Hey Kid, Wanna Learn Shell Scripting?

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This is what it seemed like to me when I was first starting to learn the daunting language of Shell. Being led down some crazy back-alley where only the true Linux chads know what’s going on. Well, after countless hours of YouTube and guessing which grep flags I should use, I think I’ve finally got it.

And if you want to learn shell, I will go over the main functionalities and what some main programs are used for, and that way you can learn to become a master Shell script writer.

The Basics

There are some basic concepts you need to know before coding in Shell. You must know:

Now, there are some things that are not included in this list. There is the difference between POSIX shell scripting, bash scripting, zsh, and practically any other shell out there. They all have slight differences, but if there is one thing that you will never use for shell scripting, its FISH. While it looks nice and all, don’t ever use it for scripting and its just better in general to steer clear of it.

STDIN and STDOUT are the Standard Input and Standard Output of a program, respectively. STDIN is different from the command-line arguments you type out before running a program, it is what you type in the terminal while the program is running (or what other programs output into the STDIN, which we will get to later). STDOUT is just the output of the program, which can also be redirected, which will be covered later.

Differences from other languages

Shell is a bit funky compared to the other “standard” languages, e.g. JavaScript, C, Rust in the idea that it isn’t built in functions that are doing all the work (sometimes there are but thats for later). In fact, it is all seperate programs that do the work. Instead of calling a find function, you would call something like grep. Shell also has to be written very cautiously. So cautiously that there is a saying in the scripting world “QEFS” which means “Quote Every Fricking Substitution”. Aside of the vulgarity, it does bring up a good point that when you don’t QEFS, you can end up with some bad errors that make you scratch your head tirelessly. It also must be noted that Shell DOES NOT ignore whitespace. You cannot type a = b, as it will call program a with the arguments of = and b. Instead you must type a=b and then to access that value, say with echo, you must type echo "\$a" (remember QEFS?). There are multiple other things, but this is probably the main one.

Ok ok, its funky. What next?

Read the man pages and documentation. A good resource for it is https://linux.die.net. This might come off as cliche and downright annoying, but that truly is the best way to learn. The amount of time reading the man pages has saved me rather than having to go to StackOverflow and then type in my specific problem is countless. I would also recommend looking at other people’s shell scripts to see the extent of things you can do. It will also give you a good idea on how shell scripts work.

Start with the basics - Keep it minimal

In all honesty, I would recommend going with completely strict POSIX shell, it helps you be able to use pretty much every script you make be useable on every *NIX system. There are some bash extensions, most notably [[]] but most of these funtions can easily be replicated using similar POSIX programs for example if you must use the regex [[ a =~ abcd ]] you can simply write [ echo abcd | grep -Eq a ] ([ or test is a standard POSIX program).

Start small, and work your way up

The main way I got started was modifying the program notflix, made by BugsWriter. Another easy way to get started is by simplifying some of your tasks. Say you want to check the DNS records of a certain site, but don’t want to read through all of the many lines dig spits out. An easy way to do this is

dig <domain.com> | grep -F &lt;domain.com> | tail -n1 | awk '{printf $5}'

awk is a tricky program to master, but it makes sense after using it for a bit. I will probably write another section specficically on awk, but for now, I’ll leave it as it is.

Pipes, Pipes, Pipes

The most single useful feature of shell is piping! While at first the idea of directing STDOUT into the STDIN of a different program seems foreign, it has many uses, as you can see above. Almost any coreutils program, and any decently developed program can accept input from STDIN, and this is why piping is so important. This is one of the most used concept in shell scripting, along with substitution. It works very funnily at first, but it is one of the best concepts to learn!

You told me nothing besides how to read documentation

You are somewhat correct, but that is the greatest thing about *NIX! Everything is so well documented that all it takes is a simple --help or man <program>. While it may be intiminating at first, the greatest tool is the man pages, and also trying until you get it right.

Closing