Chapter 1. Shell Programming!

No programming language is perfect. There is not even a single best language; there are only languages well suited or perhaps poorly suited for particular purposes.

--Herbert Mayer

A working knowledge of shell scripting is essential to anyone wishing to become reasonably proficient at system administration, even if they do not anticipate ever having to actually write a script. Consider that as a Linux machine boots up, it executes the shell scripts in /etc/rc.d to restore the system configuration and set up services. A detailed understanding of these startup scripts is important for analyzing the behavior of a system, and possibly modifying it.

The craft of scripting is not hard to master, since scripts can be built in bite-sized sections and there is only a fairly small set of shell-specific operators and options [1] to learn. The syntax is simple -- even austere -- similar to that of invoking and chaining together utilities at the command line, and there are only a few rules governing their use. Most short scripts work right the first time, and debugging even the longer ones is straightforward.

    In the early days of personal computing, the BASIC language enabled
    anyone reasonably computer proficient to write programs on an early
    generation of microcomputers. Decades later, the Bash scripting
    language enables anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Linux or
    UNIX to do the same on modern machines.

    We now have miniaturized single-board computers with amazing
    capabilities, such as the Raspberry Pi.
    Bash scripting provides a way to explore the capabilities of these
    fascinating devices.

A shell script is a quick-and-dirty method of prototyping a complex application. Getting even a limited subset of the functionality to work in a script is often a useful first stage in project development. In this way, the structure of the application can be tested and tinkered with, and the major pitfalls found before proceeding to the final coding in C, C++, Java, Perl, or Python.

Shell scripting hearkens back to the classic UNIX philosophy of breaking complex projects into simpler subtasks, of chaining together components and utilities. Many consider this a better, or at least more aesthetically pleasing approach to problem solving than using one of the new generation of high-powered all-in-one languages, such as Perl, which attempt to be all things to all people, but at the cost of forcing you to alter your thinking processes to fit the tool.

According to Herbert Mayer, a useful language needs arrays, pointers, and a generic mechanism for building data structures. By these criteria, shell scripting falls somewhat short of being useful. Or, perhaps not. . . .

We will be using Bash, an acronym [3] for Bourne-Again shell and a pun on Stephen Bourne's now classic Bourne shell. Bash has become a de facto standard for shell scripting on most flavors of UNIX. Most of the principles this book covers apply equally well to scripting with other shells, such as the Korn Shell, from which Bash derives some of its features, [4] and the C Shell and its variants. (Note that C Shell programming is not recommended due to certain inherent problems, as pointed out in an October, 1993 Usenet post by Tom Christiansen.)

What follows is a tutorial on shell scripting. It relies heavily on examples to illustrate various features of the shell. The example scripts work -- they've been tested, insofar as possible -- and some of them are even useful in real life. The reader can play with the actual working code of the examples in the source archive ( or scriptname.bash), [5] give them execute permission (chmod u+rx scriptname), then run them to see what happens. Should the source archive not be available, then cut-and-paste from the HTML or pdf rendered versions. Be aware that some of the scripts presented here introduce features before they are explained, and this may require the reader to temporarily skip ahead for enlightenment.

Unless otherwise noted, the author of this book wrote the example scripts that follow.

His countenance was bold and bashed not.

--Edmund Spenser

[1] These are referred to as builtins, features internal to the shell.

[2] Although recursion is possible in a shell script, it tends to be slow and its implementation is often an ugly kludge.

[3] An acronym is an ersatz word formed by pasting together the initial letters of the words into a tongue-tripping phrase. This morally corrupt and pernicious practice deserves appropriately severe punishment. Public flogging suggests itself.

[4] Many of the features of ksh88, and even a few from the updated ksh93 have been merged into Bash.

[5] By convention, user-written shell scripts that are Bourne shell compliant generally take a name with a .sh extension. System scripts, such as those found in /etc/rc.d, do not necessarily conform to this nomenclature.