I have a folder which has 250+ files of 2 GB each. I need to search for a string/pattern in those files and output the result in an output file. I know I can run the following command, but it is too slow!!

grep mypattern * > output

I want to speed it up. Being a programmer in Java, I know multi-threading can be used for speeding up the process. I'm stuck on how to start grep in "multi-threaded mode" and write the output into a single output file.

There are two easy solutions for this. Basically, using xargs or parallel.

xargs Approach:

You can use xargs with find as follows:

find . -type f -print0  | xargs -0 -P number_of_processes grep mypattern > output

Where you will replace number_of_processes by the maximum number of processes you want to be launched. However, this is not guaranteed to give you a significant performance in case your performance is I/O limited. In which case you might try to start more processes to compensate for the time lost waiting for I/Os.

Also, with the inclusion of find, you can specify more advanced options instead of just file patterns, like modification time, etc ...

One possible issue with this approach as explained by Stéphane's comments, if there are few files, xargs may not start sufficiently many processes for them. One solution will be to use the -n option for xargs to specify how many arguments should it take from the pipe at a time. Setting -n1 will force xargs to start a new process for each single file. This might be a desired behavior if the files are very large (like in the case of this question) and there is a relatively small number of files. However, if the files themselves are small, the overhead of starting a new process may undermine the advantage of parallelism, in which case a greater -n value will be better. Thus, the -n option might be fine tuned according to the file sizes and number.

Parallel Approach:

Another way to do it is to use Ole Tange GNU Parallel tool parallel, (available here). This offers greater fine grain control over parallelism and can even be distributed over multiple hosts (would be beneficial if your directory is shared for example). Simplest syntax using parallel will be:

find . -type f | parallel -j+1 grep mypattern

where the option -j+1 instructs parallel to start one process in excess of the number of cores on your machine (This can be helpful for I/O limited tasks, you may even try to go higher in number).

Parallel also has the advantage over xargs of actually retaining the order of the output from each process and generating a contiguous output. For example, with xargs, if process 1 generates a line say p1L1, process 2 generates a line p2L1, process 1 generates another line p1L2, the output will be:


whereas with parallel the output should be:


This is usually more useful than xargs output.

  • You'd probably want to use -n in combination with -P. Otherwise, xargs may not end up spawning several processes if there are two few files. – Stéphane Chazelas Apr 25 '15 at 19:43
  • Well, -n1 would start one grep per file. Unless the files are very big and there are very few of them, you'd probably want to increase that a bit as you'll spend your time starting and stopping grep processes instead of searching in files. – Stéphane Chazelas Apr 25 '15 at 20:48

There are at least two ways of speeding up grep CPU-wise:

  • If you're searching for a fixed string rather than a regular expression, specify the -F flag;

  • If your pattern is ASCII-only, use an 8-bit locale instead of UTF-8, e.g. LC_ALL=C grep ....

These won't help though if your hard drive is the bottleneck; in that case probably parallelizing won't help either.

  • 1
    Just saw in man grep "Direct invocation as either egrep or fgrep is deprecated, but is provided to allow historical applications that rely on them to run unmodified." Not sure this matters really, but is the same as grep -F – iyrin Apr 25 '15 at 18:05
  • 1
    Also when you say "rather than a pattern" are you referring to a regular expression? – iyrin Apr 25 '15 at 18:10
  • Indeed, thanks. Fixed. – egmont Apr 25 '15 at 18:13
  • The "ASCII-only" search uses massively less CPU. But you need to read the caveats mentioned in the comments at stackoverflow.com/a/11777835/198219 – famzah Sep 19 '16 at 20:31

If the problem is not I/O bound you could use a tool that is optimized for multi-core processing.

You might want to take a look at sift (http://sift-tool.org, disclaimer: I am the author of this tool) or the silver searcher (https://github.com/ggreer/the_silver_searcher).

the silver searcher has a file size limit of 2GB if you use a regex pattern and not a spimple string search.

  • Surely searching a bunch of files is a classic example of a problem that is IO bound? – Jonathan Hartley Oct 13 '17 at 1:18

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