Say I run some processes:

#!/usr/bin/env bash

foo &
bar &
baz &


I run the above script like so:

foobarbaz | cat

as far as I can tell, when any of the processes write to stdout/stderr, their output never interleaves - each line of stdio seems to be atomic. How does that work? What utility controls how each line is atomic?


2 Answers 2


They do interleave! You only tried short output bursts, which remain unsplit, but in practice it's hard to guarantee that any particular output remains unsplit.

Output buffering

It depends how the programs buffer their output. The stdio library that most programs use when they're writing uses buffers to make output more efficient. Instead of outputting data as soon as the program calls a library function to write to a file, the function stores this data in a buffer, and only actually outputs the data once the buffer has filled up. This means that output is done in batches. More precisely, there are three output modes:

  • Unbuffered: the data is written immediately, without using a buffer. This can be slow if the program writes its output in small pieces, e.g. character by character. This is the default mode for standard error.
  • Fully buffered: the data is only written when the buffer is full. This is the default mode when writing to a pipe or to a regular file, except with stderr.
  • Line-buffered: the data is written after each newline, or when the buffer is full. This is the default mode when writing to a terminal, except with stderr.

Programs can reprogram each file to behave differently, and can explicitly flush the buffer. The buffer is flushed automatically when a program closes the file or exits normally.

If all the programs that are writing to the same pipe either use line-buffered mode, or use unbuffered mode and write each line with a single call to an output function, and if the lines are short enough to write in a single chunk, then the output will be an interleaving of whole lines. But if one of the programs uses fully-buffered mode, or if the lines are too long, then you will see mixed lines.

Here is an example where I interleave the output from two programs. I used GNU coreutils on Linux; different versions of these utilities may behave differently.

  • yes aaaa writes aaaa forever in what is essentially equivalent to line-buffered mode. The yes utility actually writes multiple lines at a time, but each time it emits output, the output is a whole number of lines.
  • while true; do echo bbbb; done | grep b writes bbbb forever in fully-buffered mode. It uses a buffer size of 8192, and each line is 5 bytes long. Since 5 does not divide 8192, the boundaries between writes are not at a line boundary in general.

Let's pitch them together.

$ { yes aaaa & while true; do echo bbbb; done | grep b & } | head -n 999999 | grep -e ab -e ba

As you can see, yes sometimes interrupted grep and vice versa. Only about 0.001% of the lines got interrupted, but it happened. The output is randomized so the number of interruptions will vary, but I saw at least a few interruptions every time. There would be a higher fraction of interrupted lines if the lines were longer, since the likelihood of an interruption increases as the number of lines per buffer decreases.

There are several ways to adjust output buffering. The main ones are:

  • Turn off buffering in programs that use the stdio library without changing its default settings with the program stdbuf -o0 found in GNU coreutils and some other systems such as FreeBSD. You can alternatively switch to line buffering with stdbuf -oL.
  • Switch to line buffering by directing the program's output through a terminal created just for this purpose with unbuffer. Some programs may behave differently in other ways, for example grep uses colors by default if its output is a terminal.
  • Configure the program, for example by passing --line-buffered to GNU grep.

Let's see the snippet above again, this time with line buffering on both sides.

{ stdbuf -oL yes aaaa & while true; do echo bbbb; done | grep --line-buffered b & } | head -n 999999 | grep -e ab -e ba

So this time yes never interrupted grep, but grep sometimes interrupted yes. I'll come to why later.

Pipe interleaving

As long as each program outputs one line at a time, and the lines are short enough, the output lines will be neatly separated. But there's a limit to how long the lines can be for this to work. The pipe itself has a transfer buffer. When a program outputs to a pipe, the data is copied from the writer program to the pipe's transfer buffer, and then later from the pipe's transfer buffer to the reader program. (At least conceptually — the kernel may sometimes optimize this to a single copy.)

If there's more data to copy than fits in the pipe's transfer buffer, then the kernel copies one bufferful at a time. If multiple programs are writing to the same pipe, and the first program that the kernel picks wants to write more than one bufferful, then there's no guarantee that the kernel will pick the same program again the second time. For example, if P is the buffer size, foo wants to write 2*P bytes and bar wants to write 3 bytes, then one possible interleaving is P bytes from foo, then 3 bytes from bar, and P bytes from foo.

