Powershell: How to Write Pipable Functions

Piping is probably one of the most underutilized feature of Powershell that I’ve seen in the wild. Supporting pipes in Powershell allows you to write code that is much more expressive than simple imperative programming. However, most Powershell documentation does not do a good job of demonstrating how to think about pipable functions. In this tutorial, we will start with functions written the “standard” way and convert them step-by-step to support pipes.

Here’s a simple rule of thumb: if you find yourself writing a foreach loop in Powershell with more than just a line or two in the body, you might be doing something wrong.

Consider the following output from a function called Get-Team:

Name    Value
----    -----
Chris   Manager
Phillip Service Engineer
Andy    Service Engineer
Neil    Service Engineer
Kevin   Service Engineer
Rick    Software Engineer
Mark    Software Engineer
Miguel  Software Engineer
Stewart Software Engineer
Ophelia Software Engineer

Let’s say I want to output the name and title. I might write the Powershell as follows:

$data = Get-Team
foreach($item in $data) {
    write-host "Name: $($item.Name); Title: $($item.Value)"
}

I could also use the Powershell ForEach-Object function to do this instead of the foreach block.

# % is a short-cut to ForEach-Object
Get-Team | %{
    write-host "Name: $($_.Name); Title: $($_.Value)"
}

This is pretty clean given that the foreach block is only one line. I’m going to ask you to use your imagination and pretend that our logic is more complex than that. In a situation like that I would prefer to write something that looks more like the following:

Get-Team | Format-TeamMember

But how do you write a function like Format-TeamMember that can participate in the Piping behavior of Powershell? There is documenation about this, but it is often far from the introductory documentation and thus I have rarely seen it used by engineers in their day to day scripting in the real world.

The Naive Solution

Let’s start with the naive solution and evolve the function toward something more elegant.

Function Format-TeamMember() {
    param([Parameter(Mandatory)] [array] $data)
    $data | %{
        write-host "Name: $($_.Name); Title: $($_.Value)"
    }
}

# Usage
$data = Get-Team
Format-TeamMember -Data $Data

At this point the function is just a wrapper around the foreach loop from above and thus adds very little value beyond isolating the foreach logic.

Let me draw your attention to the $data parameter. It’s defined as an array which is good since we’re going to pipe the array to a foreach block. The first step toward supporting pipes in Powershell functions is to convert list parameters into their singular form.

Convert to Singular

Function Format-TeamMember() {
    param([Parameter(Mandatory)] $item)
    write-host "Name: $($item.Name); Title: $($item.Value)"
}

# Usage
Get-Team | %{
    Format-TeamMember -Item $_
}

Now that we’ve converted Format-TeamMember to work with single elements, we are ready to add support for piping.

Begin, Process, End

The powershell pipe functionality requires a little extra overhead to support. There are three blocks that must be defined in your function, and all of your executable code should be defined in one of those blocks.

  • Begin fires when the first element in the pipe is processed (when the pipe opens.) Use this block to initialize the function with data that can be cached over the lifetime of the pipe.
  • Process fires once per element in the pipe.
  • End fires when the last element in the pipe is processed (or when the pipe closes.) Use this block to cleanup after the pipe executes.

Let’s add these blocks to Format-TeamMember.

Function Format-TeamMember() {
    param([Parameter(Mandatory)] $item)

    Begin {
        write-host "Format-TeamMember: Begin" -ForegroundColor Green
    }
    Process {
        write-host "Name: $($item.Name); Title: $($item.Value)"
    }
    End {
        write-host "Format-TeamMember: End" -ForegroundColor Green
    }
}

# Usage
Get-Team | Format-TeamMember 

#Output
cmdlet Format-TeamMember at command pipeline position 2
Supply values for the following parameters:
item:

Oh noes! Now Powershell is asking for manual input! No worries–There’s one more thing we need to do to support pipes.

