Mastering Python subprocess Module [In-Depth Tutorial]

Python Subprocess, Python

Getting started with Python subprocess module

The subprocess module in Python is a powerful tool that allows you to spawn new processes, connect to their input/output/error pipes, and obtain their return codes. In simple terms, it enables your Python script to run shell commands, just as you would if you were operating from a terminal. Whether you want to run a simple command like ls on a UNIX system or execute more complex chained commands using pipes, subprocess has you covered.

Before diving into the nitty-gritty of how to use the subprocess module, it's important to understand the historical context and the basics of setting up your environment.


What subprocess Replaces (e.g., os.system, os.spawn*)

Prior to the introduction of the subprocess module, Python developers had a few other options for running shell commands, including functions like os.system() and os.spawn*(). Here's a quick comparison:

os.system(): This function allows you to run shell commands, but it's less powerful than subprocess. It doesn't allow you to capture the standard output (stdout) or standard error (stderr) easily, nor does it provide good error handling options.

import os
os.system('ls -l')

os.spawn*(): This family of functions provides more control over the process, but it's also more complex to use and less Pythonic in its approach.

import os
os.spawnlp(os.P_WAIT, 'ls', 'ls', '-l')

The subprocess module aims to replace these older functions with a more powerful, flexible, and Pythonic interface. By using subprocess, you can perform everything from running a simple shell command to launching a process and interacting with its input/output streams, all while writing more maintainable and readable code.


Basic Requirements and Setup

To use the subprocess module, you'll need to import it in your Python script. It's a built-in module, so you don't need to install any external packages.

import subprocess

Once imported, you can begin using its methods to interact with the system. Here's a quick example of running a simple shell command (ls -l):

import subprocess['ls', '-l'])


Different subprocess Methods and Their Options

The Python subprocess module provides several methods to work with external processes. Each method has a specific use-case and offers certain features. Let's explore the most commonly used methods along with their supported options and examples.


1. (Python 3.5+)

What It Does: This is the recommended method for invoking subprocesses in Python 3.5 and above. It runs a command, waits for it to finish, and then returns a CompletedProcess instance that contains information about the executed process.

Supported Options:

  • args: The command to execute, as a list or a string.
  • capture_output: If set to True, captures standard output and standard error.
  • cwd: Specifies the working directory.
  • timeout: Sets a timeout for the command.
import subprocess

result =["ls", "-l"], capture_output=True, text=True)
print("STDOUT:", result.stdout)



What It Does: Runs a command, waits for it to finish, and then returns the return code. It's a simple way to run a command and check its return code but doesn't capture output.

Supported Options: Similar to

import subprocess

return_code =["ls", "-l"])
print("Return Code:", return_code)


3. subprocess.check_call

What It Does: Similar to, but raises a CalledProcessError exception if the command returns a non-zero exit code.

Supported Options: Similar to

import subprocess

except subprocess.CalledProcessError as e:
    print(f"Command failed with error {e.returncode}")


4. subprocess.check_output

What It Does: Runs a command, waits for it to finish, captures its output, and then returns that output as a byte string. It raises a CalledProcessError if the command returns a non-zero exit code.

Supported Options:

  • stderr: Redirect standard error (usually set to subprocess.STDOUT to capture errors).
  • text: If set to True, the output is returned as a string instead of bytes.
import subprocess

    output = subprocess.check_output(["ls", "-l"], text=True)
    print("STDOUT:", output)
except subprocess.CalledProcessError as e:
    print(f"Command failed with error {e.returncode}")

Other Options

  • stdout, stderr: To redirect output, either to capture or pipe it to other commands.
  • shell: If set to True, the command is executed through the shell.
  • env: A dictionary representing the environment variables to set for the new process.


For Beginners: Basic Operations

If you're new to the Python subprocess module, you're in the right place. In this section, we'll cover the basic operations you can perform with this incredibly versatile tool.

Running a Shell Command with

The method is the simplest way to run a command. It runs the command, waits for it to finish, and then returns a CompletedProcess instance that contains information about the process, such as the exit code and any output.

Here's an example:

import subprocess["ls", "-l"])

In this example, we're running the ls -l command, which lists files in a directory in a detailed manner.

