Pipes and Filters

Pipelines are an extremely useful (and surprisingly underused) architectural pattern in modern software engineering. The concept of using pipes and filters to control the flow of data through software has been around since the 1970s, when the first Unix shells were created. If you’ve ever used the pipe (“|”) character in a terminal emulator, you’ve made use of the pipe-and-filter idiom. Take the following example:

cat /usr/share/dict/words |     # Read in the system's dictionary.
grep purple |                   # Find words containing 'purple'
awk '{print length($1), $1}' |  # Count the letters in each word
sort -n |                       # Sort lines ("${length} ${word}")
tail -n 1 |                     # Take the last line of the input
cut -d " " -f 2 |               # Take the second part of each line
cowsay -f tux                   # Put the resulting word into Tux's mouth

When run with bash, this pipeline returns a charming little ASCII art version of Tux, the Linux penguin, saying the longest word in the dictionary that contains the word “purple”:

 _____________ 
< unimpurpled >
 ------------- 
   \
    \
        .--.
       |o_o |
       |:_/ |
      //   \ \
     (|     | )
    /'\_   _/`\
    \___)=(___/

 The Life Cycle of a Pipeline

This little bit of code actually does quite a lot as soon as it’s executed. The moment you hit enter, the following steps occur:

  1. Seven (seven!) processes are immediately spawned by the shell.
  2. The standard input (stdin) and standard output (stdout) file descriptors of each process are redirected to the shell’s internal buffers. (Each of these buffers is 512 bytes long on my machine, as measured by running ulimit -a.)
  3. The source process, cat, starts to read from its file and output to its stdout. This data flows through the first pipe into the first buffer, quickly hitting the buffer size limit imposed by bash. As soon as this limit is reached, cat is blocked in its write(2) call. This is where pipelines really shine: the execution of cat is implicitly paused by the pipeline’s inability to handle more data. (For those familiar with the concept of coroutines, each process here is acting as a sort of coroutine.)
  4. The first filtering process, grep, starts with a read(2) call on its stdin pipe. When the process first spawns, the pipe is empty - so the entire process blocks until it can read more data. Again, we see implicit execution control based on the availability of data. As soon as the preceding command in the pipeline fills or flushes its buffer, grep’s read(2) call returns and it can filter the lines that it’s read in from the preceding process. Every line that matches the provided pattern is immediately printed to grep’s stdout, which will be available to the next program in the pipeline.
  5. awk functions exactly like grep does, only on different buffers. When data is available, awk resumes execution and processes the data, incrementally writing its results to its stdout. When data is not available, awk is blocked and unable to run.
  6. sort operates slightly differently than the preceding two processes. As a sorting operation must take place on the entirity of the data, sort maintains a buffer (on disk) of the entire input received thus far. (There’s no point in providing a sorted list of all the data received so far, only to have it invalidated by a later piece of data.) As soon as sort’s stdin closes, sort can print its output to its stdout, as it knows no more data will be read.
  7. tail is somewhat similar to sort in that it cannot produce any data on stdout until the entirity of the data has been received. This invocation doesn’t need to maintain a large internal buffer, as it only cares about the last line of the input.
  8. cut operates as an incremental filter, just like grep and ack do.
  9. cowsay operates just like tail does — waiting to receive the full input before processing it, as it must calculate metrics based on the length of the input data. (Printing properly aligned ASCII art is no easy task!)

Using a pipeline for this task should seem like a no-brainer. Every task being done here deals with filtering data. Existing data sets are changed at each step. Every process does its own job, and does it quite well, as the Unix philosophy recommends. Each process could be swapped out for another with very little effort.

If you wanted to visualize the pipeline that bash automatically sets up for you, it would look something like this:

Thank you, bash!

 Performance and Complexity

One other advantage of pipelines is their inherently good performance. Let’s use a modified version of the command we ran above to find the memory and CPU usage of each filter component in the pipeline.

