What is the difference between "cat file | ./binary" and "./binary < file"?

I have a binary (that I can’t modify) and I can do:

./binary < file

I also can do:

./binary << EOF
> "line 1 of file"
> "line 2 of file"
> "last line of file"


cat file | ./binary

gives me an error. I don’t know why it doesn’t work with a pipe.
In all 3 cases the content of file is given to the standard input
of binary (in different ways):

  1. bash reads the file and gives it to stdin of binary
  2. bash reads lines from stdin (until EOF) and gives it to stdin of binary
  3. cat reads and puts the lines of file to stdout, bash redirects them to stdin of binary

The binary shouldn’t notice the difference between those 3 as far
as I understood it. Can someone explain why the 3rd case
doesn’t work?

BTW: The error given by the binary is:

20170116/125624.689 – U3000011 Could not read script file ”, error
code ’14’.

But my main question is, how is there a difference for any program with that 3 options.

Here are some further details: I tried it again with strace
and there were in fact some errors ESPIPE (Illegal seek) from lseek
followed by EFAULT (Bad address) from read right before the
error message.

The binary I tried to control with a ruby script (without using
temporary files) is part of the callapi from Automic (UC4).

Asked By: Boris



./binary < file

binary‘s stdin is the file open in read-only mode. Note that bash doesn’t read the file at all, it just opens it for reading on the file descriptor 0 (stdin) of the process it executes binary in.


./binary << EOF

Depending on the shell, binary‘s stdin will be either a deleted temporary file (AT&T ksh, zsh, bash…) that contains testn as put there by the shell or the reading end of a pipe (dash, yash; and the shell writes testn in parallel at the other end of the pipe). In your case, if you’re using bash, it would be a temp file.


cat file | ./binary

Depending on the shell, binary‘s stdin will be either the reading end of a pipe, or one end of a socket pair where the writing direction has been shut down (ksh93) and cat is writing the content of file at the other end.

When stdin is a regular file (temporary or not), it is seekable. binary may go to the beginning or end, rewind, etc. It can also mmap it, do some ioctl()s like FIEMAP/FIBMAP (if using <> instead of <, it could truncate/punch holes in it, etc).

pipes and socket pairs on the other hand are an inter-process communication means, there’s not much binary can do beside reading the data (though there are also some operations like some pipe-specific ioctl()s that it could do on them and not on regular files).

Most of the times, it’s the missing ability to seek that causes applications to fail/complain when working with pipes, but it could be any of the other system calls that are valid on regular files but not on different types of files (like mmap(), ftruncate(), fallocate()). On Linux, there’s also a big difference in behaviour when you open /dev/stdin while the fd 0 is on a pipe or on a regular file.

There are many commands out there that can only deal with seekable files, but when that’s the case, that’s generally not for the files open on their stdin.

$ unzip -l file.zip
Archive:  file.zip
  Length      Date    Time    Name
---------  ---------- -----   ----
       11  2016-12-21 14:43   file
---------                     -------
       11                     1 file
$ unzip -l <(cat file.zip)
     # more or less the same as cat file.zip | unzip -l /dev/stdin
Archive:  /proc/self/fd/11
  End-of-central-directory signature not found.  Either this file is not
  a zipfile, or it constitutes one disk of a multi-part archive.  In the
  latter case the central directory and zipfile comment will be found on
  the last disk(s) of this archive.
unzip:  cannot find zipfile directory in one of /proc/self/fd/11 or
        /proc/self/fd/11.zip, and cannot find /proc/self/fd/11.ZIP, period.

unzip needs to read the index stored at the end of the file, and then seek within the file to read the archive members. But here, the file (regular in the first case, pipe in the second) is given as a path argument to unzip, and unzip opens it itself (typically on fd other than 0) instead of inheriting a fd already opened by the caller. It doesn’t read zip files from its stdin. stdin is mostly used for user interaction.

If you run that binary of yours without redirection at the prompt of an interactive shell running in a terminal emulator, then binary‘s stdin will be inherited from its caller the shell, which itself will have inherited it from its caller the terminal emulator and will be a pty device open in read+write mode (something like /dev/pts/n).

Those devices are not seekable either. So, if binary works OK when taking input from the terminal, possibly the issue is not about seeking.