Coming back to the yes+grep example above, on my system, yes aaaa happens to write as many lines as can fit in a 8192-byte buffer in one go. Since there are 5 bytes to write (4 printable characters and the newline), that means it writes 8190 bytes every time. The pipe buffer size is 4096 bytes. It is therefore possible to get 4096 bytes from yes, then some output from grep, and then the rest of the write from yes (8190 - 4096 = 4094 bytes). 4096 bytes leaves room for 819 lines with aaaa and a lone a. Hence a line with this lone a followed by one write from grep, giving a line with abbbb.

If you want to see the details of what's going on, then getconf PIPE_BUF . will tell you the pipe buffer size on your system, and you can see a complete list of system calls made by each program with

strace -s9999 -f -o line_buffered.strace sh -c '{ stdbuf -oL yes aaaa & while true; do echo bbbb; done | grep --line-buffered b & }' | head -n 999999 | grep -e ab -e ba

How to guarantee clean line interleaving

If the line lengths are smaller than the pipe buffer size, then line buffering guarantees that there won't be any mixed line in the output.

If the line lengths can be larger, there's no way to avoid arbitrary mixing when multiple programs are writing to the same pipe. To ensure separation, you need to make each program write to a different pipe, and use a program to combine the lines. For example GNU Parallel does this by default.

  • interesting, so what might be a good way to ensure that all lines were written to cat atomically, such that the cat process receives whole lines from either foo/bar/baz but not half a line from one and half a line from another, etc. Is there something I can do with the bash script? Oct 17, 2018 at 18:38
  • 1
    sounds this applies to my case also where I had hundreds of files and awk was produced two (or more) lines of output for same ID with find -type f -name 'myfiles*' -print0 | xargs -0 awk '{ seen[$1]= seen[$1] $2} END { for(x in seen) print x, seen[x] }' but with find -type f -name 'myfiles*' -print0 | xargs -0 cat| awk '{ seen[$1]= seen[$1] $2} END { for(x in seen) print x, seen[x] }' it correctly produced only one line for every IDs. Oct 17, 2018 at 18:44
  • To prevent any interleaving, I can do that with in a programming env like Node.js, but with bash/shell, not sure how to do it. Oct 17, 2018 at 18:48
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    @JoL It's due to the pipe buffer filling up. I knew I'd have to write the second part of the story… Done. Oct 18, 2018 at 21:59
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    @OlegzandrDenman TLDR added: they do interleave. The reason is complicated. Jul 23, 2019 at 6:55

http://mywiki.wooledge.org/BashPitfalls#Non-atomic_writes_with_xargs_-P has a looked into this:

GNU xargs supports running multiple jobs in parallel. -P n where n is the number of jobs to run in parallel.

seq 100 | xargs -n1 -P10 echo "$a" | grep 5
seq 100 | xargs -n1 -P10 echo "$a" > myoutput.txt

This will work fine for many situations but has a deceptive flaw: If $a contains more than ~1000 characters, the echo may not be atomic (it may be split into multiple write() calls), and there is a risk that two lines will be mixed.

$ perl -e 'print "a"x2000, "\n"' > foo
$ strace -e write bash -c 'read -r foo < foo; echo "$foo"' >/dev/null
write(1, "aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa"..., 1008) = 1008
write(1, "aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa"..., 993) = 993
+++ exited with 0 +++

Obviously the same issue arises if there are multiple calls to echo or printf:

slowprint() {
  printf 'Start-%s ' "$1"
  sleep "$1"
  printf '%s-End\n' "$1"
export -f slowprint
seq 10 | xargs -n1 -I {} -P4 bash -c "slowprint {}"
# Compare to no parallelization
seq 10 | xargs -n1 -I {} bash -c "slowprint {}"
# Be sure to see the warnings in the next Pitfall!

Outputs from the parallel jobs are mixed together, because each job consists of two (or more) separate write() calls.

If you need the outputs unmixed, it is therefore recommended to use a tool that guarantees output will be serialized (such as GNU Parallel).

  • That section is wrong. xargs echo doesn't call the echo bash builtin, but the echo utility from $PATH. And anyway I can't reproduce that bash echo behaviour with bash 4.4. On Linux, writes to a pipe (not /dev/null) bigger than 4K are not guaranteed to be atomic though. Jul 23, 2019 at 7:26

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