/usr/bin/time -l cat /usr/share/dict/words 2> cat.time.txt | 
/usr/bin/time -l grep purple 2> grep.time.txt |
/usr/bin/time -l awk '{print length($1), $1}' 2> awk.time.txt |
/usr/bin/time -l sort -n 2> sort.time.txt |
/usr/bin/time -l tail -n 1 2> tail.time.txt |
/usr/bin/time -l cut -d " " -f 2 2> cut.time.txt |
/usr/bin/time -l cowsay -f tux 2> cowsay.time.txt

(Aside: I’m calling /usr/bin/time here to avoid using my shell’s built-in time command, which doesn’t support the -l flag to print out detailed stats. If you’re on Linux, you’ll want to use the -v flag, which does the same thing. The 2> something.time.txt syntax redirects stderr to a file, while leaving stdout pointing at a pipe.)

After running this command and checking the maximum resident set size, as well as the number of voluntary and involuntary context switches, we can start to see a couple very important things.

Memory usage, thanks to time -l.

Note that although this example pipeline is amazingly simple, if any of these processes were doing complex computations, they could be automatically parallelized on multiple processors. Aren’t pipelines awesome?

 Errors

Yes indeed - pipelines are awesome. They make efficient use of memory and CPU time, have automatic and implicit execution scheduling based on data availability, and they’re super easy to create. Why would you not want to use pipelines whenever possible?

The answer: error handling. If something goes wrong in one of the parts of the pipeline, the entire pipeline fails completely.

Let’s try out this pipeline, with an added command that I’ve written in Python. fail.py echoes its standard input to standard output, but has a 50% chance of crashing before reading a line.

cat /usr/share/dict/words |     # Read in the system's dictionary.
grep purple |                   # Find words containing 'purple'
awk '{print length($1), $1}' |  # Count the letters in each word
sort -n |                       # Sort lines ("${length} ${word}")
python fail.py |                # Play Russian Roulette with our data!
tail -n 1 |                     # Take the last line of the input
cut -d " " -f 2 |               # Take the second part of each line
cowsay -f tux                   # Put the resulting word into Tux's mouth

The source of fail.py:

import sys
import random

while True:
    if random.choice([True, False]):
        sys.exit(1)
    line = sys.stdin.readline()
    if not line:
        break  
    sys.stdout.write(line)
    sys.stdout.flush()        

So, what happens in this case? When fail.py fails while reading the input, its stdin and stdout pipes close. This essentially cuts the pipeline in half. Let’s take a look at what each process does as you get further and further away from the failed process.

  1. sort, the process immediately before python, immediately receives a SIGPIPE signal to tell it that one of the pipes it has open (its stdout) has closed. It can choose to handle this SIGPIPE immediately, or can try to write(2) again - but that write(2) call will return -1 anyways. No longer able to write its output anywhere, sort will exit, closing its own stdin pipe, causing the process preceding it to do the same thing. This cascading shutdown proceeds all the way up to the first process in the pipeline. (Of course, a process doesn’t have to shut down when it encounters a write error or receives a SIGPIPE, but these processes don’t have any other behaviour if their output pipes close.)
  2. tail, the process immediately after python, also receives a SIGPIPE signal as soon as its stdin pipe closes. It can choose to handle the SIGPIPE with a handler, or to ignore the signal, but either way - its next call to read(2) will return an error code. This event is indistinguishable from the end-of-stream event that tail receives anyways when the input stream is done. Hence, tail will interpret this as a normal end-of-stream event, and will behave as expected.
  3. cut will also behave as expected when the stream closes.
  4. cowsay will behave as expected when the stream closes, printing out the last word in the sorted list that was received before the python process crashed.

The result?

 __________ 
< repurple >
 ---------- 
   \
    \
        .--.
       |o_o |
       |:_/ |
      //   \ \
     (|     | )
    /'\_   _/`\
    \___)=(___/

Notice that Tux is no longer saying unimpurpled, the word that he was saying before. The word is wrong! The output of our command pipeline is incorrect. Although one of the filters crashed, we still got a response back - and all of the steps in the pipeline after the crashed filter still executed as expected.

