Binary code flowing through optical cables.
XYZ/Shutterstock.com

The Linux command line lets you retrieve data by either listening on a socket or connecting to a socket. The data can be captured in a text file. We show you how.

Socket Clients and Servers

Sockets allow networked software to communicate. They were first implemented in the 4.2BSD Unix operating system, which was created at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1983. They were quickly adopted by System V Unix and Microsoft Windows.

A socket is an endpoint of a software network connection, abstracted so that it can be treated as a file handle. That means it fits with the general Unix and Linux design principle of “everything is a file.” We don’t mean the physical socket on the wall that you plug your network cable into.

If a program connects to a socket on another piece of software, it is considered to be the client of the other software. Software that allows other software to request connections is called the server. These terms are used independently from other uses of client and server in the IT world. To avoid confusion they are sometimes called socket client and socket server to remove ambiguity. We’re going to call them clients and servers.

Sockets are implemented as an application programming interface (API), allowing software developers to call on the socket functionality from within their code. That’s fine if you’re a programmer, but what if you’re not? Or perhaps you are, but your use case doesn’t warrant writing an application? Linux provides command-line tools that let you use—basic—socket servers and socket clients, according to your needs, to retrieve or receive data from other socket-enabled processes.

RELATED: What Is an API, and How Do Developers Use Them?

Relationships Are Never Easy

The programs we’re going to use are nc and ncat. These two utilities have a strange relationship. The nc program is a rewrite of ncat, which is much older than nc . But ncat has been rewritten too, and it now lets us do some things nc can’t. And there are many implementations of ncat, which itself is a derivative of a tool called netcat. On top of that, on most distributions, nc is a symbolic link to ncat and not a separate program.

Advertisement

We checked recent Arch, Manjaro, Fedora, and Ubuntu distributions. The only one that required the tools to be installed was Manjaro. On Manjaro, you need to install the netcat package to get nc, but you don’t get ncat, you get netcat. And on Manjaro, nc is a symbolic link to netcat.

sudo pacman -S netcat

Installing the netcat package on Manjaro

The bottom line is, on Manjaro use netcat when you see ncat in the examples in this article.

Listening on a Socket

If software listens for incoming socket connections, it’s acting as a server. Any data that comes over the socket connection is said to be received by the server. We can replicate this behavior very easily using nc. Any received data is displayed in the terminal window.

We need to tell nc to listen for connections, using the -l (listen) option, and we need to specify the port we are going to listen for connections on. Any client programs or processes that try to connect to this instance of nc must use the same port. We tell nc which port to listen on by using the -p (port) option.

This command starts nc as a socket server, listening for a connection on port 6566:

nc -l -p 6566

starting nc as a a socket server

Advertisement

While it waits for an incoming connection, nc produces no output. Once a connection is made, any retrieved information is displayed in the terminal window. Here, a connection has been made by a client program that is identifying itself as “client 1.”

nc receiving data from a client

Everything displayed by nc is received from the client. This client happens to send its name, and a numbered message containing the time and date.

When the client breaks its connection, nc terminates and you’re returned to the terminal prompt.

nc terminated after a disconnection from the client side

Sending Data to a File

To capture the data from the client in a file, we can send the output from nc to a file using redirection. This command saves the received data in a file called “logfile.txt.”

nc -l -p 6566 > logfile.txt

Redirecting the output from nc to a text file

You won’t see any output—it is going into the file—and, paradoxically, you won’t know if a connection has occurred until nc terminates. Being returned to the command prompt indicates a connection has occurred and has been terminated by the client.

Advertisement

We can use less to review the contents of the “logfile.txt” file.

less logile.txt

Using less to examine a text file

You can then scroll through the data, and search using less’s built-in functions.

Reviewing captured output from nc in less

RELATED: How to Use the less Command on Linux

Sending Data to a File and the Terminal Window

If you want to see the data scrolling by in the terminal window and have it sent to a file at the same time, pipe the output from nc into tee .

nc -l -p 6566 | tee logfile.txt

Sending output from nc into a file and to the terminal window at the same time

Accepting Multiple Connections

All that’s fine, but it does have limitations. We can only accept one connection. We’re limited to receiving data from a single client. Also, when that client drops the connection our socket server nc terminates.

If you need to accept multiple connections we need to use ncat. we’ll need to tell ncat to listen, and to use a particular port, just like we did with nc. But we’ll also use the -k (keep alive) option. This tells ncat to keep running and accepting connections from clients even when the last active connection drops.

This means ncat will run until we choose to terminate it with “Ctrl-C.” New connections will be accepted whether ncat is currently connected to any clients or not.

ncat -k -l -p 6566

listening for multiple connections with ncat

We can see the data from the different clients appearing in the output from ncat as they connect.

Second and third clients connecting to ncat

Connecting to a Server

We can also use nc as a socket client and connect to another program that is accepting connections, and is acting as a server. In this scenario, nc is the socket client. To do this we need to tell nc where the server software is located on the network.

Advertisement

One way to do this is to provide an IP address and a port number. If the server is on the same pc that we’re running nc on, we can use the loopback IP address of 127.0.0.1. Not that there are no flags used to indicate the server address and port number. We just provide the appropriate values.

To connect to a server on the same PC, and using port 6566, we could use the loopback IP address. The command to use is:

nc 127.0.0.1 6566

Using nc as a socket client

Data that nc retrieves from the server scrolls by in the terminal window.

Retrieving data from a socket server with nc

If you know the network name of the computer running the server software, you can use that instead of the IP address.

nc sulaco 6566

Using nc to connect to a socket server using the PC name the server is running on

Use “Ctrl+C” to break a connection.

Quick and Easy

nc and ncat fit the bill when you don’t want to write a custom socket handler, but you need to gather data from some socket-enabled source. Redirecting the output into a file lets you review the output using less, and parse the file using utilities like grep.

RELATED: How to Use the grep Command on Linux

Profile Photo for Dave McKay Dave McKay
Dave McKay first used computers when punched paper tape was in vogue, and he has been programming ever since. After over 30 years in the IT industry, he is now a full-time technology journalist. During his career, he has worked as a freelance programmer, manager of an international software development team, an IT services project manager, and, most recently, as a Data Protection Officer. His writing has been published by  howtogeek.com, cloudsavvyit.com, itenterpriser.com, and opensource.com. Dave is a Linux evangelist and open source advocate.
Read Full Bio »