Some notes on bash scripting

20 Feb 2015

In your day to day tasks you often encounter tasks that can be easily automated. Instead of wasting time doing menial or mechanical tasks, you could be applying your brain power to automating them. If you are a developer, this is doubly relevant to you to manage your processes, build, cleaning your project directory, etc.

Tasks such as massaging data from one format to another or quickly searching and replacing words in certain files, can easily be dealt with a scripting language. One scripting language that is widely available on most modern Linux and Unix systems is bash. Many people will argue to write in sh which is described in the POSIX standard, but we won’t be going into this debate here. Instead I can state that most of these tips will be relevant for both.

Why not Python, Perl or Ruby?

Although I believe these more fully featured language are appropriate for many tasks even beyond simple scripts, I think it is still a useful skill to learn to script with your shell.

I have been doing some devops works recently and had to use a lot of shell scripting to glue together the continuous integration pipeline. I don’t claim to be a bash expert but here are some tips I picked up.

Don’t hardcode the path to bash in your shebang

Instead use #!/usr/bin/env bash. This allows your script to be more portable since bash is not always located under /bin/bash in all linux distros.

Always use set -e

When running most scripts that are not simple on off jobs, you may want to be notified of an error occurring and stop the execution of the script. By using “set -e” at the top of your script, it will prevent the execution of the rest of your job if something fails. This allows you to be explicit when you can allow some command to fail which is rarer than when you expect all the commands to run.

set -e

Use set -x for better debugging and logs

When running a script whose output will be captured such as in a ci pipeline, it is useful to know what command was running last when something occurred, such as when an exception occurred. Pretty useful for logs for this same reason.

set -x

Use getopts for easy command line options

Instead of parsing the command line parameters manually you can simply use the getopts library to do the job. It supports only short command line options to make things simpler.

#!/usr/bin/env bash

while getopts "h:f" OPTION; do
  case $OPTION in
      echo "usage"
      echo $FILE

A column ‘:’ before a character tells getopts which character needs a value. A column ‘:’ at the beginning of the optstring (e.g. “:h:s”) sets OPTION var with “?” and the $OPTARG with the wrong character and no output to stderr. Otherwise it would print an illegal argument message to stderr, if an invalid flag is used.

Instead of printing with several echos for each line use here documents.

cat << EOF
usage: dotfiles [-h][-u][-p][-d]

syncs dotfiles between ~/dotfiles and ~/

 -h print usage
 -u updates dotfiles in ~/
 -p pushes changes to dotfiles in ~/ to ~/dotfiles
 -d view the difference between dotfiles in ~/ and ~/dotfiles