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Engineering LibreTexts

5.8: Pipes

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  • Most operating systems provide a command-line interface, also known as a shell. Shells usually provide commands to navigate the file system and launch applications. For example, in Unix you can change directories with cd, display the contents of a directory with ls, and launch a web browser by typing (for example) firefox.

    Any program that you can launch from the shell can also be launched from Python using a pipe. A pipe is an object that represents a running program.

    For example, the Unix command ls -l normally displays the contents of the current directory (in long format). You can launch ls with os.popen1.

    >>> cmd = 'ls -l'
    >>> fp = os.popen(cmd)

    The argument is a string that contains a shell command. The return value is an object that behaves just like an open file. You can read the output from the ls process one line at a time with readline or get the whole thing at once with read:

    >>> res =

    When you are done, you close the pipe like a file:

    >>> stat = fp.close()
    >>> print stat

    The return value is the final status of the ls process; None means that it ended normally (with no errors).

    For example, most Unix systems provide a command called md5sum that reads the contents of a file and computes a “checksum.” You can read about MD5 at This command provides an efficient way to check whether two files have the same contents. The probability that different contents yield the same checksum is very small (that is, unlikely to happen before the universe collapses).

    You can use a pipe to run md5sum from Python and get the result:

    >>> filename = 'book.tex'
    >>> cmd = 'md5sum ' + filename
    >>> fp = os.popen(cmd)
    >>> res =
    >>> stat = fp.close()
    >>> print res
    1e0033f0ed0656636de0d75144ba32e0  book.tex
    >>> print stat

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    In a large collection of MP3 files, there may be more than one copy of the same song, stored in different directories or with different file names. The goal of this exercise is to search for duplicates.

    1. Write a program that searches a directory and all of its subdirectories, recursively, and returns a list of complete paths for all files with a given suffix (like .mp3). Hint: os.path provides several useful functions for manipulating file and path names.
    2. To recognize duplicates, you can use md5sum to compute a “checksum” for each files. If two files have the same checksum, they probably have the same contents.
    3. To double-check, you can use the Unix command diff.


    1. popen is deprecated now, which means we are supposed to stop using it and start using the subprocess module. But for simple cases, I find subprocess more complicated than necessary. So I am going to keep using popen until they take it away.