Novice shell programmers tend to reproduce procedural structures they learnt from classical procedural languages like Pascal or C1. While it produces results, this approach is catastrophic and complex treatments should be delegated to filters. I will first convince you that catastrophic is not as much of an hyperbole as it may seem and discuss a simple concrete example from a code review I recently made.

Example presentation

I reviewed a submission for opam, the package manager recently adopted by the OCaml community, and spent quite a time to comment on a code snippet which confronts the list of compilers supported by the system with a list of compiler versions that are to be kept, the purpose of the script being to remove the remaining ones.

Each supported compiler is represented on the filesystem by a directory, whose path relative to ${OPAMROOT} — the path to data owned by opam has — the following structure:


So for instance, the directory compilers/4.02.1/4.02.1+PIC corresponds to the compiler 4.02.1+PIC in the 4.02.1 series.

The problem solved by the snippet I reviewed performs a rather straightforward treatment: given a list of compiler versions held by the variable COMPILER_VERSIONS it removes from the file-system the compilers whose version is not listed in COMPILER_VERSIONS.

Mimicking the classic procedural approach

The classic procedural approach to solving this problem can be worded “consider each compiler, if it is not in my little list, then delete it.” This can be implemented like this in the shell:

  local version
  for version in ${COMPILER_VERSIONS}; do
      if [ ${version} = $1 ]; then return 0; fi
  return 1

for compiler in compilers/*/*; do
    if !is_in_compiler_versions "${compiler##compilers/*/}"; then
        rm -r -f "${compiler}"

There is nothing terribly surprising here and it definitely works, so why should we consider this approach catastrophic? Here are a few reasons:

  1. The code is hard to read, there is no function name advertising the purpose of the main treatment and this purpose is well hidden in a conditional in the body of a for-loop.

  2. The code is hard to debug, since of the three important data sets involved in this treatment, only the list COMPILER_VERSIONS can be easily examined by the maintainance programmer. The list of supported compilers and the list of compilers to remove form the file-system exist only in an evanescent manner in this code and cannot be easily examined.

  3. The code is hard to reuse, because the enumeration of the compilers to remove and the actual removing are tightly bound together.

To put this in a few words, mimicking the classical procedural approach led to a code which is hard to read, hard to debug and hard to reuse. Maybe labeling this catastrophic was not an exaggeration, after all. And we did not even consider execution speed, the shell being rather slow, that kind of code performs poorly when it has to handle a lot of data.

The example itself is of course really innocent but things go worse when we consider more complicated treatments, and larger programs. Now, what can we do about this? We can opt for

Delegating complex treatments to filters

Understanding that complex treatments should not be performed by the shell itself but delegated to filters is probably the most important perspective shift required to program the shell properly. Here is how we can rewrite the previous snippet using filter.

  find "compilers" -type d -depth 2

    awk -F '/' -v filter_out_list="$1" '
  split(filter_out_list, s, " ")
  for(i in s){
!($3 in filter_out) {print}

  | select_not_in "${COMPILER_VERSIONS}"\
  | xargs rm -r -f

This solves all the problems found before. The code is easy to read because the function names make their purpose obvious. We do not need to understand awk to guess what the filter select_not_in does, since it is pretty clear from its name. Using awk here is essentially irrelevant, any language can be used to perform this selection step. It is very easy to scan the code down to the end of the pipeline to see that the purpose of the pipeline is to remove some files. The code is also easy to debug because the maintainance programmer can break the pipe sequence anywhere to examine the output of the program at that point, insert tees, insert a filter to pause between each line or mock the input of the filter. This code is easy to reuse because each of the three steps are independent. Last, it is way faster than the previous program and starts much less processes.

Consequences for code organisation

Once we have understood the benefits of delegating complex treatments to filters, we can draw a few consequences for the organisation of our programs and how we should shape our competences.

  1. As a rule of thumb, shell variables should not contain any complex data2 and should contain only variables from the Unix world, that is, paths in the filesystem and PIDs. Everything else is stored in files or flaws from one process to the other through a pipe.

  2. It is crucial to know well a tool which we can use to quickly write these filters. I am very pleased with sed and awk as the versions in BSD systems are quite lightweight in comparison to some others, but there is a lot of reasonable choices here.

  1. Yes I wrote Pascal or C. This is a bit old-school, I know.

  2. Are base64-encoded files complex data?