Arguments and Options

The command and its options or arguments are passed as a list of strings. For example, if you're running a command that looks like this in the shell—find . -name '*.txt'—you would convert it to the following list when using["find", ".", "-name", "*.txt"])

Return Code

The returncode attribute of the returned CompletedProcess object gives you the exit code of the command. A 0 usually means that the command executed successfully, and any other value indicates an error.

result =["ls", "-l"])
print("Return code:", result.returncode)

Capturing Output with stdout

By default, will output directly to the console. If you want to capture the output as a Python string, you can use the stdout parameter:

result =["ls", "-l"], capture_output=True, text=True)
print("Have {} bytes in stdout:\n{}".format(len(result.stdout), result.stdout))

Here, capture_output=True captures the output, and text=True makes it a string rather than bytes.

Error Handling with stderr

Similarly, you can capture the standard error output using the stderr parameter:

result =["ls", "-l", "/nonexistent"], capture_output=True, text=True)

If the directory /nonexistent does not exist, the stderr attribute of the CompletedProcess object will contain the error message.


Intermediate Topics

Once you're comfortable with the basics of the subprocess module, you can begin to explore some of its more advanced features. These include working with the Popen class, redirecting input/output, setting timeouts, and more.

The Popen Class

The Popen class is the backbone of the subprocess module and offers more flexibility compared to the run() method. It allows you to spawn a new process and interact with its input/output streams in a non-blocking manner.

Here's how you can initiate a Popen object:

from subprocess import Popen

process = Popen(["ls", "-l"])

Communicating with the Process

You can send data to stdin or read from stdout and stderr, using the communicate() method.

from subprocess import Popen, PIPE

process = Popen(["sort"], stdin=PIPE, stdout=PIPE, stderr=PIPE, text=True)
stdout, stderr = process.communicate(input="banana\napple\ncherry")

This sorts the input strings and prints the sorted output.

Redirecting Input and Output

You can redirect the stdin, stdout, and stderr using file objects.

with open("input.txt", "w") as f:

with open("input.txt", "r") as infile, open("output.txt", "w") as outfile:
    process = Popen(["sort"], stdin=infile, stdout=outfile)

Timeouts and How to Implement Them

Timeouts can be added to make sure a subprocess operation doesn't hang indefinitely. Use the timeout parameter with communicate() or wait().

from subprocess import TimeoutExpired

    process = Popen(["sleep", "10"], stdout=PIPE, stderr=PIPE)
except TimeoutExpired:
    print("Process timed out and was killed.")

Working with Pipes

Pipes can be used to chain multiple subprocesses together, just like in a Unix shell.

from subprocess import Popen, PIPE

p1 = Popen(["ls", "-l"], stdout=PIPE)
p2 = Popen(["grep", "txt"], stdin=p1.stdout, stdout=PIPE)

p1.stdout.close()  # Allow p1 to receive a SIGPIPE if p2 exits.
output = p2.communicate()[0]

Setting Environment Variables

The env parameter allows you to set environment variables for the subprocess.

import os

my_env = os.environ.copy()
my_env["MY_VARIABLE"] = "value"

process = Popen(["printenv", "MY_VARIABLE"], env=my_env, stdout=PIPE, text=True)
stdout, _ = process.communicate()


Advanced Usage

Once you've mastered the intermediate functionalities of the subprocess module, you're ready to tackle its more advanced features. These include running commands in parallel, working with long-running processes, considering security implications, and handling text encoding.

Running Commands in Parallel

Python's threading or multiprocessing libraries can be used alongside subprocess to run multiple commands in parallel.

from threading import Thread
from subprocess import run

def execute_command(cmd):

commands = [["ls", "-l"], ["df", "-h"], ["uptime"]]
threads = []

for cmd in commands:
    thread = Thread(target=execute_command, args=(cmd,))

# Wait for all threads to finish
for thread in threads:

print("All commands executed.")

Interacting with Long-Running Processes

For long-running processes, you may need more intricate interaction, which you can achieve by using the poll() or wait() methods.

from subprocess import Popen, TimeoutExpired

process = Popen(["some_long_running_command"])

except TimeoutExpired:
    print("Process is still running.")

