# filepaths.txt is a file with thousands lines
cat filepaths.txt | xargs -n 1 basename

It takes a while (seconds) to finish running the above command. A file with thousands lines usually is not considered as a big volume. Why is xargs slow in the above command?

After read a SO post, it turns out xargs in the above command runs basename thousands times, therefore it has bad performance.

Can it be faster?

According to man xargs,

xargs reads items from the standard input … delimited by blanks … or newlines and executes the command … followed by items read from standard input. The command line for command is built up until it reaches a system-defined limit (unless the -n and -L options are used). … In general, there will be many fewer invocations of command than there were items in the input.
This will normally have significant performance benefits.

It means xargs can pass a batch of “items” to the command. Unfortunately, the -n 1 option in the command forces xargs to just take one “item” a time. To make it fast, use the -a option of basename, which let basename be able to handle multiple arguments at once.

time cat filepaths.txt | xargs -n 1 basename > /dev/null 

real    0m2.409s
user    0m0.044s
sys     0m0.332s
time cat filepaths.txt | xargs basename -a > /dev/null 

real    0m0.004s
user    0m0.000s
sys     0m0.000s

Thousands times faster.

cat /dev/null | xargs --show-limits --no-run-if-empty

Your environment variables take up 2027 bytes
POSIX upper limit on argument length (this system): 2093077
POSIX smallest allowable upper limit on argument length (all systems): 4096
Maximum length of command we could actually use: 2091050
Size of command buffer we are actually using: 131072
Maximum parallelism (--max-procs must be no greater): 2147483647

It shows xargs can feed a lot bytes into the command once (2091050 bytes here).


Some commands can usefully be executed in parallel too; see the -P option.