The subprocess Module: Wrapping Programs With Python

The subprocess Module: Wrapping Programs With Python 2022-06-13T14:00:00+00:00 In this tutorial, you'll learn how to leverage other apps and programs that aren't Python, wrapping them or launching them from your Python scripts using the subprocess module. You'll learn about processes all the way up to interacting with a process as it executes.

If you’ve ever wanted to simplify your command-line scripting or use Python alongside command-line applications—or any applications for that matter—then the Python subprocess module can help. From running shell commands and command-line applications to launching GUI applications, the Python subprocess module can help.

By the end of this tutorial, you’ll be able to:

  • Understand how the Python subprocess module interacts with the operating system
  • Issue shell commands like ls or dir
  • Feed input into a process and use its output.
  • Handle errors when using subprocess
  • Understand the use cases for subprocess by considering practical examples

In this tutorial, you’ll get a high-level mental model for understanding processes, subprocesses, and Python before getting stuck into the subprocess module and experimenting with an example. After that, you’ll start exploring the shell and learn how you can leverage Python’s subprocess with Windows and UNIX-based shells and systems. Specifically, you’ll cover communication with processes, pipes and error handling.

Once you have the basics down, you’ll be exploring some practical ideas for how to leverage Python’s subprocess. You’ll also dip your toes into advanced usage of Python’s subprocess by experimenting with the underlying Popen() constructor.

Processes and Subprocesses

First off, you might be wondering why there’s a sub in the Python subprocess module name. And what exactly is a process, anyway? In this section, you’ll answer these questions. You’ll come away with a high-level mental model for thinking about processes. If you’re already familiar with processes, then you might want to skip directly to basic usage of the Python subprocess module.

Processes and the Operating System

Whenever you use a computer, you’ll always be interacting with programs. A process is the operating system’s abstraction of a running program. So, using a computer always involve processes. Start menus, app bars, command-line interpreters, text editors, browsers, and more—every application comprises one or more processes.

A typical operating system will report hundreds or even thousands of running processes, which you’ll get to explore shortly. However, central processing units (CPUs) typically only have a handful of cores, which means that they can only run a handful of instructions simultaneously. So, you may wonder how thousands of processes can appear to run at the same time.

In short, the operating system is a marvelous multitasker—as it has to be. The CPU is the brain of a computer, but it operates at the nanosecond timescale. Most other components of a computer are far slower than the CPU. For instance, a magnetic hard disk read takes thousands of times longer than a typical CPU operation.

If a process needs to write something to the hard drive, or wait for a response from a remote server, then the CPU would sit idle most of the time. Multitasking keeps the CPU busy.

Part of what makes the operating system so great at multitasking is that it’s fantastically organized too. The operating system keeps track of processes in a process table or process control block. In this table, you’ll find the process’s file handles, security context, references to its address spaces, and more.

The process table allows the operating system to abandon a particular process at will, because it has all the information it needs to come back and continue with the process at a later time. A process may be interrupted many thousands of times during execution, but the operating system always finds the exact point where it left off upon returning.

An operating system doesn’t boot up with thousands of processes, though. Many of the processes you’re familiar with are started by you. In the next section, you’ll look into the lifetime of a process.

Process Lifetime

Think of how you might start a Python application from the command line. This is an instance of your command-line process starting a Python process:

Animation of basic process creation

The process that starts another process is referred to as the parent, and the new process is referred to as the child. The parent and child processes run mostly independently. Sometimes the child inherits specific resources or contexts from the parent.

As you learned in Processes and the Operating System, information about processes is kept in a table. Each process keeps track of its parents, which allows the process hierarchy to be represented as a tree. You’ll be exploring your system’s process tree in the next section.

The parent-child relationship between a process and its subprocess isn’t always the same. Sometimes the two processes will share specific resources, like inputs and outputs, but sometimes they won’t. Sometimes child processes live longer than the parent. A child outliving the parent can lead to orphaned or zombie processes, though more discussion about those is outside the scope of this tutorial.

When a process has finished running, it’ll usually end. Every process, on exit, should return an integer. This integer is referred to as the return code or exit status. Zero is synonymous with success, while any other value is considered a failure. Different integers can be used to indicate the reason why a process has failed.

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