How to Use the Grep Command to Find Information in Files

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Grep is a command-line utility that can search and filter text using a common regular expression syntax. It is so ubiquitous that the verb “to grep” has emerged as a synonym for “to search”. The grep command is a useful tool for finding all occurrences of a search term in a selection of files or the output of another command. It can also come in handy when filtering a log file or stream and when used as part of a script or chain of commands.

This tutorial provides an overview of how to use grep, a brief introduction to regular expression syntax, and practical examples.

How to Use Grep

This guide references recent versions of GNU grep, which are included by default in all images provided by Akamai. It is also provided as part of the common base selection of packages provided in nearly all Linux distributions.

The Grep Command

A basic grep command uses the following syntax:

grep "string" ~/example.txt

The first argument to grep is a search pattern. The second (optional) argument is the name of a file to be searched. The above sequence searches for all occurrences of the word “string” in the ~/example.txt file.

You can use grep to search a single file or multiple files. If you want to search files in a directory, include the -r flag. It enables recursive searching through a directory tree, including subdirectories:

grep -r "string" ~/example/

When used on a specific file, grep only outputs the lines that contain the matching string. In recursive mode, grep outputs the full path to the file, followed by a colon, and the contents of the line that matches the pattern. By default, patterns in grep are basic regular expressions. If you need a more expressive regular expression syntax, grep is capable of accepting patterns in alternate formats with the following flags:

-EUse extended regular expression syntax. Equivalent to the deprecated egrep command.
-PUse Perl regular expression syntax.

Grep provides a number of powerful options to control its output:

-oOutput only the matching segment of each line, rather than the full contents of each matched line.
-iIgnore case distinctions, so that characters only differing in case still match.
-nPrint the line number of each matched line.
-C 2Show 2 (or any number of) adjacent lines in addition to the matched line.
-vInvert the sense of matching, to select non-matching lines.
-eSpecify a pattern. If this option is used multiple times, search for all patterns given. This option can be used to protect a pattern beginning with -.

Piping Command Outputs to grep

In addition to reading content from files, grep can read and filter text from standard input. The output of any command or stream can be piped to the grep command. Then grep then filters this output according to the match pattern specified and outputs only the matching lines. For example:

ls --help | grep "dired"

This filters the output of the ls command’s help text and looks for appearances of “dired”, and outputs them to standard out:

  -D, --dired                generate output designed for Emacs' dired mode

Regular Expression Overview

While straightforward pattern matching is sufficient for some filtering tasks, the true power of grep is its ability to use regular expressions for complex pattern matching. Most characters in regular expressions match with input data literally. However, there are some sequences that carry special significance:

.Matches any character.
*Matches zero or more instances of the preceding character.
+Matches one or more instances of the preceding character.
[]Matches any of the characters within the brackets.
()Creates a sub-expression that can be combined to make more complicated expressions.
|The OR operator. For Example, (www|ftp) matches either “www” or “ftp”.
^Matches the beginning of a line.
$Matches the end of the line.
\\Escapes the following character. Since . matches any character, to match a literal period you would need to use \..

Filtering Logs with Grep

Another popular use of grep is to find text files generated by a system, such as logs:

grep -Eoc "^[0-9]{1,3}\.[0-9]{1,3}\.[0-9]{1,3}\.[0-9]{1,3}.* 200"  /srv/www/

Here, grep filters an Apache access log for lines beginning with an IP address, followed by a number of characters, a space, and 200 (representing a successful HTTP connection). The -c option only outputs the number of matches. To get the output of the IP address of the visitor and the path of the requested file for successful requests, omit the -c flag:

grep -Eo "^[0-9]{1,3}\.[0-9]{1,3}\.[0-9]{1,3}\.[0-9]{1,3}.* 200"  /srv/www/

The curly brackets specify the number of instances of the pattern. {1,3} requires that the previous character occur at least once, but no more than three times. The character class [0-9] matches against one or more numeric digits. You can also generate similar output that reports on unsuccessful attempts to access content by searching for 404 instead of 200:

grep -Eo "^[0-9]{1,3}\.[0-9]{1,3}\.[0-9]{1,3}\.[0-9]{1,3}.* 404"  /srv/www/

The following command generates a list of all IP addresses that have attempted to connect to your web server. Using the -o option, only the matching strings are sent to standard output. This output is filtered through the utility uniq with the pipe operator (|) to filter out duplicate entries:

grep -Eo "^[0-9]{1,3}\.[0-9]{1,3}\.[0-9]{1,3}\.[0-9]{1,3}" /srv/www/ | uniq

The next example uses an alternative pattern for matching an IP address in a different log. The following command searches the most recent /var/log/auth.log file for invalid login attempts:

grep -Eo "Invalid user.*([0-9]{1,3}\.){3}[0-9]{1,3}" /var/log/auth.log

You can split the above command into two layers to output a list of IP addresses with failed login attempts to your system:

grep "Invalid user" /var/log/auth.log | grep -Eo "([0-9]{1,3}\.){3}[0-9]{1,3}" | uniq

grep can filter the output of commands such as tail -F to provide real-time monitoring of specific log events:

tail ~/.procmail/procmail.log -F | grep "Subject"

In this case, tail follows the ~/.procmail/procmail.log file. This output is passed to grep, which filters the stream and prints only lines that contain the string “Subject”.

Filtering Commands with Grep

grep can be used to filter long help files. This command filters the tar help text to more efficiently find the options for dealing with bzip files:

tar --help | grep "bzip"

grep is also useful for filtering the output of ls when listing the contents of directories with a large number of files:

ls /usr/lib | grep "xml"

Excluding Patterns with grep

You can also use grep to return non-matching lines by using the -v flag to perform an invert search. For example, the following command only returns lines that do not contain the pattern “string”:

grep -v "string" ~/threads.txt

You can also exclude multiple search patterns using invert search with grep -v by using the -e flag before each pattern as follows:

grep -v -e "string" -e "yarn" ~/threads.txt

When you run the above command, it outputs all lines that do not contain “string” or “yarn”.

Excluding grep When Using ps

A useful application of invert searching is to exclude “grep” itself from a grep output, such as when using the ps command. For example, use the following command to search for all current processes that contain the pattern “log”:

ps ax | grep log
576 ?        Ss     0:00 @dbus-daemon --system --address=systemd: --nofork --nopidfile --systemd-activation --syslog-only
583 ?        Ssl    0:00 /usr/sbin/rsyslogd -n -iNONE
592 ?        Ss     0:00 /lib/systemd/systemd-logind
4967 pts/0    S+     0:00 grep --color=auto log

Notice the last line of the output contains grep log, which is not relevant to the purpose of the search. You can exclude this line by using a pipe operator | and adding grep -v grep after it as follows:

ps ax | grep log| grep -v grep
576 ?        Ss     0:00 @dbus-daemon --system --address=systemd: --nofork --nopidfile --systemd-activation --syslog-only
583 ?        Ssl    0:00 /usr/sbin/rsyslogd -n -iNONE
592 ?        Ss     0:00 /lib/systemd/systemd-logind

While using grep -v grep not only excludes the grep log line, it also skips all other lines that contain “grep”, which may not be ideal. Luckily, there are other ways to remove grep from your output.

You can modify the grep log command and add a character class match to specifically match the first character l from log. This works because the excluded line contains grep [l]og, while only matches for “log” are returned. Run the command below to do a character class match for l as a character:

ps ax | grep '[l]og'
576 ?        Ss     0:00 @dbus-daemon --system --address=systemd: --nofork --nopidfile --systemd-activation --syslog-only
583 ?        Ssl    0:00 /usr/sbin/rsyslogd -n -iNONE
592 ?        Ss     0:00 /lib/systemd/systemd-logind

Alternatively, you can use the pgrep command instead of grep to search your current processes:

pgrep -af log
576 @dbus-daemon --system --address=systemd: --nofork --nopidfile --systemd-activation --syslog-only
583 /usr/sbin/rsyslogd -n -iNONE
592 /lib/systemd/systemd-logind

Grep Compressed Files with zgrep

The zgrep command functions identically to the grep command above. However, it adds the ability to run grep operations on files that have been compressed with gzip without requiring decompression. To search an older compressed log:

zgrep -Eo "Invalid user.*([0-9]{1,3}\.){3}[0-9]{1,3}" /var/log/auth.log.2.gz

zgrep operations take longer than standard grep operations because of the additional overhead of reading the compressed files.

More Information

You may wish to consult the following resources for additional information on this topic. While these are provided in the hope that they will be useful, please note that we cannot vouch for the accuracy or timeliness of externally hosted materials.

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