The art of redirection


Developing the Programming and Development learning strand, specifically:

  • Can issue commands through a text based interface and recieve appropriate and correct responses.
  • Executes, checks and changes programs. Understands that programs execute by following precise instructions.
  • Knows that users can develop their own programs, and can demonstrate this by creating a simple program.


Learn It

  • Typing commands in the terminal leads to the result being shown on the terminal window. It doesn't have to be this way, though. We could redirect the output to somewhere else instead.
  • In the 1970's, users may have wanted to output to a line printer instead.
  • This doesn't tend to come up much in the 21st century, but you might want to put the output from the computer into a file, though.

Try It

  • Try this command:
echo "This is some text"
  • echo simply prints some text to the display.
  • By itself, this isn't very useful. We can use this to create and add content to text files, though.
echo "This is some text." > whatsit.txt
echo "This is a bit more text." > whatsit.txt
  • If you look, you'll see you just created a new file.
  • If you do cat whatsit.txt or emacs whatsit.txt or even nano whatsit.txt you'll see the contents of the file.
  • The redirect symbol > tells Linux to put the result of whatever command comes before it into a new file. Unfortunately, this means over-writing the contents of the first echo command we did.
  • Try this. It's subtly different.
echo "This is some new text." > whatsit.txt
echo "This is a little bit more text." >> whatsit.txt
  • This time, in the second line we used >> instead of >. This means to append (as in 'add to the end of') the file, rather than making a fresh one each time.

Try It

  • You can type history to see (up to) the last 500 commands you've entered. Try it.
  • It'd be nice to keep this to have a record of what you've done in the past. I've been using Linux for a while, and still look over my own history from time to time; it's handy to refer back to.
  • Task: Redirect the contents of the history command into a file called recentHistory.txt
  • If you're struggling with this, the video below shows some practical examples:

Learn It

  • Your recentHistory.txt file probably has quite a lot in it.
  • In Linux, files can get very big, very fast.
  • To see the first 10 lines in any file, use the head program, like this:
head recentHistory.txt
  • What do you suppose the tail program does when you give it a file?
  • Task: Find out what tail does.

Pipe It


  • To be a proper Linux pro, you'll want to start using pipes.
  • The basic idea is that you run a program, then pass the results to another program (and maybe another and another…)
  • Being able to do this makes Linux incredibly powerful, especially if you're quite creative.
  • Let's try an example: You're running out of space on your computer, and you want to know which files are taking up the most room so you can delete them.
  • The du command tells you how much disk space every file and sub-directory is using from wherever you are on the computer.
  • If you're in / (the root) when you start, you'll see the details for EVERY file on the computer. This might take a while to run, though…
  • Change into a directory with a few files in it (like your 'My Documents' directory, and give it a go. You can always hit Ctrl-c to kill the program if it takes too long.
  • By itself, this command gives an overwhelming amount of information, presented in ascending (smallest to largest) order.
  • The pipe symbol ( | ) takes the output from one program, and sends it into another. You can chain lots of these together to achieve sophisticated results.
  • The sort command takes any file and sorts it into either asecending or descending order. By putting -nr on the end of the command, we ask the sort program to use numeric values (n) and reverse (r) the sort order.
  • In our quest to find the largest files on the system, at least they'll appear in the right order now, although there are likely to be millions of files.
  • Try it:
cd /
du | sort -nr
  • This time, there will be a bit of a delay while the computer browses the files available and sorts them, then your enormous list of files will be output.
  • Finally, we can take this output and just ask to see the first 10 results by piping the output through head
du | sort -nr | head
  • These filesizes are all in bytes. If we add a -h after the du command, it'll be presented in a human-readable format (i.e. showing files in kilbytes, megabytes and so on).
  • Many Linux command-line programs can be given parameters like this to modify how they work.
  • Linux has a built in manual that you can use to find out more about any command you're using. Type man more for instance, to see more information avout the more command.
  • When browsing man pages, use the space bar to move forward a whole page, or the up/down arrows to move one line at a time. Tap q to quit.
  • You can watch a short demo of different ways to use pipes here.

Badge It

  • Silver: Using the terminal, cd into your My Documents directory. Redirect the contents of your 'My documents' directory into a text file called silver.txt. Upload the file to BourneToLearn.
  • Gold: The ps aux command shows a list of every program running on your Linux machine. Redirect the last 10 items from the output from this command into a text file called goldbadge.txt. Save it, and upload it.
  • Platinum: Produce a file called platinum.txt.
    • Put your command history in it…
    • In reverse order…
    • Showing only the first 10 and last 20 commands entered.
    • Extra credit if you can do it all in a single command!