read end of our pipe) until EOF is encountered (i.e a read that returns 0) but in the parent process, we still have an opened file descriptor that refers to the write end of the pipe: this is pipefd[1], which is never used in the parent process anyway.

Because it is of no use and that we want to stop tr from reading from the pipe, we should have closed pipefd[1] after it was passed to the child process.

That way, file descriptor to the write end of the pipe won't exist: the one in the parent process would've been closed manually and the one in the child process is automatically closed when the child exits, that is, after echo has done its work.

Note that the same observation can be made about the read end of the pipe, and all file descriptors in general. If not needed in the current process, a file descriptor should be closed to avoid unexpected behaviour.

Here is the updated code, with the appropriate calls to close:

int	main(void)
{
	int pipefd[2];

	pipe(pipefd);

	/* child process, executes echo */
	int childPid = fork();
	if (childPid == 0) {
		 char *av[] = {

Well done! That's all for this post. I hope that this introduction to pipes helped and that it will help you making awesome projects!