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Linux Xargs

Links: 104 Linux Index

Always on the right hand side of the pipe.

Why use xargs

  • Many Linux commands support both standard input (Stdin) and command arguments, such as sedgrep, and awk.
  • On the other hand, some commands don’t read Stdin and only support arguments  cp, rm, ls, and mv.
  • So, when we want to execute these commands with Stdin as the input, we need to convert Stdin into arguments. The xargs command is born to do that.
  • It is usually used in combination with other commands through piping.
  • echo "file1 file2 file3" | xargs touch
    • In the example above, we are piping the standard input to xargs, and the command is run for each argument, creating three files. This is the same as if you would run: touch file1 file2 file3

Individual lines

  • The -n (--max-args) option specifies the number of arguments to be passed to the given command. 
  • xargs runs the specified command as many times as necessary until all arguments are exhausted.
  • echo "file1 file2 file3" | xargs -n 1 -t touch: The touch command is executed separately for each argument
    touch file1
    touch file2
    touch file3
  • Useful when some commands won't take multiple arguments

Useful switches

  • To print the command on the terminal before executing it use the -t option
  • Make xargs ask for permission before executing the command using -p
  • fd test | xargs -t -p -n 1 rm -rf : In this example xargs would ask for permission for all files. Important example to understand -n 1 flag.
    • attachments/Pasted image 20220615150614.jpg
  • fd test | xargs -t -p rm -rf : Will only ask for permission once
    • attachments/Pasted image 20220615150658.jpg
  • -P number of processes to use

With find

  • xargs is most often used in combination with the command.
    • You can use find to search for specific files and then use xargs to perform operations on those files.
  • find /var/www/.cache -type f | xargs rm -f
    • In the above example, find will print the full names of all files inside the /var/www/.cache directory and xargs will pass the file paths to the rm command.

Files with spaces

  • xargs does not automatically include files which contain blank spaces in their names.
  • To include those files too, use the -print0 option for find, and the -0 option for xargs
    • find [location] -name "[search-term]" -type f -print0 | xargs -0 [command]
  • Example
    • attachments/Pasted image 20220615161211.jpg
    • attachments/Pasted image 20220615161245.jpg
    • The above happened because of space between the file name "hello world"
    • attachments/Pasted image 20220615161351.jpg
    • This works since -print0 uses \0 (null) as separator. This can be seen using hexdump

xargs vs exec

The find command supports the -exec option that allows arbitrary commands to be performed on found files. The following are equivalent.

find ./foo -type f -name "*.txt" -exec rm {} \; 
find ./foo -type f -name "*.txt" | xargs rm
But xargs is far more efficient.

You can verify this by using time in front of the command.

With grep

  • Using xargs with grep
    • find • -name '*. txt' | xargs grep 'example'
    • The example above searched for all the files with the .txt extension and piped them to xargs, which then executed the grep command on them.

Run multiple commands with xargs

  • It is possible to run multiple commands with xargs by using the -I flag. This replaces occurrences of the argument with the argument passed to xargs.
  • The following echos a string and creates a folder.
    > cat foo.txt | xargs -I % sh -c 'echo %; mkdir %' 
    > ls 

Insert arguments at a particular position

  • The xargs command offers options to insert the listed arguments at some arbitrary position other than the end of the command line.
  • The -I option takes a string that gets replaced with the supplied input before the command executes.
    • Although this string can be any set of characters, a common choice for it is %.
  • find ./log -type f -name "*.log" | xargs -I % mv % backup/
  • Another way : find ./log -type f -name "*.log" | xargs bash "mv $1 backup/"
  • If you use it again and again then the same argument will be used
    • ls * | xargs -n 1 -I % cp % %.bak
    • Create a .bak file for all the files in the directory

Types of arguments

  • Commands can have multiple arguments in two scenarios:
    • All command arguments – COMMAND ARG1 ARG2 ARG3
      • All the above examples were all command arguments
    • Option argumentsCOMMAND -a ARG1 -b ARG2 -c ARG3

Option arguments example

  • echo "Tom Likes Jerry" | xargs bash -c './ -A $0 -B $1 -C $2'
    • or echo "Tom Likes Jerry" | xargs bash './ -A $1 -B $2 -C $3'
    • or echo "Tom Likes Jerry" | xargs sh './ -A $1 -B $2 -C $3'
  • We need to keep in mind that if we use bash -c the_real_command, the first argument is assigned to $0 instead of $1
  • Since the arguments have been indexed, we can easily change the arguments’ order or decide which argument to pass to which option.
    • echo "Tom Likes Jerry" | xargs bash -c './ -A $2 -B $1 -C $0'

Example: Delete log files older than 7 days

  • find . -type f -mtime +7 | rm - This prints an error message since rm expects arguments and can’t read them from STDIN
  • find . -type f -mtime +7 | xargs rm - solution


  • By default if you don't give xargs a second command it will use echo
    • ls * | xargs is same as ls * | xargs echo


Last updated: 2022-06-15