If that 14 is meant to be an errno (an error code set by failing system calls), then on most systems, that would be EFAULT (Bad address). The read() system call would fail with that error if asked to read into a memory address that is not writable. That would be independent of whether the fd to read the data from points to a pipe or regular file and would generally indicate a bug1.

binary possibly determines the type of file open on its stdin (with fstat()) and runs into a bug when it’s neither a regular file nor a tty device.

Hard to tell without knowing more about the application. Running it under strace (or truss/tusc equivalent on your system) could help us see what is the system call if any that is failing here.

1 The scenario envisaged by Matthew Ife in a comment to your question sounds a lot plausible here. Quoting him:

I suspect it is seeking to the end of file to get a buffer size for reading the data, badly handling the fact that seek doesn’t work and attempting to allocate a negative size (not handling a bad malloc). Passing the buffer to read which faults given the buffer is not valid.

Answered By: Stéphane Chazelas

Here’s a simple example program that illustrates Stéphane Chazelas’ answer using lseek(2) on its input:

#include <stdio.h>
#include <sys/types.h>
#include <unistd.h>

int main(void)
    int c;
    off_t off;
    off = lseek(0, 10, SEEK_SET);
    if (off == -1)
        return -1;
    c = getchar();
    printf("%cn", c);


$ make seek
cc     seek.c   -o seek
$ cat foo
$ ./seek < foo
$ ./seek <<EOF
> abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz
$ cat foo | ./seek
Error: Illegal seek

Pipes are not seekable, and that’s one place where a program might complain about pipes.

Answered By: muru

The pipe and redirection are different animals, so to speak. When you use here-doc redirection ( << ) or redirecting stdin < the text doesn’t come in out of thin air – it actually goes into a file descriptor ( or temporary file, if you will ), and that is where the binary’s stdin will be pointing.

Specifically, here’s an excerpt from bash's source code, redir.c file (version 4.3):

/* Create a temporary file holding the text of the here document pointed to
   by REDIRECTEE, and return a file descriptor open for reading to the temp
   file.  Return -1 on any error, and make sure errno is set appropriately. */
static int
here_document_to_fd (redirectee, ri)

So since redirection can basically be treated as files, the binaries can navigate them , or seek() through the file easily, jumping to any byte of the file.

Pipes , since they are buffers of 64 KiB (at least on Linux) with writes of 4096 bytes or less guaranteed to be atomic, aren’t seekable, i.e. you cannot freely navigate them – only read sequentially. I once implemented tail command in python. 29 million lines of text can be seeked in microseconds if redirected, but if cat‘ed via pipe , well, there’s nothing that can be done – so it all has to be read sequentially.

Another possibility is that the binary might want to open a file specifically, and doesn’t want to receive input from a pipe. It’s usually done via fstat() system call, and checking if the input comes from a S_ISFIFO type of file (which signifies a pipe/named pipe).

Your specific binary, since we don’t know what it is, probably attempts seeking, but cannot seek pipes. It is recommended you consult its documentation to find out what exactly error code 14 means.

NOTE: Some shells, such as dash ( Debian Almquist Shell, default /bin/sh on Ubuntu ) implement here-doc redirection with pipes internally, thus may not be seekable. The point remains the same – pipes are sequential and cannot be navigated easily, and attempts to do so will result into errors.

Answered By: Sergiy Kolodyazhnyy

The main difference is in the error handling.

In the following case the error is reported

$ /bin/cat < z.txt
-bash: z.txt: No such file or directory
$ echo $?

In the following case the error is not reported.

$ cat z.txt | /bin/cat
cat: z.txt: No such file or directory
$ echo $?

With bash, you can still use PIPESTATUS :

$ cat z.txt | /bin/cat
cat: z.txt: No such file or directory
$ echo ${PIPESTATUS[0]}

But it is available only immediately after the execution of the command :

$ cat z.txt | /bin/cat
cat: z.txt: No such file or directory
$ echo $?
$ echo ${PIPESTATUS[0]}
# oops !

There is another difference, when we use shell functions instead of binaries. In bash, functions that are part of a pipeline are executed in sub-shells (except for the last pipeline component if the lastpipe option is enabled and bash is non-interactive), so the change of variables have no effects in the parent shell:

$ a=a
$ b=b
$ x(){ a=x;}
$ y(){ b=y;}

$ echo $a $b
a b

$ x | y
$ echo $a $b
a b

$ cat t.txt | y
$ echo $a $b
a b

$ x | cat
$ echo $a $b
a b

$ x < t.txt
$ y < t.txt
$ echo $a $b
x y
Answered By: Vouze
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