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Unix find tutorial

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Part 5: Using -exec option and xargs with find

Find is capable to perform various actions on the files or directories that are found. Among most commonly used actions are

While -print option is pretty benign, the -exec option is a powerful and dangerous tool. Administrator folklore contains many horror stories of wiping out important filesystems by misunderstanding this option of file command. The rule No.1 is using -exec option is very simple: unless you enjoy the situation commonly called SNAFU, always test find command containing exec using -ls option instead of -exec to see if the files selected are the files you really wish to process.

Always test find command containing exec by using -ls instead of -exec to see if the files selected are the files you wish to process. This is especially important if the exec option contains rm command or some other destructive command.

Find is able to execute one or more commands for each file it has found with the -exec option. Unfortunately, one cannot simply enter the command. You need to remember two syntactic tricks:

  1. The command that you want to execute needs to contain a special macro argument {}, which will be replaced by the matched filename on each invocation of -exec predicate.  You can use {} and it will evalute to the same file and path.

  2. You need to specify \; (or ';' ) at the end of the command. (If the \ is left out, the shell will interpret the ; as the end of the find command.)

    For example, the following two commands are equivalent:

    find . -name "*rc.conf" -exec chmod o+r {} \;
    find . -name "*rc.conf" -exec chmod o+r {} ';' 

    NOTE: In case {} macro parameter is the last item in the command then it should be a space between the {} and the \;. For example:

    find . -type d -exec ls -ld {} \; 

If you attempt to make changes that involve system directories it is better to do it in two stages. first create a file with the list of changes using find and verify that it is accurate. Then use xargs with option -p (see below) to process this file.

In case of deletion of the file GNU find  has option -delete which is safer then "-exec /bin/rm {} \;". For example find / -name core -delete 

In case of deletion of the file GNU find has option -delete which is safer then " -exec /bin/rm {} \; ". For example find / -name core -delete

There is classic problem of using rm in case you have filenames with spaces, for example files that migrated to Unix filesystem from Windows where, unfortunately, using spaces in filenames is a common practice. For example you might need to delete all documents that ends with "doc", by writing :

find /mnt/zip -name "*doc copy" -delete

there are several way to prevent this nasty error:

Again it is better to experiment first to see if everything is right if you deal with important files. Five minutes of testing can save five or more hours of desperate attempts to recover accidentally deleted files.

Here are examples of "good practices" of using find. We will use chmod as the base of examples. Many people do not think about commands like chmod or chown as particularly dangerous, but applied to root filesystem they can be pretty devastating. Please note that we first get to the target directory using cd and only then are using find  command with "." (dot) argument. This avoids such unpleased situation as typing "/ etc" instead of "/etc" or "/etc" instead of etc (the intention was to get to local etc directory but string "/etc" is hardwired in sysadmin brains and this slip costs many sysadmins tremendous pain):

Test command:

find . -type f -ls

Final command:

find . -type f -exec chmod 500 {} ';'
The command bellow search in the current directory and all sub directories and change permissions of each file as specified. Here an additional danger is connected with being in a wring directory.

Test command:

find . -name "*rc.conf"  -ls

Final command:

find . -name "*rc.conf"  -exec chmod o+r {} \;

This command will search in the current directory and all sub directories. All files named *rc.conf will be processed by the chmod -o+r command. The argument {} is a macro that expands to each found file. The \; argument indicates the -exec argument has ended. You can use ';' instead:

find . -name "*rc.conf" -exec chmod o+r {} ';' 

The end results of this command is all *rc.conf files have read bit set in "other" permissions.

The find  command is commonly used to remove core files that are more than a few 24-hour periods (days) old. These core files are copies of the actual memory image of a running program when the program dies unexpectedly. They can be huge, so occasionally trimming them is wise:

Test command:

find . -name core -ctime +4 -ls

Final command:

find . -name core -ctime +4 -exec /bin/rm -f {} \;
For grep the /dev/null  argument can by used to show the name of the file before the text that is found. Without it, only the text found is printed. An equivalent mechanism in GNU find  is to use the "-H" or "--with-filename" option to grep:
find /tmp -exec grep "search	string" {} /dev/null \; -print

An alternative to -exec option is piping output into xargs command which we will discuss in the next section.

Feeding find  output to pipes with xargs

One of the biggest limitations of the -exec option (or predicate with the side effect to be more correct) is that it can only run the specified command on one file at a time. The xargs command solves this problem by enabling users to run a single command on many files at one time. In general, it is much faster to run one command on many files, because this cuts down on the number of invocations of particular command/utility.

Note: Print0 with print list of filenames with null character (\0) instead of whitespace as the output delimiter between pathnames found. This is a safer option if files can contain blanks or other special characters if you use find  with xargs (the -0 argument is needed in xargs.). 

For example often one needs to find files containing a specific pattern in multiple directories one can use an exec option in find 

 find . -type f -exec grep -iH '/bin/ksh' {} \; 

But there is more elegant and more Unix-like way of accomplishing the same task using xargs and pipes. You can use the xargs to read the output of find  and build a pipeline that invokes grep. This way, grep is called only four or five times even though it might check through 200 or 300 files. By default, xargs always appends the list of filenames to the end of the specified command, so using it with grep and most other Unix command is pretty natural:

find . -type f -print | xargs grep -il 'bin/ksh' 

This gave the same output a lot faster (-l option in grep prints only the names of files with matching lines, separated by NEWLINE characters. Does not repeat the names of files when the pattern is found more than once.)

