I need to run grep on a couple of million files. Therefore I tried to speed it up, following the two approaches mentioned here: xargs -P -n and GNU parallel. I tried this on a subset of my files (9026 in number), and this was the result:

  1. With xargs -P 8 -n 1000, very fast:

    $ time find tex -maxdepth 1 -name "*.json" | \
                    xargs -P 8 -n 1000 grep -ohP "'pattern'" > /dev/null
    real    0m0.085s
    user    0m0.333s
    sys     0m0.058s
  2. With parallel, very slow:

    $ time find tex -maxdepth 1 -name "*.json" | \
                    parallel -j 8 grep -ohP "'pattern'" > /dev/null
    real    0m21.566s
    user    0m22.021s
    sys     0m18.505s
  3. Even sequential xargs is faster than parallel:

    $ time find tex -maxdepth 1 -name "*.json" | \
                    xargs grep -ohP 'pattern' > /dev/null
    real    0m0.242s
    user    0m0.209s
    sys     0m0.040s

xargs -P n does not work for me because the output from all the processes gets interleaved, which does not happen with parallel. So I would like to use parallel without incurring this huge slowdown.

Any ideas?


  1. Following the answer by Ole Tange, I tried parallel -X, the results are here, for completeness:

    $ time find tex -maxdepth 1 -name "*.json" | \
        parallel -X -j 8 grep -ohP "'pattern'" > /dev/null
    real    0m0.563s
    user    0m0.583s
    sys     0m0.110s
  2. Fastest solution: Following the comment by @cas, I tried to grep with -H option (to force printing the filenames), and sorting. Results here:

    time find tex -maxdepth 1 -name '*.json' -print0 | \
        xargs -0r -P 9 -n 500 grep --line-buffered -oHP 'pattern' | \
        sort -t: -k1 | cut -d: -f2- > /dev/null
    real    0m0.144s
    user    0m0.417s
    sys     0m0.095s
  • 1
    I think the slowdown might be caused by parallel launching new shell for each invocation. If yes, is there any way to avoid it?
    – nofrills
    Commented Mar 30, 2016 at 16:16
  • how many lines of output do you expect?
    – iruvar
    Commented Mar 30, 2016 at 18:24
  • @1_CR I expect 2 - 10 lines of output from each file.
    – nofrills
    Commented Mar 30, 2016 at 21:55
  • 2
    Ole Tange is usually on this forum and will probably have the last word on this but I suspect buffering up those many lines to be able to finally report them in order might have something to do with it
    – iruvar
    Commented Mar 30, 2016 at 22:14
  • 1
    ah, okay. the info docs mention what --stable does, but the man page only lists --stable with minimal description. I hate the way GNU tools leave important info out of man pages and expect you to rely on their crappy .info format.
    – cas
    Commented Mar 31, 2016 at 0:23

1 Answer 1


Try parallel -X. As written in the comments the overhead of starting a new shell and opening files for buffering for each argument is probably the cause.

Be aware that GNU Parallel will never be as fast as xargs because of that. Expect an overhead of 10 ms per job. With -X this overhead is less significant as you process more arguments in one job.

  • Thanks a lot! This indeed came out to be about twice as fast as xargs. I have included the results in the question.
    – nofrills
    Commented Mar 31, 2016 at 13:14

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