Home Terminal Tuts Dealing with the dreaded ‘Broken Pipe’ error in Linux

Dealing with the dreaded ‘Broken Pipe’ error in Linux

We'll delve into the 'Broken Pipe' error, understanding its causes and providing effective solutions to address it.

by Divya Kiran Kumar
the 'broken pipe' error in linux

I’ve been dabbling in the Linux world for a good decade now, and it never ceases to surprise me with its quirks and nuances. I mean, who wouldn’t love the charm of the terminal, the power of the command line, and the satisfaction of troubleshooting a complex problem? Today, we’re going to dive headfirst into one of the most common issues that Linux users encounter: the dreaded ‘Broken Pipe’ error.

Trust me, I know how frustrating it can be when you’re working on a crucial task, and bam! The terminal throws this error at you. But rest assured, my friends, we’re not helpless here! As overwhelming as it may seem, with a little patience and understanding, it’s absolutely fixable. So, let’s roll up our sleeves and get down to business!

The ‘Broken Pipe’ error: What is it?

Just to give a brief overview for beginners (and a refresher for the veterans), the ‘Broken Pipe’ error typically occurs when one process is trying to write data to another process that is no longer available to receive it. In other words, the communication channel (or “pipe”) between the two processes has somehow been “broken.”

One thing I’ve learned throughout my Linux journey is that Linux is all about communication. That’s what makes it so powerful yet sometimes so tricky. And the ‘Broken Pipe’ error is a prime example of communication gone awry.

Example that demonstrates the ‘Broken Pipe’ error

Let’s use a simple case involving two popular Unix commands: yes and head.

The yes command continuously outputs a string until it is killed, and head command outputs the first part of files. When we pipe the output of yes into head, head will stop after it has printed out the first ten lines (which is its default behavior), and it will close its input pipe. But yes will still try to write to the pipe, and that’s when we get a ‘Broken Pipe’ error.

Here’s the command you can try:

yes | head

Now, if you run this command in a terminal, you may not see an error. That’s because the shell automatically ignores the ‘Broken Pipe’ signal (SIGPIPE). However, if you run it in a script, the script will exit due to the error.

Let’s put it in a script to see the error:

yes | head
echo "Script finished"

If you run this script, you’ll see that “Script finished” does not get printed because the script exits when the ‘Broken Pipe’ error occurs.

Now, let’s handle the error using trap as we discussed earlier:

trap 'echo "Broken pipe signal detected" >&2' PIPE
yes | head
echo "Script finished"

This time, the script doesn’t exit when the ‘Broken Pipe’ error occurs. Instead, it prints “Broken pipe signal detected” and continues to the end, printing “Script finished”. This is a simple but clear illustration of the ‘Broken Pipe’ error and how to handle it.

Identifying the cause: The first step towards a solution

To fix any error, we first need to understand its cause. One common reason for this error, which I personally detest because it always seems to happen at the worst possible time, is network instability. You might see this error if you’re SSH-ing into a remote server, and your internet connection is unstable or drops out for a moment. The server tries to send data, but since your computer isn’t connected anymore, the pipe is “broken.”

Another cause can be when a command tries to write output to a pipe or file, but the pipe has been closed or the file has been removed. This often happens when you’re piping the output of one command into another, and the second command ends before the first one does. As a quick example, let’s say we’re using the yes command piped into head. If head finishes execution before yes, it closes the pipe, leading to the ‘Broken Pipe’ error. Oh, the number of times this has caught me out!

Fixing the error: Time to get our hands dirty

Now, onto the most exciting part, at least for me – fixing the error! Depending on the cause, there are a few ways to handle this:

Case 1: Network instability

If you’re dealing with an unstable network causing your SSH connections to drop, you can use tools like autossh, mosh, or screen.

  • autossh: This handy tool automatically restarts SSH sessions and port forwarding if they crash, helping to maintain the connection.
  • mosh: An excellent alternative to SSH, mosh provides a robust and responsive connection, even with intermittent network connectivity.
  • screen: This utility allows you to start a screen session, run your command, and then detach from the session. You can later reattach to the session, and it’s as if you never left!

I must confess, I’m a huge fan of mosh for its simplicity and robustness. But feel free to choose the one that suits your needs and preferences!

Case 2: Commands writing to a closed pipe

For the scenario where a command is trying to write to a closed pipe, we can trap the ‘Broken Pipe’ signal in our scripts and handle it gracefully. To do this, we use the trap command in bash scripting.

Here’s a simple example:

trap 'echo "Pipe has broken, but we're not going to crash and burn!" >&2' PIPE
yes | head

In this script, if a ‘Broken Pipe’ signal is detected, the message “Pipe has broken, but we’re not going to crash and burn!” is printed to standard error.

Keeping a watchful eye: Prevention is better than cure

Lastly, I’d like to share a piece of wisdom I’ve gathered over the years: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It’s far better to prevent errors than to fix them. Keep your scripts clean, ensure you handle exceptions, and regularly check your network connectivity if you’re working on remote servers.

Wrapping up

In conclusion, while the ‘Broken Pipe’ error can be a nuisance, it’s not the end of the world, nor is it the end of your Linux journey. In fact, it’s just the beginning of a deeper understanding of how Linux operates. It’s these little challenges that, in my opinion, make Linux not just an operating system, but an adventure!

Remember, every problem has a solution, and every error is a stepping stone to becoming a better Linux user. I hope this blog post helps you navigate the ‘Broken Pipe’ error with confidence and ease. Until next time, happy troubleshooting!

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