[ruby] How to call shell commands from Ruby

How do I call shell commands from inside of a Ruby program? How do I then get output from these commands back into Ruby?

This question is related to ruby shell interop

The answer is


Using the answers here and linked in Mihai's answer, I put together a function that meets these requirements:

  1. Neatly captures STDOUT and STDERR so they don't "leak" when my script is run from the console.
  2. Allows arguments to be passed to the shell as an array, so there's no need to worry about escaping.
  3. Captures the exit status of the command so it is clear when an error has occurred.

As a bonus, this one will also return STDOUT in cases where the shell command exits successfully (0) and puts anything on STDOUT. In this manner, it differs from system, which simply returns true in such cases.

Code follows. The specific function is system_quietly:

require 'open3'

class ShellError < StandardError; end

#actual function:
def system_quietly(*cmd)
  exit_status=nil
  err=nil
  out=nil
  Open3.popen3(*cmd) do |stdin, stdout, stderr, wait_thread|
    err = stderr.gets(nil)
    out = stdout.gets(nil)
    [stdin, stdout, stderr].each{|stream| stream.send('close')}
    exit_status = wait_thread.value
  end
  if exit_status.to_i > 0
    err = err.chomp if err
    raise ShellError, err
  elsif out
    return out.chomp
  else
    return true
  end
end

#calling it:
begin
  puts system_quietly('which', 'ruby')
rescue ShellError
  abort "Looks like you don't have the `ruby` command. Odd."
end

#output: => "/Users/me/.rvm/rubies/ruby-1.9.2-p136/bin/ruby"

You can also use the backtick operators (`), similar to Perl:

directoryListing = `ls /`
puts directoryListing # prints the contents of the root directory

Handy if you need something simple.

Which method you want to use depends on exactly what you're trying to accomplish; check the docs for more details about the different methods.


If you have a more complex case than the common case that can not be handled with ``, then check out Kernel.spawn(). This seems to be the most generic/full-featured provided by stock Ruby to execute external commands.

You can use it to:

  • create process groups (Windows).
  • redirect in, out, error to files/each-other.
  • set env vars, umask.
  • change the directory before executing a command.
  • set resource limits for CPU/data/etc.
  • Do everything that can be done with other options in other answers, but with more code.

The Ruby documentation has good enough examples:

env: hash
  name => val : set the environment variable
  name => nil : unset the environment variable
command...:
  commandline                 : command line string which is passed to the standard shell
  cmdname, arg1, ...          : command name and one or more arguments (no shell)
  [cmdname, argv0], arg1, ... : command name, argv[0] and zero or more arguments (no shell)
options: hash
  clearing environment variables:
    :unsetenv_others => true   : clear environment variables except specified by env
    :unsetenv_others => false  : dont clear (default)
  process group:
    :pgroup => true or 0 : make a new process group
    :pgroup => pgid      : join to specified process group
    :pgroup => nil       : dont change the process group (default)
  create new process group: Windows only
    :new_pgroup => true  : the new process is the root process of a new process group
    :new_pgroup => false : dont create a new process group (default)
  resource limit: resourcename is core, cpu, data, etc.  See Process.setrlimit.
    :rlimit_resourcename => limit
    :rlimit_resourcename => [cur_limit, max_limit]
  current directory:
    :chdir => str
  umask:
    :umask => int
  redirection:
    key:
      FD              : single file descriptor in child process
      [FD, FD, ...]   : multiple file descriptor in child process
    value:
      FD                        : redirect to the file descriptor in parent process
      string                    : redirect to file with open(string, "r" or "w")
      [string]                  : redirect to file with open(string, File::RDONLY)
      [string, open_mode]       : redirect to file with open(string, open_mode, 0644)
      [string, open_mode, perm] : redirect to file with open(string, open_mode, perm)
      [:child, FD]              : redirect to the redirected file descriptor
      :close                    : close the file descriptor in child process
    FD is one of follows
      :in     : the file descriptor 0 which is the standard input
      :out    : the file descriptor 1 which is the standard output
      :err    : the file descriptor 2 which is the standard error
      integer : the file descriptor of specified the integer
      io      : the file descriptor specified as io.fileno
  file descriptor inheritance: close non-redirected non-standard fds (3, 4, 5, ...) or not
    :close_others => false : inherit fds (default for system and exec)
    :close_others => true  : dont inherit (default for spawn and IO.popen)

My favourite is Open3

  require "open3"

  Open3.popen3('nroff -man') { |stdin, stdout, stderr| ... }

The answers above are already quite great, but I really want to share the following summary article: "6 Ways to Run Shell Commands in Ruby"

Basically, it tells us:

Kernel#exec:

exec 'echo "hello $HOSTNAME"'

system and $?:

system 'false' 
puts $?

