GNU Astronomy Utilities

4.1.4 Standard input

The most common way to feed the primary/first input dataset into a program is to give its filename as an argument (discussed in Arguments). When you want to run a series of programs in sequence, this means that each will have to keep the output of each program in a separate file and re-type that file’s name in the next command. This can be very slow and frustrating (mis-typing a file’s name).

To solve the problem, the founders of Unix defined pipes to directly feed the output of one program (its “Standard output” stream) into the “standard input” of a next program. This removes the need to make temporary files between separate processes and became one of the best demonstrations of the Unix-way, or Unix philosophy.

Every program has three streams identifying where it reads/writes non-file inputs/outputs: Standard input, Standard output, and Standard error. When a program is called alone, all three are directed to the terminal that you are using. If it needs an input, it will prompt you for one and you can type it in. Or, it prints its results in the terminal for you to see.

For example, say you have a FITS table/catalog containing the B and V band magnitudes (MAG_B and MAG_V columns) of a selection of galaxies along with many other columns. If you want to see only these two columns in your terminal, can use Gnuastro’s Table program like below:

$ asttable cat.fits -cMAG_B,MAG_V

Through the Unix pipe mechanism, when the shell confronts the pipe character (|), it connects the standard output of the program before the pipe, to the standard input of the program after it. So it is literally a “pipe”: everything that you would see printed by the first program on the command (without any pipe), is now passed to the second program (and not seen by you).

To continue the previous example, let’s say you want to see the B-V color. To do this, you can pipe Table’s output to AWK (a wonderful tool for processing things like plain text tables):

$ asttable cat.fits -cMAG_B,MAG_V | awk '{print $1-$2}'

But understanding the distribution by visually seeing all the numbers under each other is not too useful! You can therefore feed this single column information into Statistics to give you a general feeling of the distribution with the same command:

$ asttable cat.fits -cMAG_B,MAG_V | awk '{print $1-$2}' | aststatistics

Gnuastro’s programs that accept input from standard input, only look into the Standard input stream if there is no first argument. In other words, arguments take precedence over Standard input. When no argument is provided, the programs check if the standard input stream is already full or not (output from another program is waiting to be used). If data is present in the standard input stream, it is used.

When the standard input is empty, the program will wait --stdintimeout micro-seconds for you to manually enter the first line (ending with a new-line character, or the ENTER key, see Input/Output options). If it detects the first line in this time, there is no more time limit, and you can manually write/type all the lines for as long as it takes. To inform the program that Standard input has finished, press CTRL-D after a new line. If the program does not catch the first line before the time-out finishes, it will abort with an error saying that no input was provided.

Manual input in Standard input is discarded: Be careful that when you manually fill the Standard input, the data will be discarded once the program finishes and reproducing the result will be impossible. Therefore this form of providing input is only good for temporary tests.

Standard input currently only for plain text: Currently Standard input only works for plain text inputs like the example above. We will later allow FITS files into the programs through standard input also.