Files and Lists

Learning Objective
This tutorial teaches you how to use Cuneiform’s type system and how to use files. Additionally, it introduces lists and it is shown how to map and aggregate over lists and how to return lists from tasks.
30 min
Basic experience with Cuneiform (see Cuneiform Basics).


This tutorial is about handling files and lists of files in Cuneiform. Files are a common method for scientific tools and libraries to exchange data. Furthermore, by partitioning files and applying tasks independently for each partition we achieve data parallelism. You learn about the type File and how to define tasks consuming and producing files. Furthermore, you learn about lists and how to map over and aggregate them.

Explanation and Examples

Cuneiform is a workflow language with a black-box data model. I.e., Cuneiform has no data model for the data exchanged among tasks. Tasks can produce data in the form of files with arbitrary content. The advantage of this black-box data model is that a large amount of tools can be interfaced ad-hoc because reading and writing files is a common way to exchange data in many scientific areas. It has, however, the disadvantage that the Cuneiform interpreter can make no consistency checks on the data produced by a tool apart from checking whether a file has actually been created. Additionally, there is no generic way to partition data. Thus, data partitioning, if desired, has to be introduced explicitly in the workflow.

Cuneiform is a workflow language designed for data parallelism. I.e., applying a tool to a single large file producing another large file which is input to the next tool is not the preferred mode of operation. A better way is to apply a tool to each element in a list of small files and run all applications in parallel.

The way lists are decomposed prior to applying a task is defined in the task signature. In general, any argument in a task application can be a list. In this tutorial we consider three basic use cases of lists: (i) mapping a task to each element of a list, (ii) consuming a list as a whole, (iii) defining a task that returns a list.


In the Cuneiform Basics tutorial you have learned how to define and call tasks. You may have noted that neither the input parameters nor the outputs had any type information attached. In fact, there is a default type: String, which is assumed when no further type information is given. Our add task in Example e-1.5, when written with explicit type information, looks like this:

Example e-2.1:

deftask add( c( String ) : a( String ) b( String ) )in perl *{
  $c = $a+$b

Cuneiform’s type system is rudimentary compared to the type systems you may know from other languages. In fact, Cuneiform possesses only two types:

  • String
  • File

In the following section, we have a closer look at how to work with files.

The File Type

We can mark a task’s input parameter to be a file by attaching the File type to the parameter. A simple task using files may be a task outputing a single file with a given content.

Example e-2.2:

deftask to-file( out( File ) : content )in bash *{
  echo $content > $out

to-file( content: "Hello world" );

The task hello has one output parameter out of type File and one input parameter content of the default type String. Calling this task with the argument “Hello world” returns a file with the content “Hello world”. Entering the above example in the Cuneiform interactive shell should look like this:

> to-file( content: "Hello world" );


You find the output files produced by Cuneiform in the repo directory of the local Cuneiform cache. The location of the cache depends on your setup. If you installed Cuneiform with the Local Setup with Chef, the repo directory is located in /tmp/cf-cache/repo.

Mapping Over Lists

Mapping a task over a list is the default behavior if a task is applied to a list. If we, e.g., apply the previously defined task to-file to a list of strings instead of a single string, the result is a list of files each corresponding to an output

Example e-2.3:

contentlist = "Hello world" "Goodnight moon";
to-file( content: contentlist );

The application of the task to-file to the two-element list content-list produces two files each with their respective content.

Processing a List as a Whole

Sometimes the default behavior which maps a task over each element of a list is not the desired behavior. Instead, a foreign task might need to consume a list as a whole to perform some aggregation over its elements. To override the default behavior and tell a task not to map over a list but to hand it to the consuming task unaltered, we enclose the input parameter with angle brackets <> in the task signature.

Example e-2.4:

deftask cat( out( File ) : <file( File )> )in bash *{
  cat ${file[@]} > $out

contentlist = "Hello world" "Goodnight moon";
filelist = to-file( content: contentlist );

cat( file: filelist );

The task cat has one input parameter file and one output parameter out both being files. If the input parameter file is bound to a list, the task is not mapped to each element of the list but the whole list is consumed by a single application of cat. The body, which is written in Bash, concatenates all files in the list. Let’s try out the task cat by providing it two files. The output of this workflow is a single file with two lines:

Hello world
Goodnight moon

Tasks producing lists

In some cases, we need to define tasks that output a list. We can specify an output to be a list in the same way we did with the input: by enclosing the output parameter in angle brackets <>.

Example e-2.5:

deftask split4( <out( File )> : file( File ) )in bash *{
  split -d -l 4 -a 6 $file out.

file = cat( file: to-file( content: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 ) );
filelist = split4( file: file );


The task split4 takes a file and partitions it. A new partition is generated for every four lines in the input file. A list of files is returned enumerating the partitions. When we apply split4 to a file containing 8 lines, 2 output files are produced which are stored in the variable filelist.


Assignment a-2.1

How many files are produced when applying the task split4 to a list with two files, each containing 8 lines? Test your answer in the Cuneiform interactive shell.

Assignment a-2.2

Define a task to-string which takes a file and returns its content as a string. Test the task in the Cuneiform interactive shell. Use it on a list of files.

Assignment a-2.3

Define a workflow which consumes a text file. The workflow partitions the file one line for each partition and counts the words in each line. The resulting word counts are added in a third step.


Solution a-2.1

Each 8-line file produces 2 output files. Since the split task is called for each of the two files, the output set contains 4 files.

Solution a-2.2

deftask to-string( out : file( File ) )in bash *{
  out=`cat $file`

Solution a-2.3

deftask to-file( out( File ) : content )in bash *{
  echo $content > $out

deftask cat( out( File ) : <file( File )> )in bash *{
  cat ${file[@]} > $out

deftask split( <out( File )> : file( File ) )in bash *{
  split -d -l 1 -a 6 $file out.

deftask wc( n : file( File ) )in bash *{
  n=`wc -w $file | awk {'print $1'}`

deftask sum( s : <n> )in perl *{
  $s = eval join '+', @n;

contentlist = "if thou"
              "must love me"
              "let it"
              "for nought";

file = cat( file: to-file( content: contentlist ) );

partitionlist = split( file: file );
countlist = wc( file: partitionlist );
s = sum( n: countlist );