Node:Close Files And Pipes, Previous:Special Files, Up:Printing

Closing Input and Output Redirections

If the same file name or the same shell command is used with getline more than once during the execution of an awk program (see Explicit Input with getline), the file is opened (or the command is executed) the first time only. At that time, the first record of input is read from that file or command. The next time the same file or command is used with getline, another record is read from it, and so on.

Similarly, when a file or pipe is opened for output, the file name or command associated with it is remembered by awk, and subsequent writes to the same file or command are appended to the previous writes. The file or pipe stays open until awk exits.

This implies that special steps are necessary in order to read the same file again from the beginning, or to rerun a shell command (rather than reading more output from the same command). The close function makes these things possible:




The argument filename or command can be any expression. Its value must exactly match the string that was used to open the file or start the command (spaces and other "irrelevant" characters included). For example, if you open a pipe with this:

"sort -r names" | getline foo

then you must close it with this:

close("sort -r names")

Once this function call is executed, the next getline from that file or command, or the next print or printf to that file or command, reopens the file or reruns the command. Because the expression that you use to close a file or pipeline must exactly match the expression used to open the file or run the command, it is good practice to use a variable to store the file name or command. The previous example becomes the following:

sortcom = "sort -r names"
sortcom | getline foo

This helps avoid hard-to-find typographical errors in your awk programs. Here are some of the reasons for closing an output file:

If you use more files than the system allows you to have open, gawk attempts to multiplex the available open files among your data files. gawk's ability to do this depends upon the facilities of your operating system, so it may not always work. It is therefore both good practice and good portability advice to always use close on your files when you are done with them. In fact, if you are using a lot of pipes, it is essential that you close commands when done. For example, consider something like this:

    command = ("grep " $1 " /some/file | my_prog -q " $3)
    while ((command | getline) > 0) {
        process output of command
    # need close(command) here

This example creates a new pipeline based on data in each record. Without the call to close indicated in the comment, awk creates child processes to run the commands, until it eventually runs out of file descriptors for more pipelines.

Even though each command has finished (as indicated by the end-of-file return status from getline), the child process is not terminated;1 more importantly, the file descriptor for the pipe is not closed and released until close is called or awk exits.

close will silently do nothing if given an argument that does not represent a file, pipe or coprocess that was opened with a redirection.

When using the |& operator to communicate with a coprocess, it is occasionally useful to be able to close one end of the two-way pipe without closing the other. This is done by supplying a second argument to close. As in any other call to close, the first argument is the name of the command or special file used to start the coprocess. The second argument should be a string, with either of the values "to" or "from". Case does not matter. As this is an advanced feature, a more complete discussion is delayed until Two-Way Communications with Another Process, which discusses it in more detail and gives an example.

Advanced Notes: Using close's Return Value

In many versions of Unix awk, the close function is actually a statement. It is a syntax error to try and use the return value from close: (d.c.)

command = "..."
command | getline info
retval = close(command)  # syntax error in most Unix awks

gawk treats close as a function. The return value is -1 if the argument names something that was never opened with a redirection, or if there is a system problem closing the file or process. In these cases, gawk sets the built-in variable ERRNO to a string describing the problem.

In gawk, when closing a pipe or coprocess, the return value is the exit status of the command. Otherwise, it is the return value from the system's close or fclose C functions when closing input or output files, respectively. This value is zero if the close succeeds, or -1 if it fails.

The return value for closing a pipeline is particularly useful. It allows you to get the output from a command as well as its exit status.

For POSIX-compliant systems, if the exit status is a number above 128, then the program was terminated by a signal. Subtract 128 to get the signal number:

exit_val = close(command)
if (exit_val > 128)
    print command, "died with signal", exit_val - 128
    print command, "exited with code", exit_val

Currently, in gawk, this only works for commands piping into getline. For commands piped into from print or printf, the return value from close is that of the library's pclose function.


  1. The technical terminology is rather morbid. The finished child is called a ``zombie,'' and cleaning up after it is referred to as ``reaping.''