xargs runs one command at a time. This is called
"serial" execution; the commands happen in a series, one after another.
If you’d like
xargs to do things in "parallel", you can ask it
to do so, either when you invoke it, or later while it is running.
Running several commands at one time can make the entire operation
go more quickly, if the commands are independent, and if your system
has enough resources to handle the load. When parallelism works in
xargs provides an easy way to get your work
Run up to max-procs processes at a time; the default is 1. If
max-procs is 0,
xargs will run as many processes as
possible at a time. Use the ‘-n’, ‘-s’, or ‘-L’ option
with ‘-P’; otherwise chances are that the command will be run
For example, suppose you have a directory tree of large image files
makeallsizes script that takes a single file name and
creates various sized images from it (thumbnail-sized, web-page-sized,
printer-sized, and the original large file). The script is doing enough
work that it takes significant time to run, even on a single image.
You could run:
find originals -name '*.jpg' | xargs -l makeallsizes
This will run
makeallsizes filename once for each
file in the
originals directory. However, if your system has
two central processors, this script will only keep one of them busy.
Instead, you could probably finish in about half the time by running:
find originals -name '*.jpg' | xargs -l -P 2 makeallsizes
xargs will run the first two commands in parallel, and then
whenever one of them terminates, it will start another one, until
the entire job is done.
The same idea can be generalized to as many processors as you have handy.
It also generalizes to other resources besides processors. For example,
xargs is running commands that are waiting for a response from a
distant network connection, running a few in parallel may reduce the
overall latency by overlapping their waiting time.
If you are running commands in parallel, you need to think about how they should arbitrate access to any resources that they share. For example, if more than one of them tries to print to stdout, the output will be produced in an indeterminate order (and very likely mixed up) unless the processes collaborate in some way to prevent this. Using some kind of locking scheme is one way to prevent such problems. In general, using a locking scheme will help ensure correct output but reduce performance. If you don’t want to tolerate the performance difference, simply arrange for each process to produce a separate output file (or otherwise use separate resources).
xargs also allows you to “turn up” or “turn down” its parallelism
in the middle of a run. Suppose you are keeping your four-processor
system busy for hours, processing thousands of images using
Now, in the middle of the run, you or someone else wants you to reduce
your load on the system, so that something else will run faster.
If you interrupt
xargs, your job will be half-done, and it
may take significant manual work to resume it only for the remaining
images. If you suspend
xargs using your shell’s job controls
control-Z), then it will get no work done while suspended.
Find out the process ID of the
xargs process, either from your
shell or with the
ps command. After you send it the signal
xargs will run one fewer command in parallel.
If you send it the signal
SIGUSR1, it will run one more command
in parallel. For example:
shell$ xargs <allimages -l -P 4 makeallsizes &  27643 ... at some later point ... shell$ kill -USR2 27643 shell$ kill -USR2 %4
kill command will cause
xargs to wait for
two commands to terminate before starting the next command (reducing
the parallelism from 4 to 3). The second
kill will reduce it from
3 to 2. (
%4 works in some shells as a shorthand for the process
ID of the background job labeled
Similarly, if you started a long
xargs job without parallelism, you
can easily switch it to start running two commands in parallel by sending
xargs will never terminate any existing commands when you ask it
to run fewer processes. It merely waits for the excess commands to
finish. If you ask it to run more commands, it will start the next
one immediately (if it has more work to do). If the degree of
parallelism is already 1, sending
SIGUSR2 will have no further
--max-procs=0 means that there should be no limit
on the number of processes to run).
There is an implementation-defined limit on the number of processes.
This limit is shown with
xargs --show-limits. The limit is at
least 127 on all systems (and on the author’s system it is
If you send several identical signals quickly, the operating system
does not guarantee that each of them will be delivered to
This means that you can’t rapidly increase or decrease the parallelism by
more than one command at a time. You can avoid this problem by sending
a signal, observing the result, then sending the next one; or merely by
delaying for a few seconds between signals (unless your system is very
Whether or not parallel execution will work well for you depends on the nature of the commmand you are running in parallel, on the configuration of the system on which you are running the command, and on the other work being done on the system at the time.