Running GNU bash, version 4.3.11(1)-release (x86_64-pc-linux-gnu).

I don't really understand process substitution (ProcSub) from the perspective of a user interested in lifting the hood on i/o processing and related speed issues. I use ProcSub to script, so I have some knowledge of File Descriptors 0,1,2, but that's pretty much it. I have read a few pretty good posts, e.g. [1], and misc. wikis, e.g. [2],[3], the latter stating: "Process substitution feeds the output (FD 1 and/or 2) of a process (or processes) into the stdin (FD 0) of another process". By that simplest of definitions and for just one process, it seems operationally no different from a simple unnamed pipe.

To look into that I started with tee, in itself interesting from the point of view of i/o.
tee permits feeding "stdin to stdout and also to any files given as argument". So :

$ for i in 1 2 3; do (( j=i+10 )); printf "%d\n" $j > file_$i; done
# so each file in file_{1,2,3} contains the numeral in its name + 10.
$ cat file_{1,2,3} | tee file_4
$ cat file_4

Obviously, I am not interested in seeing data filling my screen ala Matrix, so when:

1) I add a pipe and redirection of shasum's output ...

$ cat file_{1,2,3} | tee file_4 | shasum -a 256 > file_4.sha256

the one liner above exits quietly, file_4 is as before (above) and file_4.sha256 contains the computed SHA256 sum.

The above is just an example to illustrate my question, trying to understand intermediate i/o's. My layman's conclusion is that tee saves the output of the cat cmd in file_4 and its copy normally sent to stdout is actually not sent to stdout but piped to shasum.
Q: Is this even remotely right ?

2) I try the same with ProcSub:

$ cat file_{1,2,3} | tee file_4 >(shasum -a 256 > file_4.sha256)

-> No stdout redirection of whatever being sent to FD 1 by tee ?

Q: I am not clear on what ProcSub does or does not do to i/o (obviously it does not affect i/o in this case) and could use an explanation of its mechanism.

3) I try with ProcSub and redirection of final stdout to file_4:

$ cat file_{1,2,3} | tee >(shasum -a 256 > file_4.sha256) > file_4

Again this time the one-liner exists quietly.

Q: So the general question is: how are i/o processed for the 3 cases above (or at least for the second and third) ? There are obvious and visible differences in i/o terms (just looking at final stdout), but sometimes different i/o processes can lead to identical end-results on the display. Tx.

  • Whoever good soul answer this, I think it would be nice to explain why the <(...) construct won't work in the third case.
    – Kira
    Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 16:34
  • @Kira There is only >(...), and I do not see anything in the question that would tell me that it does not work. Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 19:00
  • I know, it is me who is asking (=
    – Kira
    Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 19:08
  • @Kira: Do you mean to refer to the syntax: $ tee <"$filename1" filename2 ? Here tee will read from $filename1 and print to stdout as well as to $filename2. This does not involve process substitution but just plain usual redirection of output. Alternatively you can alway use process substitution with redirection as so: $ tee < <(shasum -a 256 filename1) filename2 . You can even write my 3rd example as: `$ tee < <(shasum -a 256 <(cat file_{1..3})) > file_4. Nesting of process expansions is allowed. It can rapidly become a bit muddled though. Did I understand yr question correctly ?
    – Cbhihe
    Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 13:45

2 Answers 2


The idiom >(...) just means (in layman terms): "the name of a file".

And it works as a "name of a file" (sort of, all will be clear in an instant):

$ echo <(date)

Or some other number/name on your OS. But echo does print a name, exactly as if you do:

$ echo ProcSubs11

And if a file with the label ProcSubs11 exists, you could also do:

$ cat ProcSubs11

Which you could do exactly the same with:

$ cat <(date)
Fri Jan 15 21:25:18 UTC 2016

The difference is that the actual name of the "Process Substitution" is "not visible" and that the details are a lot longer than reading a simple file, as described quite well in all the painful detail in the link to How process substitution is implemented in bash?.

Having said the above, lets review your items.

Q 1

...seems operationally no different from a simple unnamed pipe...

