Building Better Data Pipelines with Python and GNU Parallel

4 November 2023


6 min read

When processing data, I often find myself writing a Python script to solve the whole problem. However, using command line tools and working in harmony with the Unix philosophy can help reduce complexity and increase reusability.

Let’s take a look at a problem I came across recently, comparing a 100% Python solution to one that takes advantage of command line programs such as GNU parallel.

Table of Contents

The problem

Given a CSV file containing data for Spotify artists that looks like this:


1,Bad Bunny,spotify:artist:4q3ewBCX7sLwd24euuV69X
2,Ed Sheeran,spotify:artist:6eUKZXaKkcviH0Ku9w2n3V
3,The Weeknd,spotify:artist:1Xyo4u8uXC1ZmMpatF05PJ
4,Taylor Swift,spotify:artist:06HL4z0CvFAxyc27GXpf02

Find the YouTube channel for each artist and store the data in a SQLite database with the following schema:


    name TEXT,
    spotify_uri TEXT,
    youtube_url TEXT

Original Python solution

Here is my original script. The get_channel function is simplified here, but in reality it uses Selenium to find a channel by searching YouTube, which could take 10–20 seconds.

import pandas as pd
import argparse
import time
import random
import sqlite3

# Return the YouTube channel URL for a given artist using their name
def get_channel(artist):
    return '' % artist['name'].replace(' ', '')

if __name__ == '__main__':
    parser = argparse.ArgumentParser()
    # Path to the CSV file to read from
    parser.add_argument('--input-csv', type=argparse.FileType('r'))
    # Path to the SQLite database to write to
    parser.add_argument('--output-db', type=str)
    args = parser.parse_args()

    # Read data from the CSV
    df = pd.read_csv(args.input_csv)
    # Run get_channel for each artist in the CSV
    df['youtube_url'] = df.apply(get_channel, axis=1)

    # Write the data to the database
    con = sqlite3.connect(args.output_db)
    cur = con.cursor()
    for _, artist in df.iterrows():
            'INSERT INTO artist (name, spotify_uri, youtube_url) VALUES (?, ?, ?)',
            (artist['name'], artist['spotify_uri'], artist['youtube_url'])

This script has a couple of immediate problems:

Amended Python solution

These issues can be solved using Python’s concurrent.futures module and a tryexcept.

This function processes the data using five parallel threads. It looks complicated but essentially, it submits each artist to be processed and then saves the results into the dataframe.

def get_many_channels(df):
    df['youtube_url'] = ''
    with futures.ThreadPoolExecutor(max_workers=5) as executor:
        future_channels = [
            (index, executor.submit(get_channel, row))
            for index, row in df.iterrows()

        for (index, future_channel) in future_channels:
                channel = future_channel.result(timeout=5)
      [index, 'youtube_url'] = channel
            except Exception:
    return df

We simply ignore any row that results in an error, though it would not be too much more effort to add some logic allowing a number of retries.

Now we can replace this line from before:

    df['youtube_url'] = df.apply(get_channel, axis=1) 

with this:

    df = get_many_channels(df) 

and we have a much faster and less error-prone script.

However, our script is growing and gaining complexity. Ideally it would have one responsibility (finding YouTube channels) but now it is:

Another problem is the lack of flexibility in the program’s execution. We cannot use alternative input and output methods or customise parameters such as the number of parallel workers to use. These features could be added with additional command line arguments, but would continue to increase the complexity of the script.

Let’s try to simplify the program using GNU parallel!

Some shell concepts

stdin, stdout and stderr

These are the communication channels that are used to pass data between programs in the shell, and we can think of them as just blocks of text. A typical shell program looks like this:

A Shell Program (light mode friendly)

The pipe | operator

This operator takes the stdout of one program and passes it to another as stdin.

> cat artists.csv | grep Weeknd
3,The Weeknd,spotify:artist:1Xyo4u8uXC1ZmMpatF05PJ

cat reads a file and sends this to stdout.

grep searches through stdin, sending any lines matching the given pattern to stdout.

| sits between the two commands, passing cat’s output to grep.

cat, grep diagram (light mode friendly)

Using GNU parallel

First of all, we’ll rewrite our Python script to only take in the data for one artist, process this data and then save it to our database.

import argparse
import time
import random
import sqlite3

def get_channel(name):
    return '' % name.replace(' ', '')

if __name__ == '__main__':
    parser = argparse.ArgumentParser()
    parser.add_argument('--name', type=str)
    parser.add_argument('--spotify-uri', type=str)
    parser.add_argument('--output-db', type=str)
    args = parser.parse_args()

    # Find the YouTube channel for the artist
    channel = get_channel(

    # Write the data to the database
    con = sqlite3.connect(args.output_db)
    cur = con.cursor()
        f'INSERT INTO artist (name, spotify_uri, youtube_url) VALUES (?, ?, ?)',
        (, args.spotify_uri, channel)

Now we can execute the script using this command:

cat artists.csv \
| parallel --skip-first-line --colsep , --jobs 5 \
    python --output-db=artist.db --name={2} --spotify-uri={3}

\ is used to break the command into multiple lines for readability

cat artists.csv | reads our CSV file and sends it to parallel

How does parallel work?

