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Why is it that almost all instructions regarding appending text to system files like fstab and /etc/apt/sources.list.d/<name>.list involve using tee and echo to append said text?

Take the following examples, which are run as root:

## 1
echo 'deb dist 10gen' | tee file1
## 2
echo 'deb dist 10gen' > file2

Running diff -u file1 file2 returns nothing; running md5sum file1 file2 shows their md5sums are identical, which brings me back to my original question:

why is the | tee <FILENAME> so prevalent across Ubuntu docs, is it just good practice, otherwise wouldn't it be easier to just use example 2 instead of passing the output from echo to tee?

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You are missing sudo in your commands; that will show different results between the 2 ;) – Rinzwind Jan 20 '14 at 18:50
@Rinzwind I'm running these commands as root. – Alexej Magura Jan 20 '14 at 19:44
up vote 43 down vote accepted

There is a difference: tee duplicates the output: it sends it both to the file and to the display.

But there is more:

  • For example, if you want to write some string into two files at once, the command with tee you can use is:

     echo "some text" | tee file1 > file2  
  • Another thing tee can help you is to avoid one problem when using sudo. The normal output redirection operator is always executed with your user privileges, also when you write a sudo in front of the command which generates the STDOUT text. In other words, this will fail if you dont have the permission to write to that file:

     sudo echo "something" > bar  

    But with tee, everything will go well:

    echo "something" | sudo tee bar  

2 examples from this site. It has some more.

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Excellent answer. – lazyPower Jan 20 '14 at 20:24
You can sudo without tee - sudo sh -c 'echo SOMETHING > FILE'... ;) – Wilf Jan 20 '14 at 20:50
@wilf yeah, but when you need to output quotes ", things becomes messy – Braiam Jan 20 '14 at 22:40
In the first case, if you want to write to N files, I would prefer echo "some text" | tee file1 file2 ... fileN and maybe append > /dev/null, if you don't want clutter on stdout. – Elmar Zander Jan 21 '14 at 9:33
Nice one @ElmarZander :) – Rinzwind Jan 21 '14 at 9:34

First of all, tee itself doesn't append text, nor does >.

It is tee -a and its complement, >> that APPENDS text.

I don't believe all shells support the >> function, so that is why tee is more commonly used. (Think of just plain old sh). Tee is a command, while >> is an operator.

If you use (my personal favorite) bash, > and >> are much nicer/easier.

Using tee also allows you to sudo JUST that command so you don't have to sudo the entire statement, as in sudo sh -c "echo foo > bar". tee also allows you to split the output. Of course, all of this can be seen in man tee. It's mainly just your personal preference.


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Clarification on "sudo JUST that command", for anyone finding this a little complex: using a form like sudo somecommand >> filea will run sudo somecommand and then, as the invoking user, append the output to filea. Using sudo sh -c "somecommand >> filea" works, but can cause nested-quoting nightmares. Using somecommand | sudo tee -a filea runs somecommand as the invoking user, and then appends the output to filea as root - which is usually what the user wanted. – Darael Jan 20 '14 at 18:55
@Darael I edited the post. Thank you for making the clarification. – Whaaaaaat Jan 21 '14 at 3:47

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