What’s worse - if we check the return code of the pipeline, we get:

bash-3.2$ echo $?
0

bash helpfully reports to us that the pipeline executed correctly. This is due to the fact that bash only reports the exit status of the last process in the pipeline. The only way to detect an issue earlier in the pipeline is to check bash’s relatively unknown $PIPESTATUS variable:

bash-3.2$ echo ${PIPESTATUS[*]}
0 0 0 0 1 0 0 0

This array stores the return codes of every process in the previous pipe chain - and only here we can see that one of the filters crashed.

This is one of the major drawbacks about using traditional UNIX pipes. Detecting an error while the pipeline is still processing data requires some form of out-of-band signalling to detect a failed process and send a message to the other processes. (This is easy to do when you have more than one input pipe to a filter, but becomes difficult if you’re just using UNIX pipes.)

 Other Uses for Pipelines

So, that’s great. We can make a memory-efficient pipeline to create ASCII art penguins. I can hear the questions now:

How are pipes useful in the real world?

How could pipes help me in my web app?

Valid questions. Pipes work great when your data can be divided into very small chunks and when processing can be done incrementally. Here’s a couple examples.


Let’s say you have a folder full of .flac files - very high quality music. You want to put these files on your MP3 player, but it doesn’t support .flac. And for some reason, your computer doesn’t have more than 10 megabytes of available RAM. Let’s use a pipeline:

ls *.flac | 
while read song
do 
    flac -d "$song" --stdout | 
    lame -V2 - "$song".mp3
done

This command is a little more complicated than the simple pipeline we used above. First, we’re using a built in bash construct - the while loop with a read command inside. This reads every line of the input (which we’re piping in from ls) and executes the inner code once per line. Then, the inner loop invokes flac to decode the song, and lame to encode the song to an MP3.

How memory-efficient is this pipeline? After running it on a folder full of 115MB of FLAC files, only 1.3MB of memory was used.


Let’s say you have a web app, and that you’re using your favourite web framework to serve it. If a user submits a form to your app, you need to do some very expensive processing on the back-end. The form data needs to be sanitized, verified by calling an external API, and saved as a PDF file. All of this work can’t happen in the web server itself, as it would be too slow. (Yes - this example is a little bit contrived, but isn’t that far off from some use cases I’ve seen.) Again, let’s use a pipeline:

my_webserver | 
line_sanitizer | 
verifier | 
pdf_renderer

Whenever a user submits a form to my_webserver, it can write a line of JSON to its stdout. Let’s say this line looks like:

{"name": "Raymond Luxury Yacht", "organization": "Flying Circus"}

The next process in the pipeline, line_sanitizer, can then run some logic on each line:

import sys
import json

for line in sys.stdin:
    obj = json.loads(line)

    if "Eric Idle" in obj['name']:
        # Ignore forms submitted by Eric Idle.
        continue

    sys.stdout.write(line)
    sys.stdout.flush()     

The next process can verify that the organization exists:

import sys
import json
import requests

for line in sys.stdin:
    obj = json.loads(line)
    org = obj['organization']
    resp = requests.get("http://does.it/exist", data=org)

    if resp.response_code == 404:
        continue

    sys.stdout.write(line)
    sys.stdout.flush() 

Finally, the last process can bake any lines that remain into PDF files.

import sys
import json
import magical_pdf_writer_that_doesnt_exist as writer

for line in sys.stdin:
    obj = json.loads(line)
    writer.write_to_file(obj)

And there you have it - an asynchronous, extremely-memory-efficient pipeline that can process huge amounts of data, with a very, very small amount of code.

One question remains in this example, however. How do we handle errors that might occur? If Eric Idle submits a form to our website, and we decide to reject the form, how do we notify him? One very UNIX-y way of doing so would be to create a named pipe that handles all failed requests:

mkfifo errors  # create a named pipe for our errors

my_webserver | 
line_sanitizer 2> errors | 
verifier 2> errors | 
pdf_renderer 2> errors

Any process could read from our own custom “errors” pipe, and each process in the pipeline would output its failed inputs into that pipe. We could attach a reader to that pipe that sends out emails on failure:

mkfifo errors              # create a named pipe for our errors
email_on_error < errors &  # add a reader to this pipe

my_webserver | 
line_sanitizer 2> errors | 
verifier 2> errors | 
pdf_renderer 2> errors

Then, if our line_sanitizer wanted to reject a line, its behaviour would look like this:

import sys
import json

for line in sys.stdin:
    obj = json.loads(line)

    if "Eric Idle" in obj['name']:
        sys.stderr.write(line)
        sys.stderr.flush()
    else:        
        sys.stdout.write(line)
        sys.stdout.flush()     

This pipeline would look a little bit different. (Red lines represent stderr output.)