Security Considerations (e.g., shell=True risks)

While using shell=True can be convenient, it poses a security risk, especially when combined with dynamically generated script. This opens the door to shell injection vulnerabilities.

# Potentially dangerous
run("ls -l " + user_input, shell=True)

Always sanitize user input or avoid using shell=True with dynamic input.

Universal Newlines and Text Encoding

The text parameter (formerly known as universal_newlines in Python 2) can be set to True if you wish to work with text instead of binary data for stdin, stdout, and stderr.

result = run(["ls", "-l"], capture_output=True, text=True, encoding='utf-8')

Here, text=True tells Python to open the file in text mode, and encoding='utf-8' specifies the text encoding to be used.


Platform-Specific Concerns and Handling

While Python is a cross-platform language, it's important to be aware of the platform-specific nuances that can affect how the subprocess module behaves. The key areas to consider are the differences between Unix-based systems and Windows, as well as some cross-platform best practices.

Differences Between Unix and Windows

Command Interpreter: On Unix-based systems, the default shell is often Bash, whereas, on Windows, it's usually cmd.exe. This difference can affect how commands are parsed and executed.

# Unix-based["ls", "-l"])

# Windows["dir", "/S"])
  • Path Separators: Unix uses / whereas Windows uses \ as the path separator. This is crucial when specifying file paths.
  • Environment Variables: Environment variables are accessed differently on Unix ($HOME) and Windows (%USERPROFILE%).
  • Case Sensitivity: Unix is case-sensitive, while Windows is not. Therefore, filenames and commands need to be case-accurate on Unix but not on Windows.

Cross-Platform Best Practices

Using os Module for Path Handling: Use the os.path module to handle file paths so that they are automatically formatted to suit the operating system.

import os
filepath = os.path.join("folder", "file.txt")

Checking Platform: You can conditionally execute code depending on the platform using sys.platform.

import sys

if sys.platform == "win32":["dir", "/S"], shell=True)
else:["ls", "-l"])

Avoid shell=True When Possible: This is a security best practice, but it also can make your code more portable.

Specify Text Encoding: When capturing output, specify the encoding to avoid surprises with character sets on different platforms.["ls", "-l"], capture_output=True, text=True, encoding='utf-8')


Difference Between shell=True and shell=False

When working with Python's subprocess module, you'll often come across the shell parameter. By default, shell=False, but you can set it to True to change the behavior of how commands are executed. Let's break down the difference in layman's terms and see when you should use each.

shell=False (Default)

What It Does: When shell=False, the command you provide is directly executed without invoking an additional shell process. Each argument in the command is a separate item in a list.

import subprocess

# Using shell=False["ls", "-l"])


  • More Secure: No risk of shell injection attacks, which we'll discuss below.
  • Clearer Syntax: The command and its arguments are clearly defined in a list, which makes it easy to construct dynamically.


  • Less Flexible: You can't use shell features like wildcard characters (*), variable expansion ($VAR), and piping commands (|).


What It Does: When shell=True, Python will run your command inside a new shell process. This enables you to take advantage of shell features like wildcard expansion, variable substitution, and more.

import subprocess

# Using shell=True"ls -l *.txt", shell=True)


  • More Flexible: You can use all features of the shell, such as wildcards, piping, and others.
  • Concise for Simple Commands: For a quick script with simple commands, shell=True can be more concise.


  • Less Secure: Risk of shell injection attacks. If you're building a command string using external input, the user could potentially execute arbitrary commands.

Example of Security Risk:
Imagine you have the following code snippet where user_input comes from an external source.

# This is dangerous!"echo {user_input}", shell=True)

If the user provides a value like ; rm -rf /, it would delete all files on your system!

Which One to Use?

  • Use shell=False when:
    • You don't need any shell-specific features.
    • You're using external or untrusted input to construct your command.
  • Use shell=True when:
    • You absolutely need shell features, and you're aware of the security implications.
    • The command and its arguments are fixed (hardcoded) and do not depend on external input.


