Running Piped Commands in Python Without Deadlocks

What will you learn?

In this tutorial, you will master the art of executing piped shell commands in Python using the subprocess module without encountering deadlocks. You will understand the intricacies involved in handling large outputs and learn techniques to ensure smooth data flow between processes.

Introduction to Problem and Solution

Running shell commands from within Python scripts is a common requirement, especially when dealing with complex operations that involve piping output from one command to another. However, this can lead to deadlocks if not handled properly. The challenge arises when the parent process waits for the child process to finish while the child process is blocked, waiting for the parent to read its output. To tackle this issue, we need to ensure seamless data exchange between processes without causing any blockages.

Our solution revolves around using subprocess.Popen judiciously with appropriate settings and managing stdout and stderr effectively. By implementing non-blocking I/O operations or utilizing threads where necessary, we can prevent buffer overflows and avoid deadlock situations.


import subprocess

def run_piped_commands(cmd1_list, cmd2_list):
    # Start the first command
    p1 = subprocess.Popen(cmd1_list, stdout=subprocess.PIPE)
    # Start second command taking input from first command's output
    p2 = subprocess.Popen(cmd2_list, stdin=p1.stdout, stdout=subprocess.PIPE)

    # Close p1.stdout as advised by documentation 
    # This is necessary for p1 to receive SIGPIPE signals.

    # Read output (bytes) from final process in pipeline
    output = p2.communicate()[0]

    return output.decode('utf-8')

# Example usage:
output = run_piped_commands(['ls', '-l'], ['grep', 'test'])

# Copyright PHD


In this solution:

  • We define a function run_piped_commands that takes two lists of command arguments.
  • The first subprocess (p1) captures its standard output using stdout=subprocess.PIPE.
  • The second subprocess (p2) takes input from p1‘s output by setting its stdin as p1.stdout, establishing a connection via a pipe.
  • Before reading any outputs or errors, we close p1.stdout to allow proper signal handling.
  • Using .communicate() on the last process (p2) reads all stdout and stderr if needed without causing deadlocks.

This method facilitates efficient streaming of data across processes while preventing buffer overflow issues that could lead to deadlocks.

  1. How does pip work?

  2. Pip installs packages from PyPI by downloading them along with their dependencies and installing them into your environment.

  3. What is subprocess.Popen?

  4. It’s used for spawning new processes in Python and provides various options for managing input/output/execution flow between processes.

  5. Can I capture stderr too?

  6. Yes! Simply include stderr=subprocess.PIPE during Popen calls and handle it similarly within communicate() results.

  7. What causes deadlocks when running piped commands?

  8. Deadlocks occur due to buffer overflows or mismanaged IO streams leading each sub-process involved waiting indefinitely.

  9. Is communicate() always necessary?

  10. While not mandatory every time you spawn a process with Popen, it greatly simplifies IO stream handling and helps prevent potential deadlocks.


Mastering the execution of piped commands in Python using subprocess doesn’t have to be daunting or prone to deadlock scenarios. By understanding how data flows between processes and efficiently managing inputs and outputs with tools like the Subprocess Module from the Standard Library, you can accomplish tasks reliably and cleanly.

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