Grep and Output Buffering

November 2, 2013

Why does this work?

tail -f some.log | grep something

But this doesn’t?

tail -f some.log | grep something | cut -c -$(tput cols)

(It doesn’t matter what’s on the 3rd pipe, but, in this case, it crops on terminal width – it’s similar to set nowrap in vim)

I had been bitten many times by something like this, and it seemed like this command would either:

This is clearly a buffering problem, but where’s the problem: grep or cut? How could it be grep if my second example worked?

Reproducing the problem

I went with this code:

# generator.bash
for i in {1..1000}; do
  echo "this is line $i"
  sleep 1
done

which is meant to mimic the log output of some running daemon. It outputs lines slowly because it will cause more buffering issues. Now run this:

bash generator.bash | grep line | cut -c 9-

Where’s the output? What’s the problem? How do you fix this?

Solutions

How to fix stdio buffering gave me most of the answer. grep has a flag for this:

bash generator.bash | grep --line-buffered line | cut -c 9-

but a more general answer might be to use stdbuf (on Linux):

bash generator.bash | stdbuf -o0 grep line | cut -c 9-

Bonus round:

Why?

The above article linked to the very interesting buffering in standard streams. Here’s how buffering is usually setup:

I have used the command-line for years without worrying about this, but these 3 points explain all “weird” behaviors.

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