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 tagged with ruby shell interop

~ Asked on 2008-08-05 12:56:52

20 Answers


This explanation is based on a commented Ruby script from a friend of mine. If you want to improve the script, feel free to update it at the link.

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.

Here are ways to execute a shell script:

cmd = "echo 'hi'" # Sample string that can be used
  1. Kernel#` , commonly called backticks – `cmd`

    This is like many other languages, including Bash, PHP, and Perl.

    Returns the result (i.e. standard output) of the shell command.


    value = `echo 'hi'`
    value = `#{cmd}`
  2. Built-in syntax, %x( cmd )

    Following the x character is a delimiter, which can be any character. If the delimiter is one of the characters (, [, {, or <, the literal consists of the characters up to the matching closing delimiter, taking account of nested delimiter pairs. For all other delimiters, the literal comprises the characters up to the next occurrence of the delimiter character. String interpolation #{ ... } is allowed.

    Returns the result (i.e. standard output) of the shell command, just like the backticks.


    value = %x( echo 'hi' )
    value = %x[ #{cmd} ]
  3. Kernel#system

    Executes the given command in a subshell.

    Returns true if the command was found and run successfully, false otherwise.


    wasGood = system( "echo 'hi'" )
    wasGood = system( cmd )
  4. Kernel#exec

    Replaces the current process by running the given external command.

    Returns none, the current process is replaced and never continues.


    exec( "echo 'hi'" )
    exec( cmd ) # Note: this will never be reached because of the line above

Here's some extra advice: $?, which is the same as $CHILD_STATUS, accesses the status of the last system executed command if you use the backticks, system() or %x{}. You can then access the exitstatus and pid properties:


For more reading see:

~ Answered on 2008-08-05 14:42:45


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|
  # work with file

~ Answered on 2008-08-05 14:08:13


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.

~ Answered on 2008-09-02 11:05:10


My favourite is Open3

  require "open3"

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

~ Answered on 2008-09-18 17:47:37


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

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

Unfortunately, it very much depends.

~ Answered on 2008-08-07 05:10:35


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

$ irb 
system "echo Hi"
=> true

You should also be able to do things like:

cmd = 'ls'

~ Answered on 2008-08-05 13:24:16


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.

~ Answered on 2010-06-16 02:13:05


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:


exec 'echo "hello $HOSTNAME"'

system and $?:

system 'false' 
puts $?

Backticks (`):

today = `date`


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>]

~ Answered on 2013-06-07 02:07:04


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("./")

Ruby should honor the shebang, but you could always use

system("bash ./")

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

~ Answered on 2017-06-02 20:14:02


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.

~ Answered on 2008-08-05 13:57:47


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

~ Answered on 2012-02-19 18:07:16


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)
  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
  if exit_status.to_i > 0
    err = err.chomp if err
    raise ShellError, err
  elsif out
    return out.chomp
    return true

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

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

~ Answered on 2012-02-20 23:36:45


The easiest way is, for example:

reboot = `init 6`
puts reboot

~ Answered on 2017-03-30 18:13:13


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.

~ Answered on 2015-11-04 15:04:26


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
  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 => int
      FD              : single file descriptor in child process
      [FD, FD, ...]   : multiple file descriptor in child process
      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)

~ Answered on 2015-12-11 14:57:01


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

     url_request = ''
     result_of_shell_command = `curl #{url_request}`

~ Answered on 2017-02-16 09:58:31


Given a command like attrib:

require 'open3'

Open3.popen3(a) do |stdin, stdout, stderr|

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




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.

~ Answered on 2017-12-19 05:54:55


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

or'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.

~ Answered on 2018-07-05 12:55:22


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 )

~ Answered on 2014-10-14 20:12:11

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