Backticks (`):

today = `date`

IO#popen:

IO.popen("date") { |f| puts f.gets }

Open3#popen3 -- stdlib:

require "open3"
stdin, stdout, stderr = Open3.popen3('dc') 

Open4#popen4 -- a gem:

require "open4" 
pid, stdin, stdout, stderr = Open4::popen4 "false" # => [26327, #<IO:0x6dff24>, #<IO:0x6dfee8>, #<IO:0x6dfe84>]

Don't forget the spawn command to create a background process to execute the specified command. You can even wait for its completion using the Process class and the returned pid:

pid = spawn("tar xf ruby-2.0.0-p195.tar.bz2")
Process.wait pid

pid = spawn(RbConfig.ruby, "-eputs'Hello, world!'")
Process.wait pid

The doc says: This method is similar to #system but it doesn't wait for the command to finish.


We can achieve it in multiple ways.

Using Kernel#exec, nothing after this command is executed:

exec('ls ~')

Using backticks or %x

`ls ~`
=> "Applications\nDesktop\nDocuments"
%x(ls ~)
=> "Applications\nDesktop\nDocuments"

Using Kernel#system command, returns true if successful, false if unsuccessful and returns nil if command execution fails:

system('ls ~')
=> true

This is not really an answer but maybe someone will find it useful:

When using TK GUI on Windows, and you need to call shell commands from rubyw, you will always have an annoying CMD window popping up for less then a second.

To avoid this you can use:

WIN32OLE.new('Shell.Application').ShellExecute('ipconfig > log.txt','','','open',0)

or

WIN32OLE.new('WScript.Shell').Run('ipconfig > log.txt',0,0)

Both will store the ipconfig output inside log.txt, but no windows will come up.

You will need to require 'win32ole' inside your script.

system(), exec() and spawn() will all pop up that annoying window when using TK and rubyw.


I'm definitely not a Ruby expert, but I'll give it a shot:

$ irb 
system "echo Hi"
Hi
=> true

You should also be able to do things like:

cmd = 'ls'
system(cmd)

Some things to think about when choosing between these mechanisms are:

  1. Do you just want stdout or do you need stderr as well? Or even separated out?
  2. How big is your output? Do you want to hold the entire result in memory?
  3. Do you want to read some of your output while the subprocess is still running?
  4. Do you need result codes?
  5. Do you need a Ruby object that represents the process and lets you kill it on demand?

You may need anything from simple backticks (``), system(), and IO.popen to full-blown Kernel.fork/Kernel.exec with IO.pipe and IO.select.

You may also want to throw timeouts into the mix if a sub-process takes too long to execute.

Unfortunately, it very much depends.


If you really need Bash, per the note in the "best" answer.

First, note that when Ruby calls out to a shell, it typically calls /bin/sh, not Bash. Some Bash syntax is not supported by /bin/sh on all systems.

If you need to use Bash, insert bash -c "your Bash-only command" inside of your desired calling method:

quick_output = system("ls -la")
quick_bash = system("bash -c 'ls -la'")

To test:

system("echo $SHELL")
system('bash -c "echo $SHELL"')

Or if you are running an existing script file like

script_output = system("./my_script.sh")

Ruby should honor the shebang, but you could always use

system("bash ./my_script.sh")

to make sure, though there may be a slight overhead from /bin/sh running /bin/bash, you probably won't notice.


Given a command like attrib:

require 'open3'

a="attrib"
Open3.popen3(a) do |stdin, stdout, stderr|
  puts stdout.read
end

I've found that while this method isn't as memorable as

system("thecommand")

or

`thecommand`

in backticks, a good thing about this method compared to other methods is backticks don't seem to let me puts the command I run/store the command I want to run in a variable, and system("thecommand") doesn't seem to let me get the output whereas this method lets me do both of those things, and it lets me access stdin, stdout and stderr independently.

See "Executing commands in ruby" and Ruby's Open3 documentation.


The backticks (`) method is the easiest one to call shell commands from Ruby. It returns the result of the shell command:

     url_request = 'http://google.com'
     result_of_shell_command = `curl #{url_request}`


The way I like to do this is using the %x literal, which makes it easy (and readable!) to use quotes in a command, like so:

directorylist = %x[find . -name '*test.rb' | sort]

Which, in this case, will populate file list with all test files under the current directory, which you can process as expected:

directorylist.each do |filename|
  filename.chomp!
  # work with file
end

The easiest way is, for example:

reboot = `init 6`
puts reboot

Here's a cool one that I use in a ruby script on OS X (so that I can start a script and get an update even after toggling away from the window):

cmd = %Q|osascript -e 'display notification "Server was reset" with title "Posted Update"'|
system ( cmd )

One more option:

When you:

  • need stderr as well as stdout
  • can't/won't use Open3/Open4 (they throw exceptions in NetBeans on my Mac, no idea why)

You can use shell redirection:

puts %x[cat bogus.txt].inspect
  => ""

puts %x[cat bogus.txt 2>&1].inspect
  => "cat: bogus.txt: No such file or directory\n"

The 2>&1 syntax works across Linux, Mac and Windows since the early days of MS-DOS.


Here's the best article in my opinion about running shell scripts in Ruby: "6 Ways to Run Shell Commands in Ruby".

If you only need to get the output use backticks.

I needed more advanced stuff like STDOUT and STDERR so I used the Open4 gem. You have all the methods explained there.


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