In this blogpost, I describe the most popular tools currently used to diff streams on the terminal, their differences and limitations. Then I introduce a new tool I’ve developed, sd, to address some of these limitations.
Recently, I had this situation at work where I had to come up with a list of unprocessed transactions, identified by some UUID. I had the transaction queue somewhere, and the transaction results somewhere else. Just a “set diff”, right? Well, my case was not so straightforward.
Basic stream diffing
The most common way to do “set diffs” on the terminal is using comm; and it’s also the fastest tool I’ve found. Just remember that the streams need to be sorted.
Diffing with comm
$ comm -23 <(seq 100 | sort) <(seq 6 100 | sort) 1 2 3 4 5
Another (slower but nevertheless popular) way to accomplish the same task is with
grep -Fxvf. Note that in this case you don’t need to sort the streams, but you have to invert them as you pass them (it looks weird until you realise that the second argument is kind of on the left, because it’s often the piped STDIN).
Diffing with grep
~ $ grep -Fxvf <(seq 6 100) <(seq 100) 1 2 3 4 5
I discourage the use of
grep -Fxvf for two good reasons:
It’s slower; maybe not on these examples but it is on real-life examples.
It doesn’t seem to work properly on the version of grep that comes with OS X (BSD) for even diffs in the dozen lines. I’ve tried the same example on an Alpine container and it just works.
~ $ seq 20 > a && seq 6 20 > b && grep -Fxvf b a 1 2 3 4 5
OS X (
grep (BSD grep) 2.5.1-FreeBSD):
~ $ seq 20 > a && seq 6 20 > b && grep -Fxvf b a 1 2 3 4 5 16 17 18 19
What about infinite streams?
The tools mentioned above work with streams that finish, like:
- commands (provided they finish)
- sql queries
- curl requests (provided they finish or timeout)
Infinite streams are ok on the left side stream of the diff, but you can’t start diffing until the right side stream finishes.
Note that you can’t
| sort an infinite stream, so if you plan to diff an infinite stream on the left side,
comm is not an option; you have to use
Moreover, if you diff with an infinite stream on the left side, your diff will work but will still never finish. This is fine, unless you want your diff to be part of a script.
Common strategies for diffing infinite streams
The two intuitive approaches are:
- to take the first n items from the infinite stream
- to timeout the stream after some time.
Taking the first 10 lines from two “infinite” seqs
~ $ comm -23 <(seq 10000000000 | head -n 10) \ > <(seq 6 10000000000 | head -n 10) 1 2 3 4 5
(for brevity, let’s assume that
seq 10000000000 takes infinite time; to be fair it does take an impractical amount of time)
Then there is timeout in the Linux coreutils package for timing out a command after a specified duration. Note that it doesn’t come installed in OS X.
The following example is illustrative, because the command varies between systems
~ $ comm -23 <(timeout 1s seq 10000000000) \ > <(timeout 1s seq 6 10000000000) 1 2 3 4 5
If you want
timeout on OS X, your best bet is to install coreutils from Homebrew, with:
brew install coreutils
and then all coreutils commands are available, with a
g prepended to their names (e.g.
The problem with these strategies
Both approaches share a common defect: they don’t react to stream output.
There’s no way to express the following:
time out after some time has passed with no received lines
As it turns out, it’s quite common to use tools that poll forever, stuck in some form of receive loop.
- A Kafka console consumer, like kt (my originating use case)
- Any poll-forever scheme, e.g.
while [[ TRUE ]]; do curl https://status.github.com/api/status.json sleep 10 done
My current solution:
sd (stream differ)
I developed a very simple, well-tested, modern and efficient tool for diffing two newline-separated streams, timing them out if necessary. It’s written in Go.
The initial example, with
$ seq 100 | sd 'seq 6 100' 2 1 3 5 4
sd does not guarantee output order. This is because it violently parallelises work via goroutines. If input is sporadical, output should not come out out of order. If you need sorted output, just add
| sort at the end.
If you do add
| sort at the end, even though
sd will diff right away, you won’t see results until
sd has finished; this is just how sorting works. Also,
sort will give you a natural sort (alphanumerical or numerical, and optionally reverse), but you would still lose the input order.
--hard-timeout to timeout after a number of seconds
$ seq 100 | sd -h 1 'tail -fn 100 <(seq 6 100)' 1 2 3 4 5
--timeout to timeout after a number of seconds of no new lines. Note that the two streams hold independent timeouts.
$ cat uuids.txt | sd -t 10 './kafka-consumer.sh uuids_topic' a5aff766-564a-11e6-beb8-9e71128cae77 a5affbd0-564a-11e6-beb8-9e71128cae77 a5afff2c-564a-11e6-beb8-9e71128cae77 a5b00328-564a-11e6-beb8-9e71128cae77 ...
Usually, tools like
mysql or commit log consumers take some time to startup, or to run the query. It makes sense to have a longer timeout period for the first message. Use
--patience for this.
$ cat uuids.txt | sd -p 20 -t 10 './kafka-consumer.sh uuids_topic' a5aff766-564a-11e6-beb8-9e71128cae77 a5affbd0-564a-11e6-beb8-9e71128cae77 a5afff2c-564a-11e6-beb8-9e71128cae77 a5b00328-564a-11e6-beb8-9e71128cae77 ...
-p 0 for waiting indefinitely for the initial message.
If you’re sure the second stream will finish, use
--infinite; this way you can be confident that
sd will wait until the second stream finishes to start diffing.
sd is a nifty tool, and a useful addition for a dev’s toolbelt. It allows for automation scripts that involve infinite streams; something not readily available currently using GNU-style CLI tools.
It’s not perfect: I wouldn’t choose it over
comm for streams that finish, because even though
sd is fast, it does have to check every line of
STDIN against every line of the second stream where
comm does not. On very long streams, this can get impractically slow. Also, if output order is critical and it doesn’t follow a natural order criterion,
sd can’t be used.