ValueFromPipeLine… ByPropertyName

If you want data to be piped from one function into the next, you have to tell the receiving function which parameters will be received from the pipeline. You do this by means of two attributes: ValueFromPipeline and ValueFromPipelineByPropertyName.

ValueFromPipeline

The ValueFromPipeline attribute tells the Powershell function that it will receive the whole value from the previous function in thie pipe.

Function Format-TeamMember() {
    param([Parameter(Mandatory, ValueFromPipeline)] $item)

    Begin {
        write-host "Format-TeamMember: Begin" -ForegroundColor Green
    }
    Process {
        write-host "Name: $($item.Name); Title: $($item.Value)"
    }
    End {
        write-host "Format-TeamMember: End" -ForegroundColor Green
    }
}

# Usage
Get-Team | Format-TeamMember

#Output
Format-TeamMember: Begin
Name: Chris; Title: Manager
Name: Phillip; Title: Service Engineer
Name: Andy; Title: Service Engineer
Name: Neil; Title: Service Engineer
Name: Kevin; Title: Service Engineer
Name: Rick; Title: Software Engineer
Name: Mark; Title: Software Engineer
Name: Miguel; Title: Software Engineer
Name: Stewart; Title: Software Engineer
Name: Ophelia; Title: Software Engineer
Format-TeamMember: End

ValueFromPipelineByPropertyName

This is great! We’ve really moved things forward! But we can do better.

Our Format-TeamMember function now requires knowledge of the schema of the data from the calling function. The function is not self-contained in a way to make it maintainable or usable in other contexts. Instead of piping the whole object into the function, let’s pipe the discrete values the function depends on instead.

Function Format-TeamMember() {
    param(
        [Parameter(Mandatory, ValueFromPipelineByPropertyName)] [string] $Name,
        [Parameter(Mandatory, ValueFromPipelineByPropertyName)] [string] $Value
    )

    Begin {
        write-host "Format-TeamMember: Begin" -ForegroundColor Green
    }
    Process {
        write-host "Name: $Name; Title: $Value"
    }
    End {
        write-host "Format-TeamMember: End" -ForegroundColor Green
    }
}

# Usage
Get-Team | Format-TeamMember

# Output
Format-TeamMember: Begin
Name: Chris; Title: Manager
Name: Phillip; Title: Service Engineer
Name: Andy; Title: Service Engineer
Name: Neil; Title: Service Engineer
Name: Kevin; Title: Service Engineer
Name: Rick; Title: Software Engineer
Name: Mark; Title: Software Engineer
Name: Miguel; Title: Software Engineer
Name: Stewart; Title: Software Engineer
Name: Ophelia; Title: Software Engineer
Format-TeamMember: End

Alias

In our last refactoring, we set out to make Format-TeamMember self-contained. Our introduction of the Name and Value parameters decouple us from having to know the schema of the previous object in the pipeline–almost. We had to name our parameter Value which is not really how Format-TeamMember thinks of that value. It thinks of it as the Title–but in the context of our contrived module, Value is sometimes another name that is used. In Powershell, you can use the Alias attribute to support multiple names for the same parameter.

Function Format-TeamMember() {
    param(
        [Parameter(Mandatory, ValueFromPipelineByPropertyName)] [string] $Name,
        [Alias("Value")]
        [Parameter(Mandatory, ValueFromPipelineByPropertyName)] [string] $Title # Change the name to Title
    )

    Begin {
        write-host "Format-TeamMember: Begin" -ForegroundColor Green
    }
    Process {
        write-host "Name: $Name; Title: $Title" # Use the newly renamed parameter
    }
    End {
        write-host "Format-TeamMember: End" -ForegroundColor Green
    }
}

# Usage
Get-Team | Format-TeamMember

# Output
Format-TeamMember: Begin
Name: Chris; Title: Manager
Name: Phillip; Title: Service Engineer
Name: Andy; Title: Service Engineer
Name: Neil; Title: Service Engineer
Name: Kevin; Title: Service Engineer
Name: Rick; Title: Software Engineer
Name: Mark; Title: Software Engineer
Name: Miguel; Title: Software Engineer
Name: Stewart; Title: Software Engineer
Name: Ophelia; Title: Software Engineer
Format-TeamMember: End

Pipe Forwarding

Our Format-TeamMember function now supports receiving data from the pipe, but it does not return any information that can be forwarded to the next function in the pipeline. We can change that by returning the formatted line instead of calling Write-Host.