Troubleshooting and Common Pitfalls

Even experienced developers sometimes encounter issues while working with the subprocess module. In this section, we will cover some common pitfalls, how to debug subprocess calls, and ways to handle exceptions.

Debugging subprocess Calls

Logging: Use Python's logging module to log the exact command being run, along with its output and errors.

import logging

cmd = ["ls", "-l"]
logging.debug(f"Executing command: {' '.join(cmd)}")
result =, capture_output=True, text=True)
logging.debug(f"Output: {result.stdout}")
logging.debug(f"Errors: {result.stderr}")

Print Statements: For quick debugging, strategically place print statements to display key subprocess attributes like stdout, stderr, and returncode.

result =["ls", "-l"], capture_output=True, text=True)
print("STDOUT:", result.stdout)
print("STDERR:", result.stderr)
print("Return Code:", result.returncode)

How to Handle Exceptions

CalledProcessError: This exception is raised when a process returns a non-zero exit code. It can be caught to handle the error gracefully.

try:["false"], check=True)
except subprocess.CalledProcessError as e:
    print(f"Command failed with error {e.returncode}, output: {e.output}")

TimeoutExpired: As previously discussed, this exception can be caught when using the timeout parameter.

try:["sleep", "10"], timeout=1)
except subprocess.TimeoutExpired:
    print("Process timed out.")


Real-World Examples and Use-Cases of Python subprocess

The subprocess module in Python is highly versatile and can be applied in various real-world scenarios. Here are some typical use-cases.


Scenario: You want to periodically back up your important documents to a remote server.

import subprocess
import datetime

# Create a timestamp
timestamp ="%Y%m%d%H%M%S")

# Compress the folder into a tarball["tar", "-czvf", f"backup_{timestamp}.tar.gz", "/path/to/important_folder"])

# Transfer it to a remote server["scp", f"backup_{timestamp}.tar.gz", "username@remote-server:/path/to/backup/"])

Automating System Tasks

Scenario: You want to update your system and installed packages automatically.

import subprocess

# Update package list and upgrade all packages in a Debian-based system["sudo", "apt-get", "update"])["sudo", "apt-get", "upgrade", "-y"])

# Or for a Red Hat-based system
#["sudo", "yum", "update", "-y"])

Data Pipeline Integrations

Scenario: You have different tools for different steps in your data pipeline. One tool generates data and saves it as a .csv file, another reads this .csv file and processes the data, and a third tool visualizes the data.

import subprocess

# Step 1: Generate data with Tool A["tool_a", "--output", "data.csv"])

# Step 2: Process data with Tool B["tool_b", "--input", "data.csv", "--output", "processed_data.csv"])

# Step 3: Generate visualizations with Tool C["tool_c", "--input", "processed_data.csv", "--output", "data_plot.png"])


FAQs: Frequently Asked Questions about subprocess

What is the subprocess module used for?

The subprocess module is used for spawning new processes, interacting with process input/output, and retrieving their return codes in Python scripts.

How do I execute a simple shell command?

You can use the function:"ls -l", shell=True)

How do I run multiple commands in a sequence or in parallel?

For running commands in sequence, simply call multiple times. To run commands in parallel, you can use Python's concurrent.futures.ThreadPoolExecutor or concurrent.futures.ProcessPoolExecutor.

How do I run multiple commands in a sequence or in parallel?

For running commands in sequence, simply call multiple times. To run commands in parallel, you can use Python's concurrent.futures.ThreadPoolExecutor or concurrent.futures.ProcessPoolExecutor.

What's the difference between shell=True and shell=False?

Setting shell=True runs the command in a new shell process, allowing you to use shell features like wildcard characters (*), variable expansion ($VAR), and piping commands (|). However, it's generally less secure. shell=False (the default) directly runs the command without invoking a shell, making it more secure but less flexible.

How do I set a timeout for a command?

Use the timeout argument with["ls", "-l"], timeout=10)

How can I change the working directory for the command?

Use the cwd parameter:["ls", "-l"], cwd='/some/other/directory')

How do I handle errors and exceptions?

For checking the return code, you can look at the returncode attribute of the object returned by To raise an exception when the command fails, you can use subprocess.check_call or subprocess.check_output.

