Get random lines from file with bash

Data sampling is one of the duties of data scientists and data engineers. One may require to split original data into train and test subsets. How could we do it fast with less amount of code? This article shows usage of different command line tools for such task.

There are several ways to get random lines from a file:

All of the approaches would be compared in terms of execution time, tools availability and code complexity. File to be sorted consists of 10M lines:

seq -f 'line %.0f' $NUMLINES > $FILENAME;


Default sort has option -R, --random-sort which sorts lines by random hash. However, if there are two lines with the same content, their hashes would be the same and they would be sorted one after another. To prevent such case, one may possible to make all of the lines unique via adding line number to all of them.

nl -ba $FILENAME | sort -R | sed 's/.*[0-9]\t//' | head

Time: 3 min 09.77 sec

Complexity: medium, need to keep in mind making lines unique

Availability: good


Another bash tool shuf on the other hand will sufficiently randomize a list, including not putting duplicate lines next to each other. Another advantage of this tool is it’s availability. Being part of GNU core utils it is available on nearly every machine.

shuf $FILENAME | head

It has parameter -n to specify number of lines to output, however based on my tests, it does not speed up the process. Combination with head works better.

Time: 0.14 sec

Complexity: easy

Availability: good


Tool rl from randomize-lines package makes random sampling easy, however, not every machine has it. As mentioned in it’s description: “It does this with only a single pass over the input while trying to use as little memory as possible”.

rl $FILENAME | head

Time: 0.68 sec

Complexity: easy

Availability: bad, need to install from external repository


Perl is a good language for text processing. For those developers, who are less familiar with bash, it might be native to try it first.

cat $FILENAME | perl -MList::Util=shuffle -e 'print shuffle(<STDIN>);'

Time: 2.11 sec

Availability: medium, some of the machines might not have it

Complexity: medium, need to remember how to call perl from bash and include libraries


Python is among most popular programming languages. Nowadays it exists on nearly every machine and a lot of developers worked with it at least once. It has library to work with random numbers and shuffles. As well as perl, it could be invoked from bash.

python -c "import random, sys; lines = open(sys.argv[1]).readlines(); random.shuffle(lines); print ''.join(lines)," $FILENAME

Script execution is inefficient, it requires to store data in memory.

Time: 6.92 sec

Availability: medium, some of the machines might not have it

Complexity: medium, need to remember how to call python from bash and include libraries


To sample random lines from command line, default shuf from core utils is probably the best choice. It is very easy to use and outperforms others in term of execution time. However, everything depends on a task. For machine learning problems sampling is not a bottleneck and might not require fastest execution.


Gist with benchmark file:

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