Also the xargs is used with grep it will be getting multiple filenames, it will automatically include the filename of any file that contains a match. Still option -H for grep (or addition /dev/null to the list of files) is recommended as the last "chunk" of filenames can contain a single file.

When used in combination, find, grep, and xargs are a potent team to help find files lost or misplaced anywhere in the UNIX file system. I encourage you to experiment further. You can use time to find the difference in speed with -exec option vs. xargs in the following way:

time find /usr/src -name "*.html" -exec grep -H "foo" {} ';' | wc -l
time find /usr/src -name "*.html" | xargs grep -l "foo" | wc -l

xargs works considerably faster. The difference becomes even greater when more complex commands are run and the list of files is longer.

Two other useful options for xargs are the -p option, which makes xargs interactive, and the -n xargs option, which makes xargs run the specified command with only N number of arguments. Option -0 is often used with -print0

This combination is useful if you need to operate on filenames with spaces. If you add option -print0 to find command and option -0 to xargs command, you can avoid the danger to processing wrong file(s) xargs:

find /mnt/zip -name "*prefs copy" -print0 | xargs -0 rm

Using option -p you can provide manual confirmation of each action. The reason is that xargs runs the specified command on the filenames from its standard input, so interactive commands such as cp -i, mv -i, and rm -i don't work right.

So when you run the command first time you can use this option as a safety valve. After several operations with confirmation you can cancel it and run without option -p. The -p option solves that problem. In the preceding example, the -p option would have made the command safe because I could answer yes or no to each file. Thus, the command I typed was the following:

find /mnt/zip -name "*prefs copy" -print0 | xargs -p rm

Many users frequently ask why xargs  should be used when shell command substitution archives the same results. Take a look at this example:

grep foo ´find /usr/src/linux -name "*.html"´

The drawback with commands such as this is that if the set of files returned by find  is longer than the system's command-line length limit, the command will fail. The xargs  approach gets around this problem because xargs  runs the command as many times as is required, instead of just once.

People are doing pretty complex staff this way. For example (Ubuntu Forums, March 23rd, 2010)


I'm trying to convert Nikon NEF images to jpg. Usually I use find and xargs for batch processes like this for example:


find . -name "*.flac" -exec basename \{\} .flac \; | xargs -i ffmpeg \
	-i \{\}.flac -acodec libvorbis -aq 3 \{\}.ogg

However, my latest attempt is giving me no output because I can't seem to get xargs to work with pipes. An individual set of commands works:


dcraw -w -c MEY_7046.NEF | convert - -resize 25% MEY_7046.jpg exiftool \
	-overwrite_original -TagsFromFile MEY_7046.NEF MEY_7046.jpg dcraw -z MEY_7046.jpg

A nice set of commands, but not yet practical for converting a DVD with multiple directories. My truncated find-isized version does nothing:


find . -name "*.NEF" -exec basename \{\} .NEF \; | xargs -i dcraw -w -c \{\}.NEF | convert - -resize 25% \{\}.jpg

Any ideas of where I'm going wrong?


That pipes the output of all the dcraw runs together into one convert call.



find . -name "*.NEF" -exec basename \{\} .NEF \; | xargs -i sh -c 'dcraw -w -c $0.NEF | convert - resize 25% $0.jpg'

In this example you can also use -0 argument to xargs.

But ability of xargs to use multiple argument can be a source of the problems too. For example

find . -type f -name "*.java" | xargs tar cvf myfile.tar

Here the attempt is made to create a backup of all java files in the current tree: But if the list length for xargs to invoke the tar command is too  big, xargs will split it into multiple command, and subsequent tar commands will overwrite previous tar archives. As a result archive will contain a fraction of files, but without testing you might discover that too late.

To solve this problem you can use either file (tar can read a list of files from the file using option -T) or option "-r" which tells tar to append to the archive (option '-c' means "create"):.

find . -type f -name "*.java" | xargs tar rvf myfile.tar


Exec option in find  command is a very sharp tool. Below we'll present some of the horror stories (see also Typical Errors In Using Find). Such errors are often made under time pressure. Please remember that 5 minutes of testing usually can save five or more hours of desperate attempts to recover from the results incorrectly run find  command.

Please remember that 5 minutes of testing usually can save five or more hours of desperate attempts to recover from the results incorrectly run find  command.

Typically "find blunders" are often committed when a complex find  command that changes the files in a certain subtree using rm, chown, or chmod command is constructed and run without any testing. Sometimes the directories that are used contain symbolic links to directories in other part of filesystem and "find start running wild" on subtree that you never intended it to run. Sometimes the pattern that you use has unintended side effect. Sometimes it just a silly typo. Life of sysadmin is a complex one so little testing does wonders in preventing nasty surprises form overconfidence in your own abilities :-).

Here are some pretty telling examples:

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