I was testing the speed of Bash and Python by running a loop 1 billion times.

$ cat python.py
# python v3.5
while i<=1000000000:

Bash code:

$ cat bash2.sh
# bash v4.3
while [[ $i -le 1000000000 ]]
let i++

Using the time command I found out that the Python code takes just 48 seconds to finish while the Bash code took over 1 hour before I killed the script.

Why is this so? I expected that Bash would be faster. Is there something wrong with my script or is Bash really much slower with this script?

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    I'm not quite sure why you expected Bash to be faster than Python. – Kusalananda Aug 13 '16 at 8:49
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    @MatijaNalis no you can't! The script is loaded into memory, editing the text file it was read from (the script file) will have absolutely no effect on the running script. A good thing too, bash is already slow enough without having to open and re-read a file every time a loop is run! – terdon Aug 13 '16 at 12:05
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    Bash reads the file line-by-line as it executes, but it remembers what it read if it comes to that line again (because it's in a loop, or a function). The original claim about re-reading each iteration isn't true, but modifications to yet-to-be-reached lines will be effective. An interesting demonstration: make a file containing echo echo hello >> $0, and run it. – Michael Homer Aug 14 '16 at 10:28
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    @MatijaNalis ah, OK, I can understand that. It was the idea of changing a running loop that threw me. Presumably, each line is read sequentially and only after the last one has finished. However, a loop is treated as a single command and will be read in its entirety, so changing it won't affect the running process. Interesting distinction though, I had always assumed that the entire script is loaded into memory before execution. Thanks for pointing it out! – terdon Aug 14 '16 at 13:57

This is a known bug in bash; see the man page and search for "BUGS":

       It's too big and too slow.


For an excellent primer on the conceptual differences between shell scripting and other programming languages, I highly recommend reading:

The most pertinent excerpts:

Shells are a higher level language. One may say it's not even a language. They're before all command line interpreters. The job is done by those commands you run and the shell is only meant to orchestrate them.


IOW, in shells, especially to process text, you invoke as few utilities as possible and have them cooperate to the task, not run thousands of tools in sequence waiting for each one to start, run, clean up before running the next one.


As said earlier, running one command has a cost. A huge cost if that command is not builtin, but even if they are builtin, the cost is big.

And shells have not been designed to run like that, they have no pretension to being performant programming languages. They are not, they're just command line interpreters. So, little optimisation has been done on this front.

Don't use big loops in shell scripting.


Shell loops are slow and bash's are the slowest. Shells aren't meant to do heavy work in loops. Shells are meant to launch a few external, optimized processes on batches of data.

Anyway, I was curious how shell loops compare so I made a little benchmark:


export IT=$((10**6))

echo POSIX:
for sh in dash bash ksh zsh; do
    TIMEFORMAT="%RR %UU %SS $sh"
    time $sh -c 'i=0; while [ "$IT" -gt "$i" ]; do i=$((i+1)); done'

echo C-LIKE:
for sh in bash ksh zsh; do
    TIMEFORMAT="%RR %UU %SS $sh"
    time $sh -c 'for ((i=0;i<IT;i++)); do :; done'

echo 'int main(){ int i,sum; for(i=0;i<IT;i++) sum+=i; printf("%d\n", sum); return 0; }' |
   gcc -include stdio.h -O3 -x c -DIT=$G - 
time ./a.out

( Details:

  • CPU: Intel(R) Core(TM) i5 CPU M 430 @ 2.27GHz
  • ksh: version sh (AT&T Research) 93u+ 2012-08-01
  • bash: GNU bash, version 4.3.11(1)-release (x86_64-pc-linux-gnu)
  • zsh: zsh 5.2 (x86_64-unknown-linux-gnu)
  • dash: 0.5.7-4ubuntu1


The (abbreviated) results (time per iteration) are:

5.8 µs  dash
8.5 µs ksh
14.6 µs zsh
22.6 µs bash

2.7 µs ksh
5.8 µs zsh
11.7 µs bash

0.4 ns C

From the results:

If you want a slightly faster shell loop, then if you have the [[ syntax and you want a fast shell loop, you're in an advanced shell and you have the C-like for loop too. Use the C like for loop, then. They can be about 2 times as fast as while [-loops in the same shell.

  • ksh has the fastest for ( loop at about 2.7µs per iteration
  • dash has the fastest while [ loop at about 5.8µs per iteration

C for loops can be 3-4 decimal orders of magnitude faster. (I heard the Torvalds love C).

The optimized C for loop is 56500 times faster than bash's while [ loop (the slowest shell loop) and 6750 times faster than ksh's for ( loop (the fastest shell loop).

Again, the slowness of shells shouldn't matter much though, because the typical pattern with shells is to offload to a few processes of external, optimized programs.

With this pattern, shells often make it much easier to write scripts with performance superior to python scripts (last time I checked, creating process pipelines in python was rather clumsy).

Another thing to consider is startup time.

time python3 -c ' '

takes 30 to 40 ms on my PC whereas shells take around 3ms. If you launch a lot of scripts, this quickly adds up and you can do very very much in the extra 27-37 ms that python takes just to start. Small scripts can be finished several times over in that time frame.

(NodeJs is probably the worst scripting runtime in this department as it takes about 100ms just to start (even though once it has started, you'd be hard pressed to find a better performer among scripting languages)).