Well, "Process Substitution" is exactly based in an unnamed pipe as your given first link states:

  1. The bash process creates an unnamed pipe for communication between the two processes created later.

The difference is that all the ~6 steps explained in the link are simplified to one idiom >(...) for writing to and <(...) for reading from.

And, it could be argued that the connection (pipe) has a name, as a file has. Just that that name is hidden from the user (the /proc/self/fd/11 shown at the start).

Example 1

1) I add a pipe and redirection of shasum's output ...

$ cat file_{1,2,3} | tee file_4 | shasum -a 256 > file_4.sha256

There is no "Process Substitution" there, but it worth noting (for later) that tee sends (writes to) what it receive in its stdin to a file file_4 and also sends the same stdin content to stdout. Which happens to be connected to a pipe (in this case) that writes to shasum.

So, in short, in layman terms, tee copy stdin to both file_4 and shasum.

Example 2

2) I try the same with ProcSub:

$ cat file_{1,2,3} | tee file_4 >(shasum -a 256 > file_4.sha256)

Re-using the description above (in layman terms) to describe this example:

Tee copy stdin to three elements: file_4, shasum and stdout.

Why?. Remember that >(...) is the name of a file, lets put that in the line:

$ cat file_{1,2,3} | tee file_4 /proc/self/fd/11

tee is serving the input to two files file_4 and shasum (via "Process Substitution") and the stdout of tee is still connected to its default place: the console. That is why you see the numbers in the console.

To make this example exactly equal to 1), we could do:

$ cat file_{1,2,3} | tee file_4 > /proc/self/fd/11  ### note the added `>`

Which becomes (yes, the space between > and >( must be used.

$ cat file_{1,2,3} | tee file_4 > >(shasum -a 256 > file_4.sha256)

That is redirecting tee's stdout to the "Process Substitution".

Q 3

Q: So the general question is: how are i/o processed for the 3 cases above

I believe I just did explain the 3 cases, if not clear, please comment.

Q 4 (in comments, Please edit and add the question)

why the <(...) construct won't work in the third case.

Because (in layman terms) you can not insert a male prong into a male socket.

The <(...) idiom reads from what is inside the "Process substitution" and therefore provides an "output" and should be inserted in the stdin of the outside command. The outside command tee is trying to connect stdout (like) elements. So, that pair could not match.

An important note: The command cat hides some details when applied to "Process Substitution", as both this command will give the same output:

$ cat   <(date)
$ cat < <(date)

All is correct, but drawing conclusions from a misleading equality is wrong.

  • +1 Thanks very much, also for the answer to @kira 's comment's question on connector's gender ;-D !
    – Cbhihe
    Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 9:18
  • @Cbhihe You are welcome. I am happy to know that the answer has been useful.
    – user79743
    Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 9:28

it seems operationally no different from a simple unnamed pipe.

The point is that not every software may support reading from stdin or writing to stdout.

Furthermore if you want input from several processes then you cannot tell them apart (without looking at the data itself) with just a pipe:

{ echo foo; echo bar; } | cat
# vs.
cat <(echo foo) <(echo bar)

with cat obviously being a bad example. But with awk it can make a difference (FNR vs. NR).


tee file_4 >(shasum -a 256 > file_4.sha256)

No stdout redirection of whatever being sent to FD 1 by tee?

No, why should there be? >(cmd) does not mean "redirect stdout"! So there is a command without redirection. In case 3) you add redirection to the command and the output is redirected.

You can use this for a better understanding of your command lines:

echo tee file_4 >(shasum -a 256 > file_4.sha256)
  • From your last line, echo tee ..., I just get a file descriptor pertaining to the process substitution: Output: tee file_4 /dev/fd/63. Sorry, but how does that answer my question ?
    – Cbhihe
    Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 20:29
  • 1
    @Cbhihe The echo shows that /dev/fd/63 is nor part of a redirection becuase otherwise it would not be visible. Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 21:24
  • Ok, I think I am beginning to see ...That takes care of part 2) in OP. Thanks. +1
    – Cbhihe
    Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 9:17

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