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Design schema of execution pipe

STX Execution Pipe C++ Library

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Posted on 2010-07-18, last updated 2010-07-30 by Timo Bingmann at Permlink.


The STX ExecPipe library provides a convenient C++ interface to execute child programs connected via pipes. It is a front-end to the system calls fork(), pipe(), select() and execv() and hides all the complexity of these low-level functions. It allows a program to build a sequence of connected children programs with input and output of the pipe sequence redirected to a file, string or file descriptor. The library also allows custom asynchronous data processing classes to be inserted into the pipe or placed at source or sink of the sequence.

An execution pipe consists of an input stream, a number of pipe stages and an output stream. The input and output streams can be a plain file descriptor, a file, a std::string or a special processing class. Each pipe stage is either an executed child program or an intermediate function class. At the junction between each stage in the pipeline the following program's stdin is connected to the preceding stage's stdout. The input and output streams are connected to the start and end of the pipe line.

 Input Stream                   Pipe Stages                   Output Stream
     none    |                                                |    none
      fd     |                 exec()                         |     fd
     file    |--> stage -->      or      --> stage --> ... -->|    file
    string   |              PipeFunction                      |   string
  PipeSource |                                                |  PipeSink

The library consists of only one code file and one header file. The code itself is viewable in doxygen as or with plain text comments

See the README file below for a usage tutorial.


STX Execution Pipe Library 0.7.1 (current) released 2010-07-30
Source code archive:
(includes Doxygen HTML)
Download stx-execpipe-0.7.1.tar.bz2 (192kb)
MD5: 4d1a04db72679abece85834066ba708b
Browse online
Extensive Documentation: Browse documentation online

See bottom of this page for older downloads.


The library source code is published under the GNU Lesser General Public License v2.1 (LGPL), which can be found in the file COPYING.

Git Repository

The git repository containing all sources and packages is fetchable by running
git clone


Library Usage Tutorial

The following tutorial shows some simple examples on how an execution pipe can be set up.

To use the library a program must

#include "stx-execpipe.h"

and later link against libstx-execpipe.a or include the corresponding .o / .cc in the project's dependencies.

To run a sequence of programs you must first initialize a new ExecPipe object. The ExecPipe object is referenced counted so you can easily pass it around without deep-duplicating the object.

stx::ExecPipe ep;               // creates new pipe

stx::ExecPipe ep_ref1 = ep;     // reference to the same pipe.

Once created the input stream source can be set using one of the four set_input_*() functions. Note that these are mutually exclusive, you must call at most one of the following functions!

// you can designate an existing file as input stream

// or directly assign an already opened file descriptor
int fd = ...;

// or pass the contents of a std::string as input
std::string str = ...;

// or attach a data generating source class (details later).
PipeSource source;

The input stream objects are _not_ copied. The fd, string or source object must still exist when calling run().

After setting up the input you specify the individual stages in the pipe by adding children programs to exec() or function classes. The stx::ExecPipe provides different variants of add_exec*(), which are derived from the exec*() system call variants.

// add simple exec() call with full path.

// add exec() call with up to three direct parameters.
ep.add_exec("/bin/echo", "one", "two", "three");

// add exec() call with many parameters. the vector is _not_ copied.
std::vector<std::string> tarargs;

// add execp() call which searches $PATH. see man 3 execvp.

// same with up to three parameters.
ep.add_execp("echo", "one", "two", "three");

// and also works with a vector of arguments.

// most versatile function: call execve() with program name, argv[] arguments
// and a set of environment variables.
std::vector<std::string> gzipargs;
gzipargs.push_back("gunzip");           // this changes argv[0]

std::vector<std::string> gzipenvs;        // set environment variable
gzipenvs.push_back("GZIP=-d --name");

ep.add_exece("/bin/gzip", &gzipargs, &gzipenvs);

// insert an intermediate data processing class into the pipe (details later).
PipeFunction function;

After configuring the pipe stages the user program can redirect the pipe's output using one of the four set_output_*() functions. These correspond directly the to input functions.

// designate a file as output, it will be over-written,

// or directly assign an already opened file descriptor
int fd = ...;

// or save output in a std::string object
std::string str = ...;

// or attach a sink class (details later).
PipeSink sink;

The three steps above can be done in any order. Once the pipeline is configured as required, a call to run() will set up the input and output file descriptors, launch all children programs, wait until these finish and concurrently process data passed between parent and children.

try {;
catch (std::runtime_error &e) {
    std::cerr << "Pipe execution failed: " << e.what() << std::endl;

After running all children their return status should be checked. These can be inspected using the following functions. The integer parameter specifies the exec stage in the pipe sequence.

// get plain return status as indicated by wait().
int rs = ep.get_return_status(0)

// get return code for normally terminated program.
int rc = ep.get_return_code(1);

// get signal for abnormally terminated program (like segfault).
int rg = ep.get_return_signal(1);

Most program have a return code of 0 when no error occurred. Therefore, a convenience function is available which checks whether all program stages returned zero. This is what would usually be used.

// check all that program returned zero
if (ep.all_return_codes_zero()) {
    // run was ok.
else {
    // error handling.

After checking the return error codes the pipe's results can be used.

The tarball contains three simple examples of using the different exec() variants and input/output redirections. See examples/, examples/ or examples/ More a more elaborate example using data processing classes see the continued tutorial below.

Data Processing Classes

One of the big features of the STX ExecPipe classes is the ability to insert intermediate asynchronous data processing classes into the pipe sequence. The data of the pipe line is returned to the parent process and, after arbitrary computations, can be sent on to the following execution stages. Besides intermediate processing, the input and output stream can be attached to source or sink classes.

This feature can be used to generate input data, e.g. binary data or file listing, or peek at the data flowing between stages, e.g. to compute a SHA1 digest, or to directly processes output data while the children are running.

The data processing classes must be derived from one of the three abstract classes: stx::PipeSource for generating input streams, stx::PipeFunction for intermediate processing between stages or stx::PipeSink for receiving output.

For generating an input stream a class must derive from stx::PipeSource and implement the poll() function. This function is called when new data can be pushed into the pipe. When poll() is called, new data must be generated and delivered via the write() function of stx::PipeSource. If more data is available poll() must return true, otherwise the input stream is terminated.

Intermediate data processing classes must derive from stx::PipeFunction and implement the two pure virtual function process() and eof(). As the name suggests, data is delivered to the class via the process() function. After processing the data it may be forwarded to the next pipe stage via the inheritedwrite() function. Note that the library does not automatically forward data, so if you forget to write() data, then the following stage does not receive anything. When the preceding processing stage closes its data stream the function eof() is called.

To receive the output stream a class must derive from stx::PipeSink. Similar to stx::PipeFunction, an output sink must implement the two pure virtual function process() and eof(). However, different from an intermediate class the stx::PipeSink does not provide a write() function, so no data can be forwarded.

For a full example of using stx::PipeSource to iterate through a file list and stx::PipeFunction to compute an intermediate SHA1 digest see examples/


2010-07-30 - Timo Bingmann - v0.7.1

Older Downloads

STX Execution Pipe Library 0.7.0 released 2010-07-18
Source code archive:
(includes Doxygen HTML)
Download stx-execpipe-0.7.0.tar.bz2 (190kb)
MD5: 522865bea8ebaf5f2929544fac7b35ea
Browse online
Extensive Documentation: Browse documentation online