What does the linux pipe symbol "|" do?

If you're comfortable with output and input redirection, the explanation is really quite easy.

Command1 | Command2

does the same as

Command1 > tempfile
Command2 < tempfile

but without tempfile. The output of Command1 is directly connected to the input of Command2 and the transfer happens in-memory.

The following is simplified a bit to help new users.

Well, first, it's necessary to understand the concept of standard input and standard output.

In Linux and other UNIX-like operating systems, each process has a standard input (stdin) and a standard output (stdout). The usual situation is that stdin is your keyboard and stdout is your screen or terminal window.

So when you run ls, it will throw it's output to stdout. If you do nothing else, it will go to your screen or terminal window, and you will view it.

Now, some Linux commands interact with the user, and use stdin to do that, your text editor being one of those. It reads from stdin to accept your keystrokes, do things, and then writes stuff to stdout.

However, there are also non-interactive or "filter" commands that do NOT work interactively, but want a bunch of data. These commands will take everything stdin has, do something to it, and then throw it to stdout

Let's look at another command called du - stands for disk usage. du /usr, for example, will print out (to stdout like any other Linux command) a list of every file in that directory and it's size:

# du /usr
2312    /usr/games
124     /usr/lib/tc
692     /usr/lib/rygel-1.0
400     /usr/lib/apt/methods
40      /usr/lib/apt/solvers
444     /usr/lib/apt
6772    /usr/lib/gnash

As you can tell right off the bat, it isn't sorted, and you probably want it sorted in order of size.

sort is one of those "filter" commands that will take a bunch of stuff from stdin and sort it.

So, if we do this:

# du /usr | sort -nr

we get this, which is a bit better:

4213348 /usr
2070308 /usr/lib
1747764 /usr/share
583668  /usr/lib/vmware
501700  /usr/share/locale
366476  /usr/lib/x86_64-linux-gnu
318660  /usr/lib/libreoffice
295388  /usr/lib/vmware/modules
290376  /usr/lib/vmware/modules/binary
279056  /usr/lib/libreoffice/program
216980  /usr/share/icons

And you can now see that the "pipe" connects the stdout of one command to the stdin of another. Typically you will use it in situations like this where you want to filter, sort or otherwise manipulate the output of a command. They can be cascaded if you want to process output through multiple filter-type commands.

If you type sort by itself, it will still try to read from stdin. Since stdin is connected to your keyboard, it will be waiting for you to type, and process things until you press Control-D. It won't prompt you since it's not really meant to be used interactively.

It's possible for a program to tell whether stdin is interactive or not, so some programs may act differently if you issue them by themselves or at the end of a pipe.

Also, piping a program that only works interactively, like vi, will result in you having a bad time.

Pipes are different from redirection in that the data shuffled from one command to the next without being stored anywhere. So, In the above example, du's output is not stored anywhere. The majority of the time you don't want this with pipes because the reason to use pipes is to process the output of a command in some way - but, there is a command tee that lets you have your cake and eat it too, it will copy what it receives from stdin to both stdout and a file of your choosing. You can also likely do this from bash with some arcane syntax involving ampersands and brackets that I don't know about.

Really if you want to know what pipes do and the difference between > and |, then go to a directory with a lot of files, and

from a terminal ls vs ls | more (or doing that from Windows with DIR and DIR | MORE)

If you used > more you'll see it creates a file called 'more' rather than sending the output of ls to the 'more' command. So if somebody did >more it'd probably a mistake, one wouldn't do >more you'd do >file1. More is a well known command.

The < like the > is also for linking a command and a file, rather than a command to a command. But while > sends the output of a command to a file, the < sends a file as input to a command. I rarely use < as I usually use cat file1 | to send the output of a file to a command.

$ grep a < file1 abc

$ cat file1 | grep a abc

grep with 2 parameters is of the form grep pattern file. grep with one parameter is grep pattern. And you can send it the file by piping the contents of the file to it, or by using <. If using <, you write the command name first, then the filename after so command < file. If using | to pipe the contents of a file, you use cat file1 | command.

Also many commands take a file as input anyway so grep a file1 will work, just as cat file1 | grep a, and grep a < file1.

I was doing pipes (|) and > on DOS even 15 years ago.

To summarize how | differs from < and > - The pipe sits between 2 commands The < and > sit between a command and a file. The > is output to a file. The < is input from a file.