Say we have a named pipe called fifo, and we're reading and writing to it from two different shells. Consider these two examples:

shell 1$ echo foo > fifo
shell 2$ cat fifo
shell 1$ echo bar > fifo

shell 1$ cat > fifo
<typing> foo
shell 2$ cat fifo
shell 1$
<typing> bar

I can't wrap my head around what happens in these examples, and in particular why trying to write 'bar' to the pipe in the first example results in a blocking call, whereas in the second example it triggers a SIGPIPE.

I do understand that in the first case, two separate processes write to the pipe, and thus it is opened twice, while in the second case it is only opened once by a single process and written to twice, with the process reading from the pipe being killed in the meantime. What I don't understand is how that affects the behaviour of write.

The pipe(7) man page states:

If all file descriptors referring to the read end of a pipe have been closed, then a write(2) will cause a SIGPIPE signal to be generated for the calling process.

This condition doesn't sound clear to me. A closed file descriptor just ceases to be a file descriptor, right? How does saying "the reading end of the pipe has been closed" differ from "the reading end of the pipe is not open"?

I hope my question was clear enough. By the way, if you could suggest pointers for understanding in details the functioning of Unix pipes in relationship to open, close, read and write operations, I'd greatly appreciate it.

2 Answers 2


Your example is using a fifo not a pipe, so is subject to fifo(7). pipe(7) also tells:

A FIFO (short for First In First Out) has a name within the filesystem (created using mkfifo(3)), and is opened using open(2). Any process may open a FIFO, assuming the file permissions allow it. The read end is opened using the O_RDONLY flag; the write end is opened using the O_WRONLY flag. See fifo(7) for further details. Note: although FIFOs have a pathname in the filesystem, I/O on FIFOs does not involve operations on the underlying device (if there is one).

I/O on pipes and FIFOs
The only difference between pipes and FIFOs is the manner in which they are created and opened. Once these tasks have been accomplished, I/O on pipes and FIFOs has exactly the same semantics.

So now from fifo(7):

The kernel maintains exactly one pipe object for each FIFO special file that is opened by at least one process. The FIFO must be opened on both ends (reading and writing) before data can be passed. Normally, opening the FIFO blocks until the other end is opened also.

So before both ends (here meaning there is at least a reader and a writer) are opened, write blocks as per fifo(7). After both ends have been opened, and then (the) reading end(s) closed, write generates SIGPIPE as per pipe(7).

For an example of pipe usage (not fifo) look at the example section of pipe(2) : involves pipe() (no open(), since pipe() actually created the pipe pair opened), close(), read() write() and fork() (there's almost always a fork() around when using a pipe).

The simpliest way to handle SIGPIPE from your own C code if you don't want it to die when writing to a fifo, would be to call signal(SIGPIPE, SIG_IGN); and handle it by checking for errno EPIPE after each write() instead.

  • 1
    the pipe(7) man page also says that "The only difference between pipes and FIFOs is the manner in which they are created and opened." so for this behaviour, it really doesn't matter which one it is (except that it's easier to do this experiment with a fifo)
    – ilkkachu
    Oct 20, 2022 at 5:21

Writing to a pipe or FIFO that doesn't have a reading process is treated as an error condition; it generates a SIGPIPE signal, and fails with error code EPIPE if the signal is handled or blocked.

  • 1
    But not on the first write to the FIFO, right? On the first write it blocks until a reader appears and starts to consume. If that reader dies then when the producer next writes then it gets a SIGPIPE, right? Sep 14, 2021 at 7:09
  • @ChristopherKing, not the first write, but opening the FIFO. fifo(7) man page says "Normally, opening the FIFO blocks until the other end is opened also." (but you can open in nonblocking mode)
    – ilkkachu
    Oct 20, 2022 at 5:27

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