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Friday, September 5, 2008

Standard streams stdin stdout stderr

In Unix and Unix-like operating systems, as well as certain programming language interfaces, the standard streams are preconnected input and output channels between a computer program and its environment (typically a text terminal) when it begins execution. The three I/O connections are called standard input, standard output and standard error.


In most operating systems predating Unix, programs had to explicitly connect to the appropriate input and output data. On many of those systems, this could be an intimidating programming challenge created by OS-specific intricacies such as obtaining control environment settings, accessing a local file table, determining the intended data set, and handling the correct case of a card reader, magnetic tape drive, disk drive, line printer, card punch, or interactive terminal.

Unix provided several groundbreaking advances, one of which was to provide abstract devices: it removed the need for a program to know or care what kind of devices it was communicating with. Older operating systems forced upon the programmer a record structure and, frequently non-orthogonal data semantics and device control. Unix eliminated this complexity with the concept of a data stream: an ordered sequence of data bytes which can be read until the end of file. A program may also write bytes as desired and need not (and can't easily) declare how many there will be, or how they will be grouped.

Another Unix breakthrough was to automatically associate input and output by default—the program (and programmer) did absolutely nothing to establish input and output for a typical input-process-output program (unless it chose a different paradigm). In contrast, previous operating systems usually required some—often complex—job control language to establish connections, or the equivalent burden had to be orchestrated by the program.

Since Unix provided standard streams, the Unix C runtime environment was obligated to support it as well. As a result, most C runtime environments (and C's descendants), regardless of the operating system, provide equivalent functionality.

Standard input (stdin)

Standard input is data (often text) going into a program. The program requests data transfers by use of the read operation. Not all programs require input. For example, the dir or ls program (which displays file names contained in a directory) performs its operation without any stream data input.

Unless redirected, input is expected from the text terminal which started the program.

The file descriptor for standard input is 0 (zero); the corresponding variable is FILE* stdin; similarly, the variable is std::cin.

Standard output (stdout)

Standard output is the stream where a program writes its output data. The program requests data transfer with the write operation. Not all programs generate output. For example the file rename command (variously called mv, move, ren) is silent on success.

Unless redirected, standard output is the text terminal which initiated the program.

The file descriptor for standard output is 1 (one); the corresponding variable is FILE* stdout; similarly, the variable is std::cout.

Standard error (stderr)

Standard error is another output stream typically used by programs to output error messages or diagnostics. It is a stream independent of standard output and can be redirected separately. The usual destination is the text terminal which started the program to provide the best chance of being seen even if standard output is redirected (so not readily observed). For example, output of a program in a pipeline is redirected to input of the next program, but errors from each program still go directly to the text terminal.

It is acceptable—and normal—for standard output and standard error to be directed to the same destination, such as the text terminal. Messages appear in the same order as the program writes them, unless buffering is involved. (For example, a common situation is when the standard error stream is unbuffered but the standard output stream is line-buffered; in this case, text written to standard error later may appear on the terminal earlier, if the standard output stream's buffer is not yet full.)

The file descriptor for standard error is 2; the corresponding variable is FILE* stderr. The C++ standard header provides two variables associated with this stream: std::cerr and std::clog, the former being unbuffered and the latter using the same buffering mechanism as all other C++ streams.

Most shells allow both standard output and standard error to be redirected to the same file using

 >& filename

Bourne-style shells allow standard error to be redirected to the same destination that standard output is directed to using


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