Pipes, another cross-program communication device, are made available in Python with the built-in os.pipe call. Pipes are unidirectional channels that work something like a shared memory buffer, but with an interface resembling a simple file on each of two ends. In typical use, one program writes data on one end of the pipe, and another reads that data on the other end. Each program only sees its end of the pipes, and processes it using normal Python file calls.

Pipes are much more within the operating system, though. For instance, calls to read a pipe will normally block the caller until data becomes available (i.e., is sent by the program on the other end), rather than returning an end-of-file indicator. Because of such properties, pipes are also a way to synchronize the execution of independent programs.

3.6.1 Anonymous Pipe Basics

Pipes come in two flavors -- anonymous and named. Named pipes (sometimes called "fifos") are represented by a file on your computer. Anonymous pipes only exist within processes, though, and are typically used in conjunction with process forks as a way to link parent and spawned child processes within an application -- parent and child converse over shared pipe file descriptors. Because named pipes are really external files, the communicating processes need not be related at all (in fact, they can be independently started programs).

Since they are more traditional, let's start with a look at anonymous pipes. To illustrate, the script in Example 3-15 uses the os.fork call to make a copy of the calling process as usual (we met forks earlier in this chapter). After forking, the original parent process and its child copy speak through the two ends of a pipe created with os.pipe prior to the fork. The os.pipe call returns a tuple of two file descriptors -- the low-level file identifiers we met earlier -- representing the input and output sides of the pipe. Because forked child processes get copies of their parents' file descriptors, writing to the pipe's output descriptor in the child sends data back to the parent on the pipe created before the child was spawned.

Example 3-15. PP2ESystemProcessespipe1.py

import os, time

def child(pipeout):
 zzz = 0
 while 1:
 time.sleep(zzz) # make parent wait
 os.write(pipeout, 'Spam %03d' % zzz) # send to parent
 zzz = (zzz+1) % 5 # goto 0 after 4
def parent( ):
 pipein, pipeout = os.pipe( ) # make 2-ended pipe
 if os.fork( ) == 0: # copy this process
 child(pipeout) # in copy, run child
 else: # in parent, listen to pipe
 while 1:
 line = os.read(pipein, 32) # blocks until data sent
 print 'Parent %d got "%s" at %s' % (os.getpid( ), line, time.time( ))

parent( )

If you run this program on Linux ( pipe is available on Windows today, but fork is not), the parent process waits for the child to send data on the pipe each time it calls os.read. It's almost as if the child and parent act as client and server here -- the parent starts the child and waits for it to initiate communication.[7] Just to tease, the child keeps the parent waiting one second longer between messages with time.sleep calls, until the delay has reached four seconds. When the zzz delay counter hits 005, it rolls back down to 000 and starts again:

[7] We will clarify the notions of "client" and "server" in Chapter 10. There, we'll communicate with sockets (which are very roughly like bidirectional pipes for networks), but the overall conversation model is similar. Named pipes (fifos), described later, are a better match to the client/server model, because they can be accessed by arbitrary, unrelated processes (no forks are required). But as we'll see, the socket port model is generally used by most Internet scripting protocols.

[mark@toy]$ python pipe1.py
Parent 1292 got "Spam 000" at 968370008.322
Parent 1292 got "Spam 001" at 968370009.319
Parent 1292 got "Spam 002" at 968370011.319
Parent 1292 got "Spam 003" at 968370014.319
Parent 1292 got "Spam 004Spam 000" at 968370018.319
Parent 1292 got "Spam 001" at 968370019.319
Parent 1292 got "Spam 002" at 968370021.319
Parent 1292 got "Spam 003" at 968370024.319
Parent 1292 got "Spam 004Spam 000" at 968370028.319
Parent 1292 got "Spam 001" at 968370029.319
Parent 1292 got "Spam 002" at 968370031.319
Parent 1292 got "Spam 003" at 968370034.319

If you look closely, you'll see that when the child's delay counter hits 004, the parent ends up reading two messages from the pipe at once -- the child wrote two distinct messages, but they were close enough in time to be fetched as a single unit by the parent. Really, the parent blindly asks to read at most 32 bytes each time, but gets back whatever text is available in the pipe (when it becomes available at all). To distinguish messages better, we can mandate a separator character in the pipe. An end-of-line makes this easy, because we can wrap the pipe descriptor in a file object with os.fdopen, and rely on the file object's readline method to scan up through the next separator in the pipe. Example 3-16 implements this scheme.

