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hpr3985 :: Bash snippet - be careful when feeding data to loops

A loop in a pipeline runs in a subshell

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Hosted by Dave Morriss on 2023-11-10 is flagged as Explicit and is released under a CC-BY-SA license.
Bash, loop, process, shell. 1.
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Duration: 00:27:24

Bash Scripting.

This is an open series in which Hacker Public Radio Listeners can share their Bash scripting knowledge and experience with the community. General programming topics and Bash commands are explored along with some tutorials for the complete novice.


Recently Ken Fallon did a show on HPR, number 3962, in which he used a Bash pipeline of multiple commands feeding their output into a while loop. In the loop he processed the lines produced by the pipeline and used what he found to download audio files belonging to a series with wget.

This was a great show and contained some excellent advice, but the use of the format:

pipeline | while read variable; do ...

reminded me of the "gotcha" I mentioned in my own show 2699.

I thought it might be a good time to revisit this subject.

So, what's the problem?

The problem can be summarised as a side effect of pipelines.

What are pipelines?

Pipelines are an amazingly useful feature of Bash (and other shells). The general format is:

command1 | command2 ...

Here command1 runs in a subshell and produces output (on its standard output) which is connected via the pipe symbol (|) to command2 where it becomes its standard input. Many commands can be linked together in this way to achieve some powerful combined effects.

A very simple example of a pipeline might be:

$ printf 'World\nHello\n' | sort

The printf command (≡'command1') writes two lines (separated by newlines) on standard output and this is passed to the sort command's standard input (≡'command2') which then sorts these lines alphabetically.

Commands in the pipeline can be more complex than this, and in the case we are discussing we can include a loop command such as while.

For example:

$ printf 'World\nHello\n' | sort | while read line; do echo "($line)"; done

Here, each line output by the sort command is read into the variable line in the while loop and is written out enclosed in parentheses.

Note that the loop is written on one line. The semi-colons are used instead of the equivalent newlines.

Variables and subshells

What if the lines output by the loop need to be numbered?

$ i=0; printf 'World\nHello\n' | sort | while read line; do ((i++)); echo "$i) $line"; done
1) Hello
2) World

Here the variable 'i' is set to zero before the pipeline. It could have been done on the line before of course. In the while loop the variable is incremented on each iteration and included in the output.

You might expect 'i' to be 2 once the loop exits but it is not. It will be zero in fact.

The reason is that there are two 'i' variables. One is created when it's set to zero at the start before the pipeline. The other one is created in the loop as a "clone". The expression:


both creates the variable (where it is a copy of the one in the parent shell) and increments it.

When the subshell in which the loop runs completes, it will delete this version of 'i' and the original one will simply contain the zero that it was originally set to.

You can see what happens in this slightly different example:

$ i=1; printf 'World\nHello\n' | sort | while read line; do ((i++)); echo "$i) $line"; done
2) Hello
3) World
$ echo $i

These examples are fine, assuming the contents of variable 'i' incremented in the loop are not needed outside it.

The thing to remember is that the same variable name used in a subshell is a different variable; it is initialised with the value of the "parent" variable but any changes are not passed back.

How to avoid the loss of changes in the loop

To solve this the loop needs to be run in the original shell, not a subshell. The pipeline which is being read needs to be attached to the loop in a different way:

$ i=0; while read line; do ((i++)); echo "$i) $line"; done < <(printf 'World\nHello\n' | sort)
1) Hello
2) World
$ echo $i

What is being used here is process substitution. A list of commands or pipelines are enclosed with parentheses and a 'less than' sign prepended to the list (with no intervening spaces). This is functionally equivalent to a (temporary) file of data.

The redirection feature allows for data being read from a file in a loop. The general format of the command is:

while read variable
       # Use the variable
    done < file

Using process substitution instead of a file will achieve what is required if computations are being done in the loop and the results are wanted after it has finished.

Beware of this type of construct

The following one-line command sequence looks similar to the version using process substitution, but is just another form of pipeline:

$ i=0; while read line; do echo $line; ((i++)); done < /etc/passwd | head -n 5; echo $i

This will display the first 5 lines of the file but does it by reading and writing the entire file and only showing the first 5 lines of what is written by the loop.

What is more, because the while is in a subshell in a pipeline changes to variable 'i' will be lost.


  • Use the pipe-connected-to-loop layout if you're aware of the pitfalls, but will not be affected by them.