Red lines are stderr.

 Distributed Pipelines

UNIX pipes are great, but they do have their drawbacks. Not all software can fit directly into the UNIX pipe paradigm, and UNIX pipes don’t scale well to the kind of throughput seen in modern web traffic. However, there are alternatives.

Modern “work queue” software packages have sprung up in recent years, allowing for rudimentary FIFO queues that work across machines. Packages like beanstalkd and celery allow for the creation of arbitrary work queues between processes. These can easily simulate the behaviour of traditional UNIX pipes, and have the major advantage of being distributed across many machines. However, they’re fairly well suited to asynchronous task processing, and their queues typically don’t block processes that try to send messages, which doesn’t allow for the kind of implicit execution control we saw earlier with UNIX pipes. These services act more as messaging systems and work queues rather than as coroutines.

To work around this lack of synchronization and pressure in distributed pipeline systems, I’ve created my own project - a Redis-based, reliable, distributed synchronized pipeline library called pressure. pressure allows you to set up pipes between different processes, but adds the ability to have pipe buffers persist and be used across multiple machines. By using Redis as a stable message broker, all of the inter-process communication is taken care of and is OS and platform agnostic. (Redis also gives a bunch of nice features like reliability and replication.)

pressure’s reference implementation is in Python, and it’s still in its infancy. To show its power, let’s try to replicate the pipeline example from the start of this post by using pressure’s included UNIX pipe adapter. (put and get are small C programs that act as a bridge between traditional UNIX pipes and distributed pressure queues kept in Redis.)

# Read in the system's dictionary
cat /usr/share/dict/words | ./put test_1 &

# Find words containing 'purple'
./get test_1 | grep purple | ./put test_2 &

# Count the letters in each word
./get test_2 | awk '{print length($1), $1}' | ./put test_3 &

# Sort lines
./get test_3 | sort -n | ./put test_4 &

# Take the last line of the input
./get test_4 | tail -n 1 | ./put test_5 &

# Take the second part of each line
./get test_5 | cut -d " " -f 2 | ./put test_6 &

# Put the resulting word into Tux's mouth
./get test_6 | cowsay -f tux

The first thing to note - this is an extremely slow operation, as we’re filtering a multi-megabyte file with this method. We end up sending 235,912 messages through Redis, which takes the better part of 4 minutes. (If we move grep to run immediately after cat, and before putting data into Redis, this operation runs more than 1,200 times faster.) However, in the end, we get the correct answer that we’re looking for:

 _____________ 
< unimpurpled >
 ------------- 
   \
    \
        .--.
       |o_o |
       |:_/ |
      //   \ \
     (|     | )
    /'\_   _/`\
    \___)=(___/

However, another peculiar property can be observed - by logging in to redis-cli, the Redis command line tool, we can find out that very little memory is being used by our pipeline, despite the large set of input data:

$ redis-cli info | grep memory                                                                  
used_memory:3126928
used_memory_human:2.98M
used_memory_rss:2850816
used_memory_peak:3127664
used_memory_peak_human:2.98M
used_memory_lua:31744

pressure is still in alpha, and definitely not ready for wide-scale production deployment, but you should definitely try it out!


Pipelines are hugely useful tools in software that can help cut down on resource usage. Bounded pipelines act as coroutines to only do computation when necessary, and can be crucial in certain applications, like real-time audio processing. pressure provides a way to easily use pipelines reliably on multiple machines. Try using the pipes-and-filters paradigm to solve your own software architecture problems, and see how simple and efficient it can be!

 
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