Example 3-16. PP2ESystemProcessespipe2.py

# same as pipe1.py, but wrap pipe input in stdio file object
# to read by line, and close unused pipe fds in both processes

import os, time

def child(pipeout):
 zzz = 0
 while 1:
 time.sleep(zzz) # make parent wait
 os.write(pipeout, 'Spam %03d
' % zzz) # send to parent
 zzz = (zzz+1) % 5 # roll to 0 at 5
def parent( ):
 pipein, pipeout = os.pipe( ) # make 2-ended pipe
 if os.fork( ) == 0: # in child, write to pipe
 os.close(pipein) # close input side here
 else: # in parent, listen to pipe
 os.close(pipeout) # close output side here
 pipein = os.fdopen(pipein) # make stdio input object
 while 1:
 line = pipein.readline( )[:-1] # blocks until data sent
 print 'Parent %d got "%s" at %s' % (os.getpid( ), line, time.time( ))

parent( )

This version has also been augmented to close the unused end of the pipe in each process (e.g., after the fork, the parent process closes its copy of the output side of the pipe written by the child); programs should close unused pipe ends in general. Running with this new version returns a single child message to the parent each time it reads from the pipe, because they are separated with markers when written:

[mark@toy]$ python pipe2.py
Parent 1296 got "Spam 000" at 968370066.162
Parent 1296 got "Spam 001" at 968370067.159
Parent 1296 got "Spam 002" at 968370069.159
Parent 1296 got "Spam 003" at 968370072.159
Parent 1296 got "Spam 004" at 968370076.159
Parent 1296 got "Spam 000" at 968370076.161
Parent 1296 got "Spam 001" at 968370077.159
Parent 1296 got "Spam 002" at 968370079.159
Parent 1296 got "Spam 003" at 968370082.159
Parent 1296 got "Spam 004" at 968370086.159
Parent 1296 got "Spam 000" at 968370086.161
Parent 1296 got "Spam 001" at 968370087.159
Parent 1296 got "Spam 002" at 968370089.159

3.6.2 Bidirectional IPC with Pipes

Pipes normally only let data flow in one direction -- one side is input, one is output. What if you need your programs to talk back and forth, though? For example, one program might send another a request for information, and then wait for that information to be sent back. A single pipe can't generally handle such bidirectional conversations, but two pipes can -- one pipe can be used to pass requests to a program, and another can be used to ship replies back to the requestor.[8]

[8] This really does have real-world applications. For instance, I once added a GUI interface to a command-line debugger for a C-like programming language by connecting two processes with pipes. The GUI ran as a separate process that constructed and sent commands to the existing debugger's input stream pipe and parsed the results that showed up in the debugger's output stream pipe. In effect, the GUI acted like a programmer typing commands at a keyboard. By spawning command-line programs with streams attached by pipes, systems can add new interfaces to legacy programs.

The module in Example 3-17 demonstrates one way to apply this idea to link the input and output streams of two programs. Its spawn function forks a new child program, and connects the input and output streams of the parent to the output and input streams of the child. That is:

  • When the parent reads from its standard input, it is reading text sent to the child's standard output.
  • When the parent writes to its standard output, it is sending data to the child's standard input.

The net effect is that the two independent programs communicate by speaking over their standard streams.

Example 3-17. PP2ESystemProcessespipes.py

# spawn a child process/program, connect my stdin/stdout
# to child process's stdout/stdin -- my reads and writes 
# map to output and input streams of the spawned program;
# much like popen2.popen2 plus parent stream redirection;

import os, sys

def spawn(prog, *args): # pass progname, cmdline args 
 stdinFd = sys.stdin.fileno( ) # get descriptors for streams
 stdoutFd = sys.stdout.fileno( ) # normally stdin=0, stdout=1

 parentStdin, childStdout = os.pipe( ) # make two ipc pipe channels
 childStdin, parentStdout = os.pipe( ) # pipe returns (inputfd, outoutfd)
 pid = os.fork( ) # make a copy of this process
 if pid:
 os.close(childStdout) # in parent process after fork:
 os.close(childStdin) # close child ends in parent
 os.dup2(parentStdin, stdinFd) # my sys.stdin copy = pipe1[0]
 os.dup2(parentStdout, stdoutFd) # my sys.stdout copy = pipe2[1]
 os.close(parentStdin) # in child process after fork:
 os.close(parentStdout) # close parent ends in child
 os.dup2(childStdin, stdinFd) # my sys.stdin copy = pipe2[0]
 os.dup2(childStdout, stdoutFd) # my sys.stdout copy = pipe1[1]
 args = (prog,) + args
 os.execvp(prog, args) # new program in this process
 assert 0, 'execvp failed!' # os.exec call never returns here

if __name__ == '__main__':
 mypid = os.getpid( )
 spawn('python', 'pipes-testchild.py', 'spam') # fork child program

 print 'Hello 1 from parent', mypid # to child's stdin
 sys.stdout.flush( ) # subvert stdio buffering
 reply = raw_input( ) # from child's stdout
 sys.stderr.write('Parent got: "%s"
' % reply) # stderr not tied to pipe!

 print 'Hello 2 from parent', mypid
 sys.stdout.flush( )
 reply = sys.stdin.readline( )
 sys.stderr.write('Parent got: "%s"
' % reply[:-1]) 

This spawn function in this module does not work on Windows -- remember, fork isn't yet available there today. In fact, most of the calls in this module map straight to Unix system calls (and may be arbitrarily terrifying on first glance to non-Unix developers). We've already met some of these (e.g., os.fork), but much of this code depends on Unix concepts we don't have time to address well in this text. But in simple terms, here is a brief summary of the system calls demonstrated in this code:

  • os.fork copies the calling process as usual, and returns the child's process ID in the parent process only.
  • os.execvp overlays a new program in the calling process; it's just like the os.execlp used earlier but takes a tuple or list of command-line argument strings (collected with the *args form in the function header).
  • os.pipe returns a tuple of file descriptors representing the input and output ends of a pipe, as in earlier examples.
  • os.close(fd) closes descriptor-based file fd.
  • os.dup2(fd1,fd2) copies all system information associated with the file named by file descriptor fd1 to the file named by fd2.

In terms of connecting standard streams, os.dup2 is the real nitty-gritty here. For example, the call os.dup2(parentStdin,stdinFd) essentially assigns the parent process's stdin file to the input end of one of the two pipes created; all stdin reads will henceforth come from the pipe. By connecting the other end of this pipe to the child process's copy of the stdout stream file with os.dup2(childStdout,stdoutFd), text written by the child to its sdtdout winds up being routed through the pipe to the parent's stdin stream.

To test this utility, the self-test code at the end of the file spawns the program shown in Example 3-18 in a child process, and reads and writes standard streams to converse with it over two pipes.

Example 3-18. PP2ESystemProcessespipes-testchild.py

import os, time, sys 
mypid = os.getpid( )
parentpid = os.getppid( )
sys.stderr.write('Child %d of %d got arg: %s
' % 
 (mypid, parentpid, sys.argv[1]))
for i in range(2):
 time.sleep(3) # make parent process wait by sleeping here 
 input = raw_input( ) # stdin tied to pipe: comes from parent's stdout
 reply = 'Child %d got: [%s]' % (mypid, input)
 print reply # stdout tied to pipe: goes to parent's stdin 
 sys.stdout.flush( ) # make sure it's sent now else blocks

Here is our test in action on Linux; its output is not incredibly impressive to read, but represents two programs running independently and shipping data back and forth through a pipe device managed by the operating system. This is even more like a client/server model (if you imagine the child as the server). The text in square brackets in this output went from the parent process, to the child, and back to the parent again -- all through pipes connected to standard streams:

[mark@toy]$ python pipes.py
Child 797 of 796 got arg: spam
Parent got: "Child 797 got: [Hello 1 from parent 796]"
Parent got: "Child 797 got: [Hello 2 from parent 796]" Deadlocks, flushes, and unbuffered streams

These two processes engage in a simple dialog, but it's already enough to illustrate some of the dangers lurking in cross-program communications. First of all, notice that both programs need to write to stderr to display a message -- their stdout streams are tied to the other program's input stream. Because processes share file descriptors, stderr is the same in both parent and child, so status messages show up in the same place.

More subtly, note that both parent and child call sys.stdout.flush after they print text to the stdout stream. Input requests on pipes normally block the caller if there is no data available, but it seems that shouldn't be a problem in our example -- there are as many writes as there are reads on the other side of the pipe. By default, though, sys.stdout is buffered, so the printed text may not actually be transmitted until some time in the future (when the stdio output buffers fill up). In fact, if the flush calls are not made, both processes will get stuck waiting for input from the other -- input that is sitting in a buffer and is never flushed out over the pipe. They wind up in a deadlock state, both blocked on raw_input calls waiting for events that never occur.

Keep in mind that output buffering is really a function of the filesystem used to access pipes, not pipes themselves (pipes do queue up output data, but never hide it from readers!). In fact it only occurs in this example because we copy the pipe's information over to sys.stdout -- a built-in file object that uses stdio buffering by default. However, such anomalies can also occur when using other cross-process tools, such as the popen2 and popen3 calls introduced in Chapter 2.

In general terms, if your programs engage in a two-way dialogs like this, there are at least three ways to avoid buffer-related deadlock problems:

  • As demonstrated in this example, manually flushing output pipe streams by calling file flush method is an easy way to force buffers to be cleared.
  • It's possible to use pipes in unbuffered mode -- either use low-level os module calls to read and write pipe descriptors directly, or (on most systems) pass a buffer size argument of to os.fdopen to disable stdio buffering in the file object used to wrap the descriptor. For fifos, described in the next section, do the same for open.
  • Simply use the -u Python command-line flag to turn off buffering for the sys.stdout stream.

