Understanding Shell Script's idiom: 2>&1


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When we are working with a programming or scripting language we are constantly using some idioms, some things that are done in this certain way, the common solution to a problem. With Shell Script this is not different, and a quite common idiom, but not so well understood, is the 2>&1, like in
ls foo > /dev/null 2>&1.
Let me explain what is going on here and why this works the way it does.

A quick introduction to I/O redirection

Simply put, redirection is the mechanism used to send the output of a command to another place. For instance, if we just cat a file, its output will be printed in the screen, by default:

$ cat foo.txt
foo
bar
baz

But we can redirect this output to another place. Here, for example, we are redirecting it to a file called output.txt:

$ cat foo.txt > output.txt

$ cat output.txt
foo
bar
baz

Note that in the first cat we don’t see any output in the screen. We changed the standard output (stdout) location to a file, so it doesn’t use the screen anymore.

It’s also important to know that there are this other place, called standard error (stderr), to where programs can send their error messages. So if we try to cat a file that doesn’t exist, like this:

$ cat nop.txt > output.txt
cat: nop.txt: No such file or directory

Even if we redirect the stdout to a file, we still see the error output in the screen, because we are redirecting just the standard output, not the standard error.

And a quick introduction to file descriptors

A file descriptor is nothing more that a positive integer that represents an open file. If you have 100 open files, you will have 100 file descriptors for them.

The only caveat is that, in Unix systems, everything is a file. But that’s not really important now, we just need to know that there are file descriptors for the Standard Output (stdout) and Standard Error (stderr).

In plain English, it means that there are “ids” that identify these two locations, and it will always be 1 for stdout and 2 for stderr.

Putting the pieces together

Going back to our first example, when we redirected the output of cat foo.txt to output.txt, we could rewrite the command like this:

$ cat foo.txt 1> output.txt

This 1 is just the file descriptor for stdout. The syntax for redirecting is [FILE_DESCRIPTOR]>, leaving the file descriptor out is just a shortcut to 1>.

So, to redirect stderr, it should be just a matter of adding the right file descriptor in place:

# Using stderr file descriptor (2) to redirect the errors to a file
$ cat nop.txt 2> error.txt

$ cat error.txt
cat: nop.txt: No such file or directory

At this point you probably already know what the 2>&1 idiom is doing, but let’s make it official.

You use &1 to reference the value of the file descriptor 1 (stdout). So when you use 2>&1 you are basically saying “Redirect the stderr to the same place we are redirecting the stdout”. And that’s why we can do something like this to redirect both stdout and stderr to the same place:

$ cat foo.txt > output.txt 2>&1

$ cat output.txt
foo
bar
baz

$ cat nop.txt > output.txt 2>&1

$ cat output.txt
cat: nop.txt: No such file or directory

Recap

  • There are two places programs send output to: Standard output (stdout) and Standard Error (stderr);
  • You can redirect these outputs to a different place (like a file);
  • File descriptors are used to identify stdout (1) and stderr (2);
  • command > output is just a shortcut for command 1> output;
  • You can use &[FILE_DESCRIPTOR] to reference a file descriptor value;
  • Using 2>&1 will redirect stderr to whatever value is set to stdout (and 1>&2 will do the opposite).

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