Parallel is a command line tool for executing tasks concurrently.

It can be installed like this:

sudo apt install parallel

Running parallel typically looks like this:

parallel <args> <command to run in parallel>

Let’s look at the arguments we are using:

--skip-first-line this prevents parallel from processing the CSV header.

--colsep , this splits each line of the input on commas and lets us access these values like {1} or {2} etc.

--jobs 5 this tells parallel to process a maximum of 5 tasks simultaneously.

python --output-db=artist.db --name={2} --spotify-uri={3} runs our Python script, passing in the name and Spotify URI for an artist.

We are getting somewhere, but

Now we are getting concurrency for free with parallel, only one artist will be affected if the script crashes, we have more freedom in how we input data and our code is much simpler!

However, there are still a couple of problems. First, we never solved the issue of allowing the script to output to different formats. Second, we have now made it more difficult to process a CSV in one go without the help of a tool like parallel to split the data into individual rows.

Also, using parallel to process CSVs in this way is not a great solution as it uses the order of the columns rather than their headers and there are edge cases where simply splitting a row on commas will not work.

For example, Tyler, The Creator would be incorrectly processed even if the row was formatted correctly like this:

106,"Tyler, The Creator",spotify:artist:4V8LLVI7PbaPR0K2TGSxFF

Useful building blocks

Let’s create a couple of reusable solutions for these problems.

Handling CSVs with parallel

Normally, when we pass a CSV into parallel, each row is processed independently, so it loses the helpful context of the column headers.

To solve this, we can use some bash magic to repeat the header above every row in the CSV, and then we can tell parallel to process the data in pairs of lines.

cat artists.csv \
| (read header; while IFS= read -r line; do echo "$header"; echo "$line"; done) \
| parallel --pipe -n 2 <command>

Two lines are passed to the command by specifying -n 2, and the --pipe argument tells parallel to pass its input as stdin to <command>, similar to the behaviour of the pipe operator.

This pattern means that our script can always expect to receive a complete CSV as input, so it can also be used to process a CSV in one go if parallel is not required.

Converting CSV to SQL insert

Rather than have our Python script interact with SQLite directly, we’d like for it to output its data in a standard format that can be reformatted to our needs. To achieve this, we will refactor the script to output a CSV, which we can convert to SQL insert commands using this utility script:

import pandas as pd
import sys

# Convert dataframe row to SQL values (only handles strings and integers)
def to_sql_values(row):
    values = [
        str(value) if isinstance(value, int)
        else '"%s"' % value
        for value in row.values
    return '(%s),' % ','.join(values)

if __name__ == '__main__':
    if len(sys.argv) < 2:
        print('Usage: python <table_name>', file=sys.stderr)
    table_name = sys.argv[1]

    # Read data from stdin
    df = pd.read_csv(sys.stdin)

    # Generate SQL insert statement
    insert = 'INSERT INTO artist (%s) VALUES ' % ','.join(df.columns)
    values = df.apply(to_sql_values, axis=1)' ')
    statement = insert + values[:-1] + ';'

    # Output to stdout

This script takes a CSV on stdin, converts this to an SQL insert command string using the specified table name, and outputs it to stdout.

For example,

cat artists.csv | python artist

would output: (formatted for readability)

INSERT INTO artist (id,name,spotify_uri) VALUES 
    (1,"Bad Bunny","spotify:artist:4q3ewBCX7sLwd24euuV69X"), 
    (2,"Ed Sheeran","spotify:artist:6eUKZXaKkcviH0Ku9w2n3V"), 
    (3,"The Weeknd","spotify:artist:1Xyo4u8uXC1ZmMpatF05PJ"), 
    (4,"Taylor Swift","spotify:artist:06HL4z0CvFAxyc27GXpf02");

The final product

import sys
import pandas as pd
import time
import random

def get_channel(artist):
    channel = '' % artist['name'].replace(' ', '')
    return pd.Series({
        'name: artist['name],
        'spotify_uri: artist['spotify_uri],
        'youtube_url': channel

if __name__ == '__main__':
    df = pd.read_csv(sys.stdin)
    df.apply(get_channel, axis=1).to_csv(sys.stdout, index=False)

This script is much simpler than before, only interfacing with the input and output using CSV formats, which pandas can handle for us. (Though if the script had any configurable parameters, it would still be necessary to use a library such as argparse.)

cat artists.csv \
| (read header; while IFS= read -r line; do echo "$header"; echo "$line"; done) \
| parallel --pipe -n 2 --jobs 5 'python | python artist' \
| sqlite3 artist.db

The command python | python artist generates an SQL insert command for each row of the CSV, and we can pass this multi-part command to parallel by wrapping it in quotes. This output is then piped to sqlite3, which executes the SQL commands.


We have refactored our solution to follow the principles of the Unix philosophy, summarised by Peter H. Salus as:

By writing our script with a single responsibility in mind and by working with shell programs such as cat, parallel and sqlite3, we have created a simpler, more flexible and more reusable solution.