The last technique merits a few more words. Try this: delete all the sys.stdout.flush calls in both Examples Example 3-17 and Example 3-18 (files pipes.py and pipes-testchild.py) and change the parent's spawn call in pipes.py to this (i.e., add a -u command-line argument):

spawn('python', '-u', 'pipes-testchild.py', 'spam')

Then start the program with a command line like this: python -u pipes.py. It will work as it did with manual stdout flush calls, because stdout will be operating in unbuffered mode. Deadlock in general, though, is a bigger problem than we have space to address here; on the other hand, if you know enough to want to do IPC in Python, you're probably already a veteran of the deadlock wars.

3.6.3 Named Pipes (Fifos)

On some platforms, it is also possible to create a pipe that exists as a file. Such files are called "named pipes" (or sometimes, "fifos"), because they behave just like the pipes created within the previous programs, but are associated with a real file somewhere on your computer, external to any particular program. Once a named pipe file is created, processes read and write it using normal file operations. Fifos are unidirectional streams, but a set of two fifos can be used to implement bidirectional communication just as we did for anonymous pipes in the prior section.

Because fifos are files, they are longer-lived than in-process pipes and can be accessed by programs started independently. The unnamed, in-process pipe examples thus far depend on the fact that file descriptors (including pipes) are copied to child processes. With fifos, pipes are accessed instead by a filename visible to all programs regardless of any parent/child process relationships. Because of that, they are better suited as IPC mechanisms for independent client and server programs; for instance, a perpetually running server program may create and listen for requests on a fifo, that can be accessed later by arbitrary clients not forked by the server.

In Python, named pipe files are created with the os.mkfifo call, available today on Unix-like platforms and Windows NT (but not on Windows 95/98). This only creates the external file, though; to send and receive data through a fifo, it must be opened and processed as if it were a standard file. Example 3-19 is a derivation of the pipe2.py script listed earlier, written to use fifos instead of anonymous pipes.

Example 3-19. PP2ESystemProcessespipefifo.py

# named pipes; os.mkfifo not avaiable on Windows 95/98;
# no reason to fork here, since fifo file pipes are 
# external to processes--shared fds are irrelevent;

import os, time, sys
fifoname = '/tmp/pipefifo' # must open same name

def child( ):
 pipeout = os.open(fifoname, os.O_WRONLY) # open fifo pipe file as fd
 zzz = 0 
 while 1:
 os.write(pipeout, 'Spam %03d
' % zzz)
 zzz = (zzz+1) % 5
def parent( ):
 pipein = open(fifoname, 'r') # open fifo as stdio object
 while 1:
 line = pipein.readline( )[:-1] # blocks until data sent
 print 'Parent %d got "%s" at %s' % (os.getpid( ), line, time.time( ))

if __name__ == '__main__':
 if not os.path.exists(fifoname):
 os.mkfifo(fifoname) # create a named pipe file
 if len(sys.argv) == 1:
 parent( ) # run as parent if no args
 else: # else run as child process
 child( )

Because the fifo exists independently of both parent and child, there's no reason to fork here -- the child may be started independently of the parent, as long as it opens a fifo file by the same name. Here, for instance, on Linux the parent is started in one xterm window, and then the child is started in another. Messages start appearing in the parent window only after the child is started:

[mark@toy]$ python pipefifo.py
Parent 657 got "Spam 000" at 968390065.865
Parent 657 got "Spam 001" at 968390066.865
Parent 657 got "Spam 002" at 968390068.865
Parent 657 got "Spam 003" at 968390071.865
Parent 657 got "Spam 004" at 968390075.865
Parent 657 got "Spam 000" at 968390075.867
Parent 657 got "Spam 001" at 968390076.865
Parent 657 got "Spam 002" at 968390078.865

[mark@toy]$ file /tmp/pipefifo
/tmp/pipefifo: fifo (named pipe)
[mark@toy]$ python pipefifo.py -child

Introducing Python

Part I: System Interfaces

System Tools

Parallel System Tools

Larger System Examples I

Larger System Examples II

Part II: GUI Programming

Graphical User Interfaces

A Tkinter Tour, Part 1

A Tkinter Tour, Part 2

Larger GUI Examples

Part III: Internet Scripting

Network Scripting

Client-Side Scripting

Server-Side Scripting

Larger Web Site Examples I

Larger Web Site Examples II

Advanced Internet Topics

Part IV: Assorted Topics

Databases and Persistence

Data Structures

Text and Language

Part V: Integration

Extending Python

Embedding Python

VI: The End

Conclusion Python and the Development Cycle

Programming Python
Python Programming for the Absolute Beginner, 3rd Edition
ISBN: 1435455002
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2000
Pages: 245

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