Finding the other end of a pipe on Linux

Have you ever been using the command line and been looking at some colored output, only to lose the coloration when you pipe the output to another command? I've often thought to myself “what if it were possible for a program to detect if the other side of the pipe were capable of handling colored output?”.

As far as I know, there's no way for a program to publish this information, and even if there were, I highly doubt that many programs use it. So, let's see if we can accomplish the next best thing: detecting who's listening on the other side of standard output; if we knew that, we could check the name and command line of that program against a whitelist of programs we know to support color.

So…how do we detect who's listening?

The Naïve Approach

The rudimentary approach, which is specific to Linux (but probably not too hard to port to other OSes), is pretty simple: just crawl over /proc and look for a pipe that matches our standard output's pipe. You see, pipe file descriptors under /proc, like regular files, still have inodes, and the inode is unique to a pipe pair 1). So here's a quick and dumb Perl program that finds its partner:

use strict;
use warnings;
use feature qw(say);

use File::stat;

exit unless -p STDOUT; # bail out if standard output isn't a pipe

my $stdout_stat = stat(\*STDOUT);

my $current_pid = $$;

my @other_procs = grep {
    m{/proc/(\d+)} && $1 != $current_pid
} glob('/proc/*/');

for my $proc_dir (@other_procs) {
    my $stat = stat("$proc_dir/fd/0");
    next unless $stat;

    if($stat->dev == $stdout_stat->dev && $stat->ino == $stdout_stat->ino) {
        my ( $pid ) = $proc_dir =~ m{/proc/(\d+)};

        say STDERR $pid;

This gets the job done, but it feels a little too hacky for my tastes. There must be a better way!

The less-than-naïve approach

As inspiration for a cleaner approach, let's consider a cousin to pipes: UNIX sockets. Sockets work much like pipes, in that two file descriptors are bound to one another. With a UNIX socket, we can call getsockopt(socket, SOL_SOCKET, SO_PEERCRED, &creds, sizeof(struct ucred)) to find out who we're talking to; perhaps there's an analogous call for pipes?

To find out if this functionality is available for pipes, let's get an answer straight from the source - the Linux kernel source, to be precise! 2)

If we look for SO_PEERCRED in .c files in the kernel, we quickly come upon this case statement in the sock_getsockopt function:

        struct ucred peercred;
        if (len > sizeof(peercred))
                len = sizeof(peercred);
        cred_to_ucred(sk->sk_peer_pid, sk->sk_peer_cred, &peercred);
        if (copy_to_user(optval, &peercred, len))
                return -EFAULT;
        goto lenout;

If we follow the breadcrumbs for the sk variable, we can see earlier in the sock_getsockopt function that sk is defined as a struct sock, which is quite large, but contains the struct pid sk_peer_pid member that we're hoping to find a counterpart to in whatever struct represents a pipe.

We can find out which structure that is pretty easily if we look for an ioctl or fcntl code that's specific to pipes. If you look in the man page for pipe(7), you'll find F_GETPIPE_SZ. Doing a search on the kernel code for that leads us to pipe_fcntl in fs/pipe.c, which references struct pipe_inode_info. That struct is small enough to show you here:

struct pipe_inode_info {
	struct mutex mutex;
	wait_queue_head_t wait;
	unsigned int nrbufs, curbuf, buffers;
	unsigned int readers;
	unsigned int writers;
	unsigned int files;
	unsigned int waiting_writers;
	unsigned int r_counter;
	unsigned int w_counter;
	struct page *tmp_page;
	struct fasync_struct *fasync_readers;
	struct fasync_struct *fasync_writers;
	struct pipe_buffer *bufs;
	struct user_struct *user;

A cursory look at this struct shows us, sadly, that struct pipe_inode_info doesn't have the have the information we need, so we'll have to stick with our naïve approach. So we didn't get a cleaner approach, but at least we got to look at some kernel code!

  1. 1) this is the case for sockets too; there are other files in /proc that reference this information, such as /proc/net/tcp
  2. 2) I'm looking at the source for Linux 4.5.3