What are some alternatives to subprocess?

Alternatives include the sh library for more Pythonic subprocess handling, fabric for tasks and commands over SSH, and paramiko for lower-level SSH interactions.


Alternatives to Python subprocess module

While the subprocess module is incredibly powerful and flexible, there are other libraries and modules you might consider depending on your specific needs. Let's explore some of those alternatives and when they might be more appropriate to use.


1. shlex for Command Parsing

Overview: The shlex library is used for parsing shell-like syntaxes, splitting the command line into a list of strings that can be passed to subprocess.

import shlex

command = 'ls -l "My Folder"'
args = shlex.split(command)

When to Use: Use shlex when you need to parse complex command strings, especially ones that include special characters or spaces.


2. sh library

Overview: The sh library aims to make subprocess interfacing more Pythonic and easier to work with.

import sh


When to Use: sh is great for quick scripting tasks and reduces boilerplate code. However, it may not be suitable for projects where you need lower-level control over the subprocess.


3. fabric library

Overview: Fabric is primarily used for SSH and is higher-level than subprocess. It's particularly useful for deployment scripts and system administration tasks.

from fabric import Connection

with Connection('my-server') as c:'ls -l')

When to Use: Choose fabric when you're working with remote systems over SSH and require a mix of local and remote command execution.


4. paramiko library

Overview: Like Fabric, paramiko is used for SSH connectivity but is a lower-level library.

import paramiko

ssh = paramiko.SSHClient()
stdin, stdout, stderr = ssh.exec_command('ls -l')

When to Use: paramiko is ideal for custom SSH interactions and when you need finer control over the SSH layer itself.


When to Use Alternatives

  • Complex Parsing: Use shlex if command parsing becomes too complex.
  • Simpler Syntax: For simpler, more Pythonic code, consider using sh.
  • Remote Operations: For SSH-based operations, fabric or paramiko may be more suitable.
  • Advanced Features: When you need features that are not offered by subprocess, like simultaneous stdout and stderr capturing, you may consider alternatives.


Summary and Conclusion

The Python subprocess module serves as a powerful tool for spawning new processes and interacting with their input/output streams, making it an indispensable utility for both simple scripts and complex workflows. Whether you're a beginner automating basic tasks or an experienced developer constructing data pipelines, subprocess offers robust capabilities for process management. The versatility of this module ranges from running simple shell commands with to complex operations using the Popen class. Additionally, the module supports various options like timeouts, error handling, and environment variable customization, making it suitable for a wide array of applications.

Key Takeaways

  • Simple to Advanced: From for basic needs to the more advanced Popen class, subprocess offers different levels of complexity depending on your requirements.
  • Cross-Platform: It works on both Unix and Windows, although with some platform-specific considerations.
  • Flexible and Secure: While shell=True provides shell capabilities like wildcard and piping, shell=False is often more secure, especially with untrusted input.
  • Error Handling: Methods like subprocess.check_call and subprocess.check_output can automatically check for errors, saving you additional manual error-checking code.
  • Capture Output: Easy ways to capture standard output and error streams for further processing.


Further Reading and Resources


Views: 677
Deepak Prasad

Deepak Prasad

He is the founder of GoLinuxCloud and brings over a decade of expertise in Linux, Python, Go, Laravel, DevOps, Kubernetes, Git, Shell scripting, OpenShift, AWS, Networking, and Security. With extensive experience, he excels in various domains, from development to DevOps, Networking, and Security, ensuring robust and efficient solutions for diverse projects. You can connect with him on his LinkedIn profile.

Can't find what you're searching for? Let us assist you.

Enter your query below, and we'll provide instant results tailored to your needs.

If my articles on GoLinuxCloud has helped you, kindly consider buying me a coffee as a token of appreciation.

Buy GoLinuxCloud a Coffee

For any other feedbacks or questions you can send mail to

Thank You for your support!!

1 thought on “Mastering Python subprocess Module [In-Depth Tutorial]”

  1. Really enjoyed reading this fantastic blog article. It is everything I enjoy and also very well researched and referenced. Thank you for taking the time to create a good looking an enjoyable technical appraisal.


Leave a Comment