  • Use the read-from-process-substitution format if you want your loop to be complex and to read and write variables in the script.

  • Personally, I always use the second form in scripts, but if I'm writing a temporary one-line thing on the command line I usually use the first form.

Tracing pipelines (advanced)

I have always wondered about processes in Unix. The process you log in to, normally called a shell runs a command language interpreter that executes commands read from the standard input or from a file. There are several such interpreters available, but we're dealing with bash here.

Processes are fairly lightweight entities in Unix/Linux. They can be created and destroyed quickly, with minimal overhead. I used to work with Digital Equipment Corporation's OpenVMS operating system which also uses processes - but these are much more expensive to create and destroy, and therefore slow and less readily used!

Bash pipelines, as discussed, use subshells. The description in the Bash man page says:

Each command in a multi-command pipeline, where pipes are created, is executed in a subshell, which is a separate process.

So a subshell in this context is basically another child process of the main login process (or other parent process), running Bash.

Processes (subshells) can be created in other ways. One is to place a collection of commands in parentheses. These can be simple Bash commands, separated by semi-colons, or pipelines. For example:

$ (echo "World"; echo "Hello") | sort

Here the strings "World" and "Hello", each followed by a newline are created in a subshell and written to standard output. These strings are piped to sort and the end result is as shown.

Note that this is different from this example:

$ echo "World"; echo "Hello" | sort

In this case "World" is written in a separate command, then "Hello" is written to a pipeline. All sort sees is the output from the second echo, which explains the output.

Each process has a unique numeric id value (the process id or PID). These can be seen with tools like ps or htop. Each process holds its own PID in a Bash variable called BASHPID.

Knowing all of this I decided to modify Ken's script from show 3962 to show the processes being created - mainly for my interest, to get a better understanding of how Bash works. I am including it here in case it may be of interest to others.




echo "Starting PID is $BASHPID" > $pidfile

(echo "[1] $BASHPID" >> "$pidfile"; wget -q "${series_url}" -O -) |\
    (echo "[2] $BASHPID" >> "$pidfile"; xmlstarlet sel -T -t -m 'rss/channel/item' -v 'concat(enclosure/@url, "→", title)' -n -) |\
    (echo "[3] $BASHPID" >> "$pidfile"; sort) |\
    while read -r episode; do

        [ $count -le 1 ] && echo "[4] $BASHPID" >> "$pidfile"

        url="$( echo "${episode}" | awk -F '→' '{print $1}' )"
        ext="$( basename "${url}" )"
        title="$( echo "${episode}" | awk -F '→' '{print $2}' | sed -e 's/[^A-Za-z0-9]/_/g' )"
        #wget "${url}" -O "${download_dir}/${title}.${ext}"

echo "Final value of \$count = $count"
echo "Run 'cat $pidfile' to see the PID numbers"

The point of doing this is to get information about the pipeline which feeds data into the while loop. I kept the rest intact but commented out the wget command.

For each component of the pipeline I added an echo command and enclosed it and the original command in parentheses, thus making a multi-command process. The echo commands write a fixed number so you can tell which one is being executed, and it also writes the contents of BASHPID.

The whole thing writes to a temporary file /tmp/ which can be examined once the script has finished.

When the script is run it writes the following:

$ ./
Final value of $count = 0
Run 'cat /tmp/' to see the PID numbers

The file mentioned contains:

Starting PID is 80255
[1] 80256
[2] 80257
[3] 80258
[4] 80259
[4] 80259

Note that the PID values are incremental. There is no guarantee that this will be so. It will depend on whatever else the machine is doing.

Message number 4 is the same for every loop iteration, so I stopped it being written after two instances.

The initial PID is the process running the script, not the login (parent) PID. You can see that each command in the pipeline runs in a separate process (subshell), including the loop.

Given that a standard pipeline generates a process per command, I was slightly surprised that the PID numbers were consecutive. It seems that Bash optimises things so that only one process is run for each element of the pipe. I expect that it would be possible for more processes to be created by having pipelines within these parenthesised lists, but I haven't tried it!

I found this test script quite revealing. I hope you find it useful too.


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Comment #1 posted on 2023-12-04 09:04:24 by Ken Fallon

using this now in

Yip not 12 hours after the CN recording, I've run into the bash counter outside loop problem.

Thanks Dave

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