When Runtime.exec() won't

Navigate yourself around pitfalls related to the Runtime.exec() method

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import java.util.*;
import java.io.*;
class StreamGobbler extends Thread
{
    InputStream is;
    String type;
    
    StreamGobbler(InputStream is, String type)
    {
        this.is = is;
        this.type = type;
    }
    
    public void run()
    {
        try
        {
            InputStreamReader isr = new InputStreamReader(is);
            BufferedReader br = new BufferedReader(isr);
            String line=null;
            while ( (line = br.readLine()) != null)
                System.out.println(type + ">" + line);    
            } catch (IOException ioe)
              {
                ioe.printStackTrace();  
              }
    }
}
public class GoodWindowsExec
{
    public static void main(String args[])
    {
        if (args.length < 1)
        {
            System.out.println("USAGE: java GoodWindowsExec <cmd>");
            System.exit(1);
        }
        
        try
        {            
            String osName = System.getProperty("os.name" );
            String[] cmd = new String[3];
            if( osName.equals( "Windows NT" ) )
            {
                cmd[0] = "cmd.exe" ;
                cmd[1] = "/C" ;
                cmd[2] = args[0];
            }
            else if( osName.equals( "Windows 95" ) )
            {
                cmd[0] = "command.com" ;
                cmd[1] = "/C" ;
                cmd[2] = args[0];
            }
            
            Runtime rt = Runtime.getRuntime();
            System.out.println("Execing " + cmd[0] + " " + cmd[1] 
                               + " " + cmd[2]);
            Process proc = rt.exec(cmd);
            // any error message?
            StreamGobbler errorGobbler = new 
                StreamGobbler(proc.getErrorStream(), "ERROR");            
            
            // any output?
            StreamGobbler outputGobbler = new 
                StreamGobbler(proc.getInputStream(), "OUTPUT");
                
            // kick them off
            errorGobbler.start();
            outputGobbler.start();
                                    
            // any error???
            int exitVal = proc.waitFor();
            System.out.println("ExitValue: " + exitVal);        
        } catch (Throwable t)
          {
            t.printStackTrace();
          }
    }
}

Running GoodWindowsExec with the dir command generates:

E:\classes\com\javaworld\jpitfalls\article2>java GoodWindowsExec "dir *.java"
Execing cmd.exe /C dir *.java
OUTPUT> Volume in drive E has no label.
OUTPUT> Volume Serial Number is 5C5F-0CC9
OUTPUT>
OUTPUT> Directory of E:\classes\com\javaworld\jpitfalls\article2
OUTPUT>
OUTPUT>10/23/00  09:01p                   805 BadExecBrowser.java
OUTPUT>10/22/00  09:35a                   770 BadExecBrowser1.java
OUTPUT>10/24/00  08:45p                   488 BadExecJavac.java
OUTPUT>10/24/00  08:46p                   519 BadExecJavac2.java
OUTPUT>10/24/00  09:13p                   930 BadExecWinDir.java
OUTPUT>10/22/00  09:21a                 2,282 BadURLPost.java
OUTPUT>10/22/00  09:20a                 2,273 BadURLPost1.java
... (some output omitted for brevity)
OUTPUT>10/12/00  09:29p                   151 SuperFrame.java
OUTPUT>10/24/00  09:23p                 1,814 TestExec.java
OUTPUT>10/09/00  05:47p                23,543 TestStringReplace.java
OUTPUT>10/12/00  08:55p                   228 TopLevel.java
OUTPUT>              22 File(s)         46,661 bytes
OUTPUT>                         19,678,420,992 bytes free
ExitValue: 0

Running GoodWindowsExec with any associated document type will launch the application associated with that document type. For example, to launch Microsoft Word to display a Word document (i.e., one with a .doc extension), type:

>java GoodWindowsExec "yourdoc.doc"

Notice that GoodWindowsExec uses the os.name system property to determine which Windows operating system you are running -- and thus determine the appropriate command interpreter. After executing the command interpreter, handle the standard error and standard input streams with the StreamGobbler class. StreamGobbler empties any stream passed into it in a separate thread. The class uses a simple String type to denote the stream it empties when it prints the line just read to the console.

Thus, to avoid the third pitfall related to Runtime.exec(), do not assume that a command is an executable program; know whether you are executing a standalone executable or an interpreted command. At the end of this section, I will demonstrate a simple command-line tool that will help you with that analysis.

It is important to note that the method used to obtain a process's output stream is called getInputStream(). The thing to remember is that the API sees things from the perspective of the Java program and not the external process. Therefore, the external program's output is the Java program's input. And that logic carries over to the external program's input stream, which is an output stream to the Java program.

