Now might be a good time to read: Forking with Ruby.

Communication between processes is essential for any non-trivial server tasks. Unix provides a couple of ways to perform interprocess communication: sockets and pipes.

You should know what sockets are, but perhaps I can get to that in a later blog post if you don’t. For today, we will use pipes to communicate betwixt processes.

Pipes are special files in Unix; most developers have been explosed to them at the shell level. For our purposes pipes may be treated as elastic, “infinitely-sized” buffers bound only by our system resources. Pipes come in two flavors: anonymous and named.

Here are two examples of anonymous pipes used in a shell:

$ echo "Hello World" | sed -re 's/([[:lower:]])/\U\1/g'

We are piping the standard output of the echo command into the standard input of the sed program. The ouput is a screaming “Hello World”.

$ cat the_answer.txt | wc -l

We are piping the standard output of the cat command to the standard input of the wc command with the -l flag set. The output is the number of lines in the_answer.txt file.

Sweet right?

What about programmatic piping?

We use the IO.pipe method to create an anonymouse pipe. IO.pipe returns a two-element array of IO objects containing a read and write endpoint.

So, let’s say you ran IO.pipe, you’ve create two endpoints in a single process. Where does the other process come from? Well, that is where fork comes in. You use fork to create a subprocess and allow the two to communicate via the pipe!

You might wonder how the subprocess can communicate via a pipe endpoint that was opened through the parent, but the subprocess, itself, hasn’t opened. Remember, a subprocess inherits all of it’s parent’s open file descriptors. This means the subprocess can use any pipe’s, anonymous or named, that the parent has opened.

The following example is ripped straight from the ruby docs:

# anon_pipes.rb
  rd, wr = IO.pipe

  if fork
    puts "Parent got: <#{}>"
    puts "Sending message to parent"
    wr.write "Hi Dad"

#  Sending message to parent
#  Parent got: <Hi Dad>

NOTE: Pipes by convetioned are to be used unidirectionally. In the previous example, if we wanted to communicate from parent process to the child process, it would be fitting to create another pipe for data flow, caspice?

Cool. We got anonymous pipes. What about communicating between two unrelated processes?! I thought you’d never ask! Let’s look at named pipes.

The user command mkfifo makes a first-in-first-out queue, a.k.a. a named pipe.

Ruby doesn’t have this command, by default, but there is a gem out there for this purpose. For our purposes, we will execute the command in-process. It’s a little cavalier, but whatevies.

Let’s create the data writer:

# pipe_writer.rb
pipe = "/tmp/pied_piper"

`mkfifo #{pipe}` unless File.exists?(pipe)

output = open(pipe, "w+") # the w+ means we don't block
10.times { |n| output.puts n }

puts "Sent data to pipe #{pipe}"

This script attempts to create a named pipe, if the pipe doesn’t exist. We open the pipe (a file) for appending, write some digits, then flush and close the pipe.

What if we run the writer?

$ ruby pipe_writer.rb
# => Sent data to pipe /tmp/pied_piper

If data is written to a pipe without a consumer, did it really happen?

Lets write a consumer:

# pipe_reader.rb
pipe = "/tmp/pied_piper"

`mkfifo #{pipe}` unless File.exists?(pipe)

input = open(pipe, "r") # NOTE: in prod, probably use "r+",
                        # so there is no blocking, EOF errors

while line = input.gets
    puts "Read pipe: #{line}"

puts "Read data from pipe #{pipe}"

If needed we create the named pipe. We open the pipe for reading. In this example we use the flag “r” when opening the file because I want to exit the while loop when the pipe is empty. Note: in a long lived process I would use “r+” and other control structures.

Lets run the consumer and the writer in individual terminals.

In terminal 1:

$ ruby pipe_reader.rb

In terminal 2:

$ ruby pipe_writer.rb

The results in terminal 1 should look like the following:

Read pipe: 0
Read pipe: 1
Read pipe: 2
Read pipe: 3
Read pipe: 4
Read pipe: 5
Read pipe: 6
Read pipe: 7
Read pipe: 8
Read pipe: 9

Read data from pipe /tmp/pied_piper

Have we got the creative juices flowing on what and how to communicate state between processes?

For grins, list the pipe file using the following command:

$ ls -lF /tmp/pied_piper
prw-rw-r-- 1 pricees pricees    0 Sep 11 02:15 pied_piper|

Notice the characteristics of the pipe file:

  • it has a size of zero bytes
  • the file name has a ‘|’ (pipe indicator) appended to it (thanks to the -F flag)
  • the file type in the permissions is ‘p’ for pipe


There are a few choices when determining the needs for interprocess communication in a POSIX/SUS compliant environment. Pipes offer a performant and easy to use ICP protocol, when sharing state between to processes that are running on the same server. Ruby makes anonymouse pipes each to use out of the box. Named pipes required either a hack or a gem build, but other communication between discrete, unrelated processes.

blog comments powered by Disqus


11 September 2015