Home » When is dd suitable for copying data? (or, when are read() and write() partial)

When is dd suitable for copying data? (or, when are read() and write() partial)


From the spec:

  • If the bs=expr operand is specified and no conversions other than sync, noerror, or notrunc are requested, the data returned from each input block shall be written as a separate output block; if the read() returns less than a full block and the sync conversion is not specified, the resulting output block shall be the same size as the input block.

So this is probably what causes your confusion. Yes, because dd is designed for blocking, by default partial read()s will be mapped 1:1 to partial write()s, or else syncd out on tail padding NUL or space chars to bs= size when conv=sync is specified.

This means that dd is safe to use for copying data (w/ no risk of corruption due to a partial read or write) in every case but one in which it is arbitrarily limited by a count= argument, because otherwise dd will happily write() its output in identically sized blocks to those in which its input was read() until it read()s completely through it. And even this caveat is only true when bs= is specified or obs= is not specified, as the very next sentence in the spec states:

  • If the bs=expr operand is not specified, or a conversion other than sync, noerror, or notrunc is requested, the input shall be processed and collected into full-sized output blocks until the end of the input is reached.

Without ibs= and/or obs= arguments this can’t matter – because ibs and obs are both the same size by default. However, you can get explicit about input buffering by specifying different sizes for either and not specifying bs= (because it takes precedence).

For example, if you do:

IN| dd ibs=1| OUT

…then a POSIX dd will write() in chunks of 512 bytes by collecting every singly read() byte into a single output block.

Otherwise, if you do…

IN| dd obs=1kx1k| OUT

…a POSIX dd will read() at maximum 512 bytes at a time, but write() every megabyte-sized output block (kernel allowing and excepting possibly the last – because that’s EOF) in full by collecting input into full-sized output blocks.

Also from the spec, though:

  • count=n
    • Copy only n input blocks.

count= maps to i?bs= blocks, and so in order to handle an arbitrary limit on count= portably you’ll need two dds. The most practical way to do it with two dds is by piping the output of one into the input of another, which surely puts us in the realm of reading/writing a special file regardless of the original input type.

An IPC pipe means that when specifying [io]bs= args that, to do so safely, you must keep such values within the system’s defined PIPE_BUF limit. POSIX states that the system kernel must only guarantee atomic read()s and write()s within the limits of PIPE_BUF as defined in limits.h. POSIX guarantees that PIPE_BUF be at least

    • Maximum number of bytes that is guaranteed to be atomic when writing to a pipe.
    • Value: 512

(which also happens to be the default dd i/o blocksize), but the actual value is usually at least 4k. On an up-to-date linux system it is, by default, 64k.

So when you setup your dd processes you should do it on a block factor based on three values:

  1. bs = ( obs = PIPE_BUF or lesser )
  2. n = total desired number of bytes read
  3. count = n / bs


yes | dd obs=1k | dd bs=1k count=10k of=/dev/null
10240+0 records in
10240+0 records out
10485760 bytes (10 MB) copied, 0.1143 s, 91.7 MB/s

You have to synchronize i/o w/ dd to handle non-seekable inputs. In other words, make pipe-buffers explicit and they cease to be a problem. That’s what dd is for. The unknown quantity here is yes‘s buffer size – but if you block that out to a known quantity with another dd then a little informed multiplication can make dd safe to use for copying data (w/ no risk of corruption due to a partial read or write) even when arbitrarily limiting input w/ count= w/ any arbitrary input type on any POSIX system and without missing a single byte.

Here’s a snippet from the POSIX spec:

  • ibs=expr
    • Specify the input block size, in bytes, by expr (default is 512).
  • obs=expr
    • Specify the output block size, in bytes, by expr (default is 512).
  • bs=expr
    • Set both input and output block sizes to expr bytes, superseding ibs= and obs=. If no conversion other than sync, noerror, and notrunc is specified, each input block shall be copied to the output as a single block without aggregating short blocks.

You’ll also find some of this explained better here.

With sockets, pipes, or ttys, read() and write() can transfer less than the requested size, so when using dd on these, you need the fullblock flag. With regular files and block devices however, there are only two times when they can do a short read/write: when you reach EOF, or if there is an error. This is why older implementations of dd without the fullblock flag were safe to use for disk duplication.

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