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RHCSA - Use Input-Output Redirection (>, >>, |, 2>, etc.)

Understanding input-output redirection is essential for anyone using Linux, especially for those preparing for the RHCSA exam. This guide covers the basics of how to redirect data in Linux using operators like >, >>, |, 2>, and others. These tools are not just theoretical but are used daily in managing files and command outputs. They allow you to control where your command's output goes, whether it's to a file, another command, or handling errors.

Standard Input (stdin)

Standard input, commonly referred to as stdin, is a fundamental concept in Linux and Unix-like operating systems. It represents the primary way a program receives input. By default, stdin is connected to the keyboard, allowing the user to provide input directly to commands and programs. However, its true power lies in its flexibility. For example, stdin can be redirected to read input from a file or another command, instead of the keyboard. This is particularly useful in scripting and automation, where commands need to process data without manual intervention.

Consider this scenario: A user needs to sort a list of names stored in a file. By redirecting the file as stdin to the sort command, the sorting is done automatically:

sort < names.txt

Here, names.txt becomes the stdin for sort, replacing the need for manual input. This concept of redirection is central to Unix philosophy, which emphasizes building small, modular tools that can be chained together to perform complex tasks.

Standard Output (stdout)

Standard output, known as stdout, is where a program writes its output data. By default, stdout is displayed on the terminal, allowing the user to see the output of commands immediately. This is evident in everyday commands like ls, cat, and grep, which display their results directly on the screen.

However, the utility of stdout extends beyond just displaying output. It can be redirected to files or piped into other commands for further processing. For instance, the output of a command can be saved to a file for later review or analysis:

ls -l > list.txt

In this example, the ls -l command lists directory contents in long format, and the > operator redirects this listing to list.txt. This redirection ability is a key feature in shell scripting and command line operations, enabling the construction of complex data processing pipelines.

Standard Error (stderr)

Standard error, or stderr, is a separate output stream used exclusively for error messages and diagnostics. This separation from stdout is intentional and beneficial, as it allows error messages to be handled differently from regular output. By default, stderr is displayed on the terminal, just like stdout, but it can be redirected independently.

Consider a command that might produce both output and errors. If stderr is redirected to a separate file, it becomes easier to identify and troubleshoot problems:

grep "example" * 2> errors.log

In this case, grep searches for the term "example" in all files in the current directory. Normal output is displayed on the screen, but any error messages (like "file not found") are redirected to errors.log. This separation is particularly useful in scripts and batch jobs where error handling and logging are important.

Input-Output Redirection Operators

Linux provides several redirection operators to manipulate the flow of data between commands and files. Here are some commonly used operators:

  • < (Input Redirection): The < operator redirects stdin from a file. This allows a command to read its input from a file instead of from the keyboard.

    Exercise: Using the < operator for input redirection:

    sort < /etc/passwd

    The sort command reads its input from /etc/passwd instead of the usual keyboard input.

  • << (Here Document): The << operator redirects stdin to the command from a "here document". A here document is a section of a script file enclosed between two marker strings that denote its start and end.

    Exercise: Using "here documents" for input redirection:

    cat << EOF
    Hello from DTV Linux!
    Enjoy your studies!

    The cat command is used in combination with a here document to print multiple lines of text to screen. The here document starts with << EOF and ends with EOF on a new line. All the lines between these markers are written to the file.

  • > (Output Redirection): The > operator redirects stdout to a file, overwriting its contents if the file already exists.

    Exercise: Using the > operator for output redirection:

    ls /etc > output.txt

    The ls command has its output redirected to the output.txt file, replacing any existing content.

  • >> (Append Redirection): The >> operator appends stdout to a file, preserving its existing contents.

    Exercise: Using the >> operator for appending redirected output:

    ls /var >> output.txt

    The ls command has its output redirected to the output.txt file without overwriting the existing content.

  • | (Pipe Operator): The | operator redirects the stdout of one command to the stdin of another command, allowing the output of the first command to serve as input for the second command.

    Exercise: Using the | operator to redirect output of one command to input of another:

    ls -l /etc | less

    The ls command has its output piped to the stdin of the less command, enabling the output of ls to be processed by less. This is useful for a directory with many files that get listed and you want to page through the output.

  • 2> (Error Redirection): The 2> operator redirects stderr to a file.

    Exercise: Using the 2> operator to redirect standard error to a file:

    ls -R /var 2> error.txt

    The ls command here, when run as a non-root user, will recursively list files and directories under /var with permission denied errors writing to error.txt and standard ls output writing to the screen.

  • &> (Output and Error Redirection): The &> operator redirects both stdout and stderr to a file.

    Exercise: Using the &> operator to redirect both error and output to a file:

    ls -R /var &> output_error.txt

    The ls command here, when run as a non-root user, will recursively list files and directories under /var with both regular output and error messages being written to the output_error.txt file.

  • 2>&1 (Merge Error with Output): The 2>&1 operator redirects stderr to the same location as stdout.

    Exercise: Using the 2>&1 operator to redirect both error and output to a file:

    ls -R /var > output_error.txt 2>&1

    This command has the same affect as the previous example using &>, merging any error messages (stderr) with the regular output (stdout), allowing both to be written to file output_error.txt.


In summary, input-output redirection in Linux is a versatile and powerful feature, integral to efficient system management and command line proficiency. Through the use of operators like <, <<, >, >>, |, 2>, and others, we gain precise control over data flow between commands, files, and programs. This guide has aimed to demystify these concepts, providing clear examples and practical uses. Whether you're preparing for the RHCSA exam or enhancing your day-to-day Linux skills, mastering these redirection techniques will undoubtedly make your command line experience more productive and streamlined.

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