To capture a particular pattern, awk and grep can be used. Why should we use one over the other? Which is faster and why?

If I had a log file and I wanted to grab a certain pattern, I could do one of the following

awk '/pattern/' /var/log/messages


grep 'pattern' /var/log/messages

I haven't done any benchmarking, so I wouldn't know. Can someone elaborate this? It is great to know the inner workings of these two tools.

  • Precede any command, even shell scripts, with the time command to time how long it takes to run the command. Ex: time ls -l. – Bulrush Aug 26 '16 at 12:20

grep will most likely be faster:

# time awk '/USAGE/' imapd.log.1 | wc -l

real    0m2.756s
user    0m2.740s
sys     0m0.020s

# time grep 'USAGE' imapd.log.1 | wc -l

real    0m0.110s
user    0m0.100s
sys     0m0.030s

awk is a interpreted programming language, where as grep is a compiled c-code program (which is additionally optimized towards finding patterns in files).

(Note - I ran both commands twice so that caching would not potentially skew the results)

More details about interpreted languages on wikipedia.

As Stephane has rightly pointed out in comments, your mileage may vary due to the implementation of the grep and awk you use, the operating system it is on and the character set you are processing.

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    Without saying what grep or awk implementation you're using and on what computer architecture, and with which system character set, those timings have little value. – Stéphane Chazelas Aug 28 '13 at 11:59
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    the second command will also use the newly cached version. I dont doubt that grep is quicker but not by as much as your numbers show. – exussum Aug 28 '13 at 12:18
  • (hence running awk, grep, awk, grep and posting the results from the second set of awk and grep :) and FYI, I live in a UTF8 locale. – Drav Sloan Aug 28 '13 at 12:58
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    Funny enough, with the BSD tools (on a Mac), awk (31.74s) is slightly faster than sed (33.34s), which is slightly faster than grep (34.21s). Gnu awk owns them all at 5.24s, I don't have gnu grep or sed to test. – Kevin Aug 28 '13 at 14:25
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    grep should be slightly faster because awk does more with each input line than just search for a regexp in it, e.g. if a field is referenced in the script (which it's not in this case) awk will split each input line into fields based on the field-separator value and it populates builtin variables. but with what you posted there should be almost no difference. By far the most important difference between grep and awk wrt matching regexps is that grep searches the whole line for a matching string while awk can search specific fields and so provide more precision and fewer false matches. – Ed Morton Aug 19 '18 at 16:14

Use the most specific and expressive tool. The tool that best fits your use case is likely to be the fastest.

As a rough guide:

  • searching for lines matching a substring or regexp? Use grep.
  • selecting certain columns from a simply-delimited file? Use cut.
  • performing pattern-based substitutions or ... other stuff sed can reasonably do? Use sed.
  • need some combination of the above 3, or printf formatting, or general purpose loops and branches? Use awk.
  • +1 except use perl instead of awk. if you need something more complicated than grep/cut/sed, then chances are awk won't be enough and you need something "full-blown" – sds Aug 28 '13 at 14:34
  • @sds why not python instead – RetroCode Sep 23 '16 at 18:45
  • @RetroCode: python is more "general purpose" than perl; the equivalent one-liner will probably be much longer. – sds Sep 23 '16 at 19:48
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    @sds no, you don't need perl unless you're going to do something other than text processing. awk is just fine for the text processing stuff that's more complicated than grep/cut/sed and as a bonus comes as standard on all UNIX installations, unlike perl. – Ed Morton Aug 19 '18 at 16:19

When only searching for strings, and speed matters, you should almost always use grep. It's orders of magnitude faster than awk when it comes to just gross searching.

source The functional and performance differences of sed, awk and other Unix parsing utilities

                               (10 ITERATIONS)
-------    --------------      ---------------    -------------------------------
grep       search only         41 sec.            489.3 million
sed        search & replace    4 min. 4 sec.      82.1 million
awk        search & replace    4 min. 46 sec.     69.8 million
Python     search & replace    4 min. 50 sec.     69.0 million
PHP        search & replace    15 min. 44 sec.    21.2 million
  • Thanks for this nice overview of all these programs. It really sheds light in the darkness. – holasz Aug 28 '13 at 10:53
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    ~headtilt~ PHP is on there but Perl isn't? – Izkata Aug 28 '13 at 11:34
  • @Izkata - I thought the same thing when I saw this table a while ago. – slm Aug 28 '13 at 11:52
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    It's not really fair to the other utils that grep is just searching and they are also replacing. – Kevin Aug 28 '13 at 13:57
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    Those are completely bogus numbers. Talk about comparing apples and oranges - it's like saying you can only find a new car on web site A in 5 secs whereas you can find a car, negotiate a price, get a loan, and purchase the car on site B in 1 hour so therefore site A is faster than site B.The article you quoted is completely wrong in it's statements of relative execution speed between grep, sed, and awk and it also says awk ... has PCRE matching for regular expressions which is just completely untrue. – Ed Morton Aug 19 '18 at 16:23

While I agree that in theory grep should be faster than awk, in practice, YMMV as that depends a lot on the implementation you use.

here comparing busybox 1.20.0's grep and awk, GNU grep 2.14, mawk 1.3.3, GNU awk 4.0.1 on Debian/Linux 7.0 amd64 (with glibc 2.17) in a UTF-8 locale on a 240MB file of 2.5M lines of ASCII-only characters.

$ time busybox grep error error | wc -l
busybox grep error error  8.31s user 0.12s system 99% cpu 8.450 total
wc -l  0.07s user 0.11s system 2% cpu 8.448 total
$ time  busybox awk /error/ error | wc -l
busybox awk /error/ error  2.39s user 0.84s system 98% cpu 3.265 total
wc -l  0.12s user 1.23s system 41% cpu 3.264 total
$ time  grep error error | wc -l
grep error error  0.80s user 0.10s system 99% cpu 0.914 total
wc -l  0.00s user 0.11s system 12% cpu 0.913 total
$ time mawk /error/ error | wc -l
mawk /error/ error  0.54s user 0.13s system 91% cpu 0.732 total
wc -l  0.03s user 0.08s system 14% cpu 0.731 total
$ time gawk /error/ error | wc -l
gawk /error/ error  1.37s user 0.12s system 99% cpu 1.494 total
wc -l  0.04s user 0.07s system 7% cpu 1.492 total
$ time 

In the C locale, only GNU grep gets a significant boost and becomes faster than mawk.

The dataset, the type of the regexp may also make a big difference. For regexps, awk should be compared to grep -E as awk's regexps are extended REs.

For this dataset, awk could be faster than grep on busybox based systems or systems where mawk is the default awk and the default locale is UTF-8 based (IIRC, it used to be the case in Ubuntu).


In a nutshell, grep does one thing only as many other UNIX tools and that's matching a line to the given pattern and it does it well. On the other hand, awk is more sophisticated tool as it is a complete programming language defined by POSIX standard with typical features like variables, arrays, expressions, functions or control statements for pattern scanning and processing.

In my opinion, it depends on the implementation how both tools perform in case of pattern matching and on the size of some input you want to process. I would expect that grep is usually more efficient than awk as it does matching only. But you can't write with grep a simple code to perform more complex tasks like further processing of matched records, computation or printing results without using other tools.

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