One of best innovations of Unix was the ease in which two processes could communicate. Normally, a process would use a complex method to pass data to another process, such as using a file on the disk, shared memory, or IPC methods (which vary from one flavor of Unix to another). But with Unix another way was provided, the pipe.
Using a pipe is simple. To have process A send data to process B, you merely start the two processes at the same time like this:
program-A | program-B
This starts process-A and process-B at the same time. Process-B waits for process-A to send it data, which it then reads. When process-A ends, process-B has reached the end of the data to read and finishes.
While this work very well there are two cases where you can't use a pipe:
To solve these problems Unix (and of course Linux) provide a named pipe. This is a pipe that sits on the disk and has a regular file name. Using a named pipe is easy, you can redirect output to it and input from it, as if it were an ordinary file. You can start the process that reads from the named pipe before you start the process that writes to it. You can also have multiple processes write to the same named pipe.
The data is read from the named pipe in the order it is written.
This behavior is known as first in, first out order.
Because of this named pipes have another name, a
In fact the command to create one is called
Here's a trivial example:
[user@localhost ~] who | sort auser pts/1 Jun 17 12:20 (fwacad.hccfl.edu) user pts/0 Jun 17 11:24 (fwacad.hccfl.edu) [user@localhost ~] mkfifo fifo [user@localhost ~] ls -l fifo prw-r----- 1 user user 0 Jun 17 12:20 fifo [user@localhost ~] who > fifo &  12153 [user@localhost ~] sort < fifo auser pts/1 Jun 17 12:20 (fwacad.hccfl.edu) user pts/0 Jun 17 11:24 (fwacad.hccfl.edu) + Done who >fifo [user@localhost ~] sort < fifo &  12154 [user@localhost ~] who > fifo & auser pts/1 Jun 17 12:20 (fwacad.hccfl.edu) user pts/0 Jun 17 11:24 (fwacad.hccfl.edu)
A FIFO doesn't buffer or store the data sent to it, so it takes very little RAM. Instead, when a reader process attempts to read from a FIFO before another process is connected to the sending side, the reader process will block. Similarly if a sending process attempts to send output to the FIFO before a reader process is connected to the receiving side, it will block. Only when both sides of the named pipe are connected to processes can any data flow. You can see this behavior in this example:
[user@localhost ~] date Sat Jun 17 12:51:47 EDT 2006 [user@localhost ~] date > fifo &  12329 [user@localhost ~] sleep 5 [user@localhost ~] date Sat Jun 17 12:52:03 EDT 2006 [user@localhost ~] cat < fifo Sat Jun 17 12:52:06 EDT 2006 + Done date >fifo
Here you can clearly see that the
date command didn't run
(that is, it was blocked) until the
Consider one last example showing several processes sending data to a single reader process using a FIFO:
[user@localhost ~] cal > fifo &  12209 [user@localhost ~] date > fifo &  12210 [user@localhost ~] cat < fifo Sat Jun 17 12:32:16 EDT 2006 June 2006 Su Mo Tu We Th Fr Sa 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 - Done cal >fifo + Done date >fifo [user@localhost ~]
The last example above shows an unexpected behavior for something called a FIFO: the output isn't in the order it was sent! The problem is the two sending processes are both blocked initially. Once the reader process is connected to the named pipe, all sender processes wake up. However the kernel does not run processes in any particular order, so there is no guarantee of FIFO behavior with multiple senders. Indeed the output of two (or more) sender processes can become mixed together in some cases.
Named pipes have a number of system administration uses.
The most common example is to allow server processes (daemons) to
send log messages to the system logger process.
During boot up it isn't feasible to use a regular pipe to connect
each daemon to
syslogd so a named pipe is used, often
syslogd is started to read from this FIFO.
Then the daemons redirect their log messages to that same FIFO.