My Favorite One-Liners: Some Useful Shell Programs
Everyone thinks they know what KISS stands for, but
in this case,
it's probably more appropriate to say, "Keep It
or perhaps just "Keep It Shell Script." Too
many system administrators,
especially former or frustrated programmers, get involved
creating ad hoc programs that grow until they have a
life and a following
of their own. These programs generally are written in
C, awk, or C
shell, have no documentation, and are incomprehensible,
even to the
author, less than two weeks after being finished.
While it's no cure-all for bad programming practices,
I prefer to
write simple shell scripts for system administration
work. How simple
are they? Simple enough that their inner workings should
obvious; tricky programs are fine for impressing your
hard to understand when the system has to be restored
at 3:00 A.M.
And of course, the C shell is so much more elegant,
but not every
system has one, which means that C shell programs aren't
What price elegance?
My own pride is in writing programs that can be easily
even if they aren't perfect. In fact, I'm sure I will
get at least
five pieces of email for each of these programs, showing
can be improved. If you like being tricky, find ingenious
do with your programs after you write them. If these
are beyond you, don't despair: but don't fail to read
the manual pages
for the shell and every command you don't understand.
don't get much simpler than Tail:
for i in $*
echo "=========" $i "=========="
Tail emulates the behavior of the head
command when presented with multiple files, instead
of the binary
tail's default behavior of just showing you the tail
file. The simple for-do-done loop executes the echo
and tail commands repeatedly on whatever files you specify
on the command line.
Take Four, They're Small
While we're on incredibly simple programs, how many
times have you
had to double-space a file and forgotten how? It happened
to me every
time, until I wrote double:
pr -dt $*
See? Most of the work is just picking a good name for
the program. In the same vein, here's another self-documenting
tr "\015" "\012"
Here, I had to surround the arguments to the tr
program with double quotes to prevent the shell from
the backslash, which serves to indicate to tr that the
is an octal constant (in this case, the octal representations
carriage return and linefeed characters).
I'm sure you'd sometimes like to know which files are
taking up the
most space in a particular overstuffed directory, so
ls -l $* | sort -r -n +4 -5
Since the ls -l command shows the file size in
the fifth whitespace-delimited column, the arguments
tell sort that's the column you want to look at. The
flag tells sort to consider the full numerical value
numbers in that column. Without this precaution, the
9 would be sorted after 1111111, since 1 is lower in
collating sequence. Finally, the -r flag reminds sort
to present the lines in reverse sequence, since it's
the largest numbers
we're most interested in here.
And how about a program to help you create these little
if test -f $1
then echo $0: cannot overwrite existing file $1
cat $1 ; chmod 755 $1
To use mkcmd, above, simply type mkcmd filename,
then the shell program you want to enter, followed by
a single Control-D.
The program does the rest.
Mkcmd introduces rudimentary error checking to these
programs. In cases like these, some error checking is
more might be overkill for what's essentially a one-line
Why didn't I check to make sure that at least the filename
argument is typed on the command line? Leave out the
the test program itself will complain:
mkcmd: test: argument expected
Clearly, this is minimalist thinking. But it alerts
to the problem, so why bother getting much fancier?
Testing can be done for other reasons than error checking.
you want to perform a function depending on what tty
user is logging in on, or what system they're on. The
in Listing 1 from the end of a Korn shell .profile is
illustration. The first section grabs the name of the
system the .profile
is running on (by running the uname command), and stuffs
into the SYS variable. That string is then used, together
the value of PWD (kept up-to-date by the Korn shell),
the shell prompt reflect the system, current directory,
number that the user is working with. When you set a
you simply name it; when you use its actual value, you
have to prefix
it with a $ character.
But wait, there's more! A similar technique extracts
the actual name
of the tty line, using sed to remove its /dev/ prefix
(note the use of semicolons as delimiters, since the
would prove confusing here). The case statement is then
to select a specific series of commands as the final
step in the login
Note the special handling of tty1A, to which a modem
for dialins from a laptop computer. This section cuts
the normal 25-line
display down to 24 (for compatibility with a larger
number of terminal
programs), and starts a program that will automatically
log out the
user (thus regaining the port) after five minutes of
subsequent section handles a tty name beginning with
ttyp (a pseudo tty which signifies rlogin or
telnet from another machine on the network) by displaying
message as a reminder. This is also an example of recycling
of the SYS variable already created. And not a single
of this has to be changed to use it on another computer
the hardware-specific tty numbers)!
I'm a Back-Quote Man
If you're not conversant with the back quotes (accent
in Listing 1, read the manual page for your favorite
You can usually find the details in a section titled
Substitution." Surrounding a command by back quotes
puts the results of running that command on the command
line, as if
you had typed it yourself.
This little one-liner almost breaks all my own rules,
not immediately apparent what it's good for, but it's
neat and a good
illustration of how useful back quotes can be. It's
file * | grep $1 | sed 's/:.*$//'
Kind looks for a specific type of file (that you
supply on the command line) using the file command,
the type you want with grep and removes file's extraneous
comments with sed. You generally use kind, along with
back quotes, when you want a command to operate only
on, say, text
$ cd /usr/local/bin
$ more `kind text`
These two lines let you look at all your locally produced
shell programs (like this one), while not cluttering
up your screen
with garbage from binary executable files.
While we're on back quotes, let's try another one-liner.
I call this
/bin/ls -1 `echo $PATH | tr ":" " "`
Lsbin dynamically reads your current PATH environment
variable, removes the colons, then feeds the result
to ls as
simply a list of directories. The final result is a
list of all the
programs in your PATH, on which you can then run sort,
or whatever you wish.
The More the Merrier
Now let's combine back quotes, test, and if-then-else.
program /usr/local/colors, referred to in the .profile
in Listing 1, provides an easy-to-follow example:
if [ $SYSTEM = "tegu" ]
setcolor yellow brown
setcolor -r yellow red
setcolor -g yellow lt_magenta
setcolor yellow blue
setcolor -r red lt_magenta
setcolor -g cyan lt_blue
Here I'm simply picking one color scheme or another,
so I can instantly tell which system I'm working with
on a crowded
X Window display (note: neither the author or publisher
for eye or brain damage resulting from your use of these
I thought the "bracket" version of the test
looked better here; it works exactly the same as using
the word test.
The following program, which I call arcmail, is a little
more complicated, but illustrates more of the ways you
these simple programming techniques, yet still come
up with a readable
program. The program moves old email correspondence
into a "holding
directory," then, if the mail is not examined within
puts it into a compressed archive file. Arcmail is run
night by cron:
FILES=`find . -mtime +190 -print`
if [ "$FILES" ]
then /usr/lbin/arc m Oldmail.arc $FILES
FILES=`find . -mtime +180 -print`
if [ "$FILES" ]
then mv $FILES $OLDMAIL
The first thing I do is define the location of the holding
directory. This makes it much easier to edit the program
causing inadvertent errors) if the particular directory
happens to change.
Lines 2 and 3 establish the holding directory as a starting
by cding to it, then running a find in back quotes to
determine which, if any, files there meet the age criteria
old, plus 10 days). The (bracketed) test on line 4 is
if no filenames were found, the test fails and we skip
to the next
routine. Otherwise, those same names are used as a command
(on line 5) to the arc command, where the files are
In either case, line 7 brings us up one directory, to
the place where
current mail is stored. Using back quotes, we again
matching our criteria into a variable called FILES.
though, that the number of days is now exactly 180.
If any files 180
days old (or more) are found, they're moved to the holding
The program had to be written "backwards"
this way because
the find command checks the files in the current directory
-- and also in all subdirectories. Since the holding
was a subdirectory of the main mail directory, those
older files had
to be removed first (which was effectively accomplished
them). Finishing the program by moving the 180-day files
to the holding
directory ensures that that's where they'll be in 10
more days, when
it will be their turn to be archived.
Don't Stay Lost
Every system administrator runs fsck, and every once
you discover, to your horror, that you are wasting a
couple of precious
megabytes of disk space on files that you didn't even
know you had.
To clean out your lost+found directories on a regular
simply run checklost as often as you deem advisable,
and mail the results to yourself:
for i in / /usr/spool /ips
ls -lta $i/lost+found
echo That was the $i file system
Naturally, replace my file system names with yours in
the first line. Don't wipe all the files out by reflex,
a look at them and see if they look useful. I once found
file -- needed to rebuild the kernel -- in a lost+found
directory after a crash!
About the Author
David Fiedler is a writer and consultant specializing
and networking topics. He was the co-author of the first
book on UNIX
system administration, and can be reached at email@example.com.