Shell Scripts

Shell scripts can be useful for writing small stuff like combining a few commands to pipes or doing a bit of „back ticking“. Even simple loops and if-conditions are possible. And if we want, it is almost a full programming language. A bit hard to tame, maybe, but quite a lot of stuff is possible. Those who like to know more about it may look into startup scripts of typical java software. Often a .bat and a .sh file are provided, where the right jvm is found, the classpath and the execution path and maybe some other environment are put together. In the end the .sh-file is quite a long and unreadable horror story and the .bat file is even much worse, because the cmd-language is just a lot more primitive and less capable and requires even worse hacks.

There are ways to make shell scripts more readable, which by themselves are truly admirable, but I think that route is wrong. We can learn all the Shell functionalities and understand bit by bit even more complex shell scripts, but I think for non trivial shell scripts it is time to switch to real programming languages instead. Scripting languages, of course, for example Perl, Ruby, Python or Lua. We may still execute „shell commands“, that are actually programs in /bin, /usr/bin or /usr/local/bin where they are powerful and more concise than writing purely in that programming language. But a magic for putting together a classpath is much cleaner in the Perl programming language than in pure bash (or worse cmd/bat).

This is of course another example of the Golden Hammer anti pattern. We should balance our tool box. Not add specific tools for making any minor task a bit easier on the expense of supporting one more tool, but keep a broad range of tools that in conjunction are very powerful. For example I would retire awk and sed and use either Perl or Ruby instead. We only have to keep them around because a lot of system tools that are just there still rely on them, but for a team I would deprecate awk and sed for new scripts or even for enhancing existing scripts. Bash would be ok only for small scripts, you can invent a line number or a maximum complexity, but for very short scripts I think bash is a legitimate tool.

Switch to Perl, Perl6, Ruby or… when you encounter any of the following:

  • The scripts is getting kind of long (>= 100 lines)
  • You find yourself modularizing it with functions
  • You find yourself using non trivial perl, ruby, sed or awk within the script, for example regex-stuff
  • The script need interaction
  • The scripts needs arrays, numbers or other types
  • More than one or two trivial if-statements or loop-statements are needed
  • Database access is done by the script (SQL or NoSQL)
  • String encoding becomes relevant
  • Quoting levels become an issue

This post was inspired by a similar post on the Isoblog by Kris. And the Shell Style Guide of Google is quite good especially in limiting the area where shell scripts are acceptable.

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