Try it here
xargs, exec and find

The xargs command in UNIX


The xargs command in UNIX is a command line utility for building an execution pipeline from standard input. Whilst tools like grep can accept standard input as a parameter, many other tools cannot. Using xargs allows tools like echo and rm and mkdir to accept standard input as arguments.

echo 'one two three' | xargs mkdir
one two three

xargs with find

The most common usage of xargs is to use it with the find command. This uses find to search for files or directories and then uses xargs to operate on the results. Typical examples of this are changing the ownership of files or moving files.

find and xargs can be used together to operate on files that match certain attributes. In the following example files older than two weeks in the temp folder are found and then piped to the xargs command which runs the rm command on each file and removes them.

find /tmp -mtime +14 | xargs rm

xargs v 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

So which one is faster? Let’s compare a folder with 1000 files in it.

time find . -type f -name "*.txt" -exec rm {} \;
0.35s user 0.11s system 99% cpu 0.467 total

time find ./foo -type f -name "*.txt" | xargs rm
0.00s user 0.01s system 75% cpu 0.016 total

Clearly using xargs is far more efficient. In fact several benchmarks suggest using xargs over exec {} is six times more efficient.

Print commands that are executed

The -t option prints each command that will be executed to the terminal. This can be helpful when debugging scripts.

echo 'one two three' | xargs -t rm
rm one two three

View the command and prompt for execution

The -p command will print the command to be executed and prompt the user to run it. This can be useful for destructive operations where you really want to be sure on the command to be run.

echo 'one two three' | xargs -p touch
touch one two three ?...

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

cat foo.txt | xargs -I % sh -c 'echo %; mkdir %'

one two three

Writer profile pic

Neha on Nov 08, 2020 at 01:09 am

This article is contributed by Neha. If you like and would like to contribute, you can write your article here or mail your article to . See your article appearing on the main page and help others to learn.

Post Comment

Comments( 0)


Forgot Password

Please enter your email address below and we will send you information to change your password.