Runtime.exec() is not a command line

One final pitfall to cover with Runtime.exec() is mistakenly assuming that exec() accepts any String that your command line (or shell) accepts. Runtime.exec() is much more limited and not cross-platform. This pitfall is caused by users attempting to use the exec() method to accept a single String as a command line would. The confusion may be due to the fact that command is the parameter name for the exec() method. Thus, the programmer incorrectly associates the parameter command with anything that he or she can type on a command line, instead of associating it with a single program and its arguments. In listing 4.6 below, a user tries to execute a command and redirect its output in one call to exec():

Listing 4.6 BadWinRedirect.java

import java.util.*;
import java.io.*;
// StreamGobbler omitted for brevity
public class BadWinRedirect
{
    public static void main(String args[])
    {
        try
        {            
            Runtime rt = Runtime.getRuntime();
            Process proc = rt.exec("java jecho 'Hello World' > test.txt");
            // any error message?
            StreamGobbler errorGobbler = new 
                StreamGobbler(proc.getErrorStream(), "ERROR");            
            
            // any output?
            StreamGobbler outputGobbler = new 
                StreamGobbler(proc.getInputStream(), "OUTPUT");
                
            // kick them off
            errorGobbler.start();
            outputGobbler.start();
                                    
            // any error???
            int exitVal = proc.waitFor();
            System.out.println("ExitValue: " + exitVal);        
        } catch (Throwable t)
          {
            t.printStackTrace();
          }
    }
}

Running BadWinRedirect produces:

E:\classes\com\javaworld\jpitfalls\article2>java BadWinRedirect
OUTPUT>'Hello World' > test.txt
ExitValue: 0

The program BadWinRedirect attempted to redirect the output of an echo program's simple Java version into the file test.txt. However, we find that the file test.txt does not exist. The jecho program simply takes its command-line arguments and writes them to the standard output stream. (You will find the source for jecho in the source code available for download in Resources.) In Listing 4.6, the user assumed that you could redirect standard output into a file just as you could on a DOS command line. Nevertheless, you do not redirect the output through this approach. The incorrect assumption here is that the exec() method acts like a shell interpreter; it does not. Instead, exec() executes a single executable (a program or script). If you want to process the stream to either redirect it or pipe it into another program, you must do so programmatically, using the java.io package. Listing 4.7 properly redirects the standard output stream of the jecho process into a file.

Listing 4.7 GoodWinRedirect.java

import java.util.*;
import java.io.*;
class StreamGobbler extends Thread
{
    InputStream is;
    String type;
    OutputStream os;
    
    StreamGobbler(InputStream is, String type)
    {
        this(is, type, null);
    }
    StreamGobbler(InputStream is, String type, OutputStream redirect)
    {
        this.is = is;
        this.type = type;
        this.os = redirect;
    }
    
    public void run()
    {
        try
        {
            PrintWriter pw = null;
            if (os != null)
                pw = new PrintWriter(os);
                
            InputStreamReader isr = new InputStreamReader(is);
            BufferedReader br = new BufferedReader(isr);
            String line=null;
            while ( (line = br.readLine()) != null)
            {
                if (pw != null)
                    pw.println(line);
                System.out.println(type + ">" + line);    
            }
            if (pw != null)
                pw.flush();
        } catch (IOException ioe)
            {
            ioe.printStackTrace();  
            }
    }
}
public class GoodWinRedirect
{
    public static void main(String args[])
    {
        if (args.length < 1)
        {
            System.out.println("USAGE java GoodWinRedirect <outputfile>");
            System.exit(1);
        }
        
        try
        {            
            FileOutputStream fos = new FileOutputStream(args[0]);
            Runtime rt = Runtime.getRuntime();
            Process proc = rt.exec("java jecho 'Hello World'");
            // any error message?
            StreamGobbler errorGobbler = new 
                StreamGobbler(proc.getErrorStream(), "ERROR");            
            
            // any output?
            StreamGobbler outputGobbler = new 
                StreamGobbler(proc.getInputStream(), "OUTPUT", fos);
                
            // kick them off
            errorGobbler.start();
            outputGobbler.start();
                                    
            // any error???
            int exitVal = proc.waitFor();
            System.out.println("ExitValue: " + exitVal);
            fos.flush();
            fos.close();        
        } catch (Throwable t)
          {
            t.printStackTrace();
          }
    }
}

Running GoodWinRedirect produces:

E:\classes\com\javaworld\jpitfalls\article2>java GoodWinRedirect test.txt
OUTPUT>'Hello World'
ExitValue: 0

After running GoodWinRedirect, test.txt does exist. The solution to the pitfall was to simply control the redirection by handling the external process's standard output stream separately from the Runtime.exec() method. We create a separate OutputStream, read in the filename to which we redirect the output, open the file, and write the output that we receive from the spawned process's standard output to the file. Listing 4.7 completes that task by adding a new constructor to our StreamGobbler class. The new constructor takes three arguments: the input stream to gobble, the type String that labels the stream we are gobbling, and the output stream to which we redirect the input. This new version of StreamGobbler does not break any of the code in which it was previously used, as we have not changed the existing public API -- we only extended it.

Since the argument to Runtime.exec() is dependent on the operating system, the proper commands to use will vary from one OS to another. So, before finalizing arguments to Runtime.exec() and writing the code, quickly test the arguments. Listing 4.8 is a simple command-line utility that allows you to do just that.

Here's a useful exercise: try to modify TestExec to redirect the standard input or standard output to a file. When executing the javac compiler on Windows 95 or Windows 98, that would solve the problem of error messages scrolling off the top of the limited command-line buffer.

Listing 4.8 TestExec.java

import java.util.*;
import java.io.*;
// class StreamGobbler omitted for brevity
public class TestExec
{
    public static void main(String args[])
    {
        if (args.length < 1)
        {
            System.out.println("USAGE: java TestExec \"cmd\"");
            System.exit(1);
        }
        
        try
        {
            String cmd = args[0];
            Runtime rt = Runtime.getRuntime();
            Process proc = rt.exec(cmd);
            
            // any error message?
            StreamGobbler errorGobbler = new 
                StreamGobbler(proc.getErrorStream(), "ERR");            
            
            // any output?
            StreamGobbler outputGobbler = new 
                StreamGobbler(proc.getInputStream(), "OUT");
                
            // kick them off
            errorGobbler.start();
            outputGobbler.start();
                                    
            // any error???
            int exitVal = proc.waitFor();
            System.out.println("ExitValue: " + exitVal);
        } catch (Throwable t)
          {
            t.printStackTrace();
          }
    }
}

Running TestExec to launch the Netscape browser and load the Java help documentation produces:

E:\classes\com\javaworld\jpitfalls\article2>java TestExec "e:\java\docs\index.html"
java.io.IOException: CreateProcess: e:\java\docs\index.html error=193
        at java.lang.Win32Process.create(Native Method)
        at java.lang.Win32Process.<init>(Unknown Source)
        at java.lang.Runtime.execInternal(Native Method)
        at java.lang.Runtime.exec(Unknown Source)
        at java.lang.Runtime.exec(Unknown Source)
        at java.lang.Runtime.exec(Unknown Source)
        at java.lang.Runtime.exec(Unknown Source)
        at TestExec.main(TestExec.java:45)

Our first test failed with an error of 193. The Win32 error for value 193 is "not a valid Win32 application." This error tells us that no path to an associated application (e.g., Netscape) exists, and that the process cannot run an HTML file without an associated application.

Therefore, we try the test again, this time giving it a full path to Netscape. (Alternately, we could add Netscape to our PATH environment variable.) A second run of TestExec produces:

E:\classes\com\javaworld\jpitfalls\article2>java TestExec 
"e:\program files\netscape\program\netscape.exe e:\java\docs\index.html"
ExitValue: 0

This worked! The Netscape browser launches, and it then loads the Java help documentation.

One additional improvement to TestExec would include a command-line switch to accept input from standard input. You would then use the Process.getOutputStream() method to pass the input to the spawned external program.

To sum up, follow these rules of thumb to avoid the pitfalls in Runtime.exec():

  1. You cannot obtain an exit status from an external process until it has exited
  2. You must immediately handle the input, output, and error streams from your spawned external process
  3. You must use Runtime.exec() to execute programs
  4. You cannot use Runtime.exec() like a command line

Correction to Pitfall 3

In the discussion of Pitfall 3 ("Don't mix floats and doubles when generating text or XML messages") in my last column, I incorrectly stated that the different string representation of a decimal number after casting it from a float to a double was a bug. While this is a pitfall, its cause is not a bug, but the fact that the decimal numbers in question -- 100.28 and 91.09 -- do not represent precisely in binary. I'd like to thank Thomas Okken and the others who straightened me out. If you enjoy discussing the finer points of numerical methods, you can email Thomas.

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