Simple usage of GNU parallel

13 Jul 2019

GNU Parallel1 is a great tool if you want to reduce the running time of a command-line job. Last week, I had a job that took 30+ minutes to run sequentially, but finished in less than two minutes when I ran it with Parallel on a 40-core machine.

Unfortunately, GNU Parallel does not have a very intuitive interface and that’s a significant hurdle for people who want to use it. I’ve been frustrated in the past, and I’m sure many of you reading have too. In this post, I’ll show you how to use GNU Parallel to do two basic, but very useful tasks:

  1. Run one command on multiple inputs in parallel;
  2. Run multiple commands in parallel.


To help us in our examples, I have created a directory that contains the files we’ll work with. Their names and their contents is listed below. You can download this directory as a zip file.




du -h a.txt
sha1sum b.txt
tr a-z A-Z <c.txt


Running one command on multiple inputs

There are two ways to pass inputs to a command in GNU Parallel: via the command-line arguments or via a file (or stdin).

You tell GNU parallel to take its inputs from the command line with the ::: operator.

$ parallel 'sha1sum {}' ::: *.txt
d8bcd7a949a2fb7a3e1740e4c61e52f46b781aea  a.txt
3db0058f7068968d90679ceb2184441c729782b9  b.txt
a9db4a2565b96696b594965ef52a98ebadfcc2b8  c.txt

$ parallel 'sha1sum {}' ::: a.txt cmdlist
d8bcd7a949a2fb7a3e1740e4c61e52f46b781aea  a.txt
814ca442838f9aa6ec2c01f5ed90de4620cfa990  cmdlist

In this example, the command we want to run is sha1sum and the {} is a placeholder that is be replaced by an input when invoking the command.

(Note: Readers already familiar with GNU Parallel will see that I am being overly explicit in these examples. In the example above, I didn’t need to quote the command; in this particular case, I didn’t even need to use a placeholder. But to be as clear as possible, I will avoid the shortcuts in this post.)

You tell GNU Parallel to take its inputs from a file with the :::: operator. If the filename is -, GNU Parallel reads from stdin.

$ parallel 'sha1sum {}' :::: filelist
d8bcd7a949a2fb7a3e1740e4c61e52f46b781aea  a.txt
3db0058f7068968d90679ceb2184441c729782b9  b.txt
a9db4a2565b96696b594965ef52a98ebadfcc2b8  c.txt

$ grep [ac] filelist | parallel 'tr a-z A-Z <{}' :::: -

I think you’ll find this to be the most useful form of GNU Parallel. You can build a Unix pipeline using familiar tools—sed, awk, grep—to construct a list of inputs and then pipe them to parallel.

Running multiple commands in parallel

To run multiple commands in parallel, use the placeholder as the command name. Like in the previous section, you obtain the command name from the command-line arguments with the ::: operator and from a file or stdin with the :::: operator.

$ parallel '{}' ::: 'du -h a.txt' 'rot13 <b.txt'
4.0K        a.txt

$ parallel '{} a.txt' ::: sha1sum 'du -h' 'xxd'
d8bcd7a949a2fb7a3e1740e4c61e52f46b781aea  a.txt
4.0K        a.txt
00000000: 4176 6f63 6164 6f0a                      Avocado.

$ parallel '{}' :::: cmdlist
4.0K	a.txt
3db0058f7068968d90679ceb2184441c729782b9  b.txt

$ grep [ac].txt$ cmdlist | parallel '{}' :::: -
4.0K	a.txt


This was a super simple introduction to GNU Parallel; there are a lot of features that we didn’t cover:

But now that you have a more firm grasp of the basic concepts, you can work your way up to this advanced functionality.

Thank you to Simon Symeonidis for proof-reading this article.

1 O. Tange (2011): GNU Parallel - The Command-Line Power Tool, ;login: The USENIX Magazine, February 2011:42-47.