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Why does stdout need explicit flushing when redirected to file?

Posted by: admin November 30, 2017 Leave a comment


The behaviour of printf() seems to depend on the location of stdout.

  1. If stdout is sent to the console, then printf() is line-buffered and is flushed after a newline is printed.
  2. If stdout is redirected to a file, the buffer is not flushed unless fflush() is called.
  3. Moreover, if printf() is used before stdout is redirected to file, subsequent writes (to the file) are line-buffered and are flushed after newline.

When is stdout line-buffered, and when does fflush() need to be called?

Minimal example of each:

void RedirectStdout2File(const char* log_path) {
    int fd = open(log_path, O_RDWR|O_APPEND|O_CREAT,S_IRWXU|S_IRWXG|S_IRWXO);
    if (fd != STDOUT_FILENO) close(fd);

int main_1(int argc, char* argv[]) {
    /* Case 1: stdout is line-buffered when run from console */
    printf("No redirect; printed immediately\n");

int main_2a(int argc, char* argv[]) {
    /* Case 2a: stdout is not line-buffered when redirected to file */
    printf("Will not go to file!\n");
int main_2b(int argc, char* argv[]) {
    /* Case 2b: flushing stdout does send output to file */
    printf("Will go to file if flushed\n");

int main_3(int argc, char* argv[]) {
    /* Case 3: printf before redirect; printf is line-buffered after */
    printf("Before redirect\n");
    printf("Does go to file!\n");

Flushing for stdout is determined by its buffering behaviour. The buffering can be set to three modes: _IOFBF (full buffering: waits until fflush() if possible), _IOLBF (line buffering: newline triggers automatic flush), and _IONBF (direct write always used). “Support for these characteristics is implementation-defined, and may be affected via the setbuf() and setvbuf() functions.” [C99:]

“At program startup, three text streams are predefined and need not be opened explicitly
— standard input (for reading conventional input), standard output (for writing
conventional output), and standard error (for writing diagnostic output). As initially
opened, the standard error stream is not fully buffered; the standard input and standard
output streams are fully buffered if and only if the stream can be determined not to refer
to an interactive device.” [C99:]

Explanation of observered behaviour

So, what happens is that the implementation does something platform-specific to decide whether stdout is going to be line-buffered. In most libc implementations, this test is done when the stream is first used.

  1. Behaviour #1 is easily explained: when the stream is for an interactive device, it is line-buffered, and the printf() is flushed automatically.
  2. Case #2 is also now expected: when we redirect to a file, the stream is fully buffered and will not be flushed except with fflush(), unless you write gobloads of data to it.
  3. Finally, we understand case #3 too for implementations that only perform the check on the underlying fd once. Because we forced stdout’s buffer to be initialised in the first printf(), stdout acquired the line-buffered mode. When we swap out the fd to go to file, it’s still line-buffered, so the data is flushed automatically.

Some actual implementations

Each libc has latitude in how it interprets these requirements, since C99 doesn’t specify what an “interactive device” is, nor does POSIX’s stdio entry extend this (beyond requiring stderr to be open for reading).

  1. Glibc. See filedoalloc.c:L111. Here we use stat() to test if the fd is a tty, and set the buffering mode accordingly. (This is called from fileops.c.) stdout initially has a null buffer, and it’s allocated on the first use of the stream based on the characteristics of fd 1.

  2. BSD libc. Very similar, but much cleaner code to follow! See this line in makebuf.c


Your are wrongly combining buffered and unbuffered IO functions. Such a combination must be done very carefully especially when the code has to be portable. (and it is bad to write unportable code…)
It is certainly best to avoid combining buffered and unbuffered IO on the same file descriptor.

Buffered IO: fprintf(), fopen(), fclose(), freopen()

Unbuffered IO: write(), open(), close(), dup()

When you use dup2() to redirect stdout. The function is not aware of the buffer which was filled by fprintf(). So when dup2() closes the old descriptor 1 it does not flush the buffer and the content could be flushed to a different output. In your case 2a it was sent to /dev/null.

The solution

In your case it is best to use freopen() instead of dup2(). This solves all your problems:

  1. It flushes the buffers of the original FILE stream. (case 2a)
  2. It sets the buffering mode according to the newly opened file. (case 3)

Here is the correct implementation of your function:

void RedirectStdout2File(const char* log_path) {
    if(freopen(log_path, "a+", stdout) == NULL) err(EXIT_FAILURE, NULL);

Unfortunately with buffered IO you cannot directly set permissions of a newly created file. You have to use other calls to change the permissions or you can use unportable glibc extensions. See the fopen() man page.


You should not close the file descriptor, so remove close(fd) and close
if you want the message to be print only in the file.