  • For ksh, you may want to specify the implementation (AT&T ksh88, AT&T ksh93, pdksh, mksh...) as there's quite a lot of variation between them. For bash, you may want to specify the version. It made some progress lately (that applies also to other shells). – Stéphane Chazelas Aug 13 '16 at 15:42
  • @StéphaneChazelas Thanks. I added the versions of the used software and hardware. – PSkocik Aug 13 '16 at 15:50
  • For reference: to create a process pipeline in python you have to do something like: from subprocess import *; p1=Popen(['echo', 'something'], stdout=PIPE); p2 = Popen(['grep', 'pattern'], stdin=p1.stdout, stdout=PIPE); Popen(['wc', '-c'], stdin=PIPE). This is indeed clumsy, but it shouldn't be hard to code a pipeline function that does this for you for any number of processes, resulting in pipeline(['echo', 'something'], ['grep', 'patter'], ['wc', '-c']). – Bakuriu Aug 13 '16 at 18:11
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    I thought maybe the gcc optimizer was totally eliminating the loop. It's not, but it's still doing an interesting optimization: it uses SIMD instructions to do 4 adds in parallel, reducing the number of loop iterations to 250000. – Mark Plotnick Aug 13 '16 at 21:35
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    @PSkocik: It's right on the edge of what optimizers can do in 2016. It looks like C++17 will mandate that compilers must be able to calculate similar expressions at compile time (not even as an optimization). With that C++ capability in place, GCC may pick it up as an optimization for C as well. – MSalters Aug 15 '16 at 12:18

I did a bit of testing, and on my system ran the following--none made the order of magnitude speedup that would be needed to be competitive, but you can make it faster:

Test 1: 18.233s

while [[ $i -le 4000000 ]]
    let i++

test2: 20.45s

while [[ $i -le 4000000 ]]

test3: 17.64s

while [[ $i -le 4000000 ]]; do let i++; done

test4: 26.69s

while [ $i -le 4000000 ]; do let i++; done

test5: 12.79s

export LC_ALL=C

for ((i=0; i != 4000000; i++)) { 

The important part in this last one is the export LC_ALL=C. I've found that many bash operations end up significantly faster if this is used, in particular any regex function. It also shows an undocumented for syntax to use the {} and the : as a no-op.

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    +1 for the LC_ALL suggestion, I did not know that. – einpoklum Aug 13 '16 at 16:58
  • +1 Interesting how the [[ is so much faster than [. I didn't know LC_ALL=C (BTW you don't need to export it) made a difference. – PSkocik Aug 13 '16 at 20:06
  • @PSkocik As far as I know, [[ is a bash builtin, and [ is really /bin/[, which is the same as /bin/test -- an external program. Which is why thay's slower. – tomsmeding Aug 14 '16 at 7:29
  • @tomsmending [ is a builtin in all common shells (try type [). The external program is mostly unused now. – PSkocik Aug 14 '16 at 9:09

A shell is efficient if you use it for what it has been designed for (though efficiency is rarely what you look for in a shell).

A shell is a command-line interpreter, it is designed to run commands and have them cooperate to a task.

If you want to count to 1000000000, you invoke a (one) command to count, like seq, bc, awk or python/perl... Running 1000000000 [[...]] commands and 1000000000 let commands is bound to be terribly inefficient, especially with bash which is the slowest shell of all.

In that regard, a shell will be a lot faster:

$ time sh -c 'seq 100000000' > /dev/null
sh -c 'seq 100000000' > /dev/null  0.77s user 0.03s system 99% cpu 0.805 total
$ time python -c 'i=0
> while i <= 100000000: i=i+1'
python -c 'i=0 while i <= 100000000: i=i+1'  12.12s user 0.00s system 99% cpu 12.127 total

Though of course, most of the job is done by the commands that the shell invokes, as it should be.

Now, you could of course do the same with python:

python -c '
import os
os.dup2(os.open("/dev/null", os.O_WRONLY), 1);
os.execlp("seq", "seq", "100000000")'

But that's not really how you'd do things in python as python is primarily a programming language, not a command line interpreter.

Note that you could do:

python -c 'import os; os.system("seq 100000000 > /dev/null")'

But, python would actually be calling a shell to interpret that command line!

  • I love your answer. So many other answers discuss improved "how" techniques, while you cover both the "why" and perceptively the "why not" addressing the error in methodology of approach of the OP. – greg.arnott Nov 30 '18 at 1:51

Answer: Bash is much slower than Python.

One little example is in blog post Performance of several languages.


Nothing is wrong (except your expectations) as python is really rather fast for non-compiled language, see https://wiki.python.org/moin/PythonSpeed

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    I rather discourage from answers like this one, this belongs to comments IMHO. – LinuxSecurityFreak Nov 22 '16 at 5:48

Aside the comments, you could optimize the code a little, e.g.

for (( i = 0; i <= 1000000000; i++ ))
: # null command

This code should take a bit less time.

But obviously not fast enough to be actually usable.


I've noticed a dramatic difference in bash from the use of logically equivalent "while" and "until" expressions:

time (i=0 ; while ((i<900000)) ; do  i=$((i+1)) ; done )

real    0m5.339s
user    0m5.324s
sys 0m0.000s

time (i=0 ; until ((i=900000)) ; do  i=$((i+1)) ; done )

real    0m0.000s
user    0m0.000s
sys 0m0.000s

Not that it really bears tremendous relevance to the question, other than that perhaps sometimes small differences make a big difference, even though we'd expect they'd be equivalent.

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    Try with this one ((i==900000)). – user147505 Aug 15 '16 at 0:47
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    You're using = for assignment. It will return true immediately. No loop will take place. – Wildcard Nov 5 '16 at 2:55
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    Have you actually used Bash before? :) – LinuxSecurityFreak Nov 22 '16 at 5:49

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