Function Format-TeamMember() {
    param(
        [Parameter(Mandatory, ValueFromPipelineByPropertyName)] [string] $Name,
        [Alias("Value")]
        [Parameter(Mandatory, ValueFromPipelineByPropertyName)] [string] $Title # Change the name to Title
    )

    Begin {
        # Do one-time operations needed to support the pipe here
    }
    Process {
        return "Name: $Name; Title: $Title" # Use the newly renamed parameter
    }
    End {
        # Cleanup before the pipe closes here
    }
}

# Usage
[array] $output = Get-Team | Format-TeamMember
write-host "The output contains $($output.Length) items:"
$output | Out-Host

# Output
The output contains 10 items:
Name: Chris; Title: Manager
Name: Phillip; Title: Service Engineer
Name: Andy; Title: Service Engineer
Name: Neil; Title: Service Engineer
Name: Kevin; Title: Service Engineer
Name: Rick; Title: Software Engineer
Name: Mark; Title: Software Engineer
Name: Miguel; Title: Software Engineer
Name: Stewart; Title: Software Engineer
Name: Ophelia; Title: Software Engineer

Filtering

This is a lot of information. What if we wanted to filter the data so that we only see the people with the title “Service Engineer?” Let’s implement a function that filters data out of the pipe.

function Find-Role(){
    param(
        [Parameter(Mandatory, ValueFromPipeline)] $item,
        [switch] $ServiceEngineer
    )

    Begin {
    }
    Process {
        if ($ServiceEngineer) {
            if ($item.Value -eq "Service Engineer") {
                return $item
            }
        }

        if (-not $ServiceEngineer) {
            # if no filter is requested then return everything.
            return $item
        }

        return; # not technically required but shows the exit when nothing an item is filtered out.
    }
    End {
    }
}

This should be self-explanatory for the most part. Let me draw your attention though to the return; statement that isn’t technically required. A mistake I’ve seen made in this scenario is to return $null. If you return $null it adds $null to the pipeline as it if were a return value. If you want to exclude an item from being forwarded through the pipe you must not return anything. While the return; statement is not syntactically required by the language, I find it helpful to communicate my intention that I am deliberately not adding an element to the pipe.

Now let’s look at usage:

Get-Team | Find-Role | Format-Data # No Filter
Name: Chris; Title: Manager
Name: Phillip; Title: Service Engineer
Name: Andy; Title: Service Engineer
Name: Neil; Title: Service Engineer
Name: Kevin; Title: Service Engineer
Name: Rick; Title: Software Engineer
Name: Mark; Title: Software Engineer
Name: Miguel; Title: Software Engineer
Name: Stewart; Title: Software Engineer
Name: Ophelia; Title: Software Engineer

Get-Team | Find-Role -ServiceEngineer | Format-TeamMember # Filtered
Name: Phillip; Title: Service Engineer
Name: Andy; Title: Service Engineer
Name: Neil; Title: Service Engineer
Name: Kevin; Title: Service Engineer

Summary

Notice how clean the function composition is: Get-Team | Find-Role -ServiceEngineer | Format-TeamMember!

Pipable functions are a powerful language feature of Powershell <rimshots/>. Writing pipable functions allows you to compose logic in a way that is more expressive than simple imperative scripting. I hope this tutorial demonstrated to you how to modify existing Powershell functions to support pipes.

2 thoughts on “Powershell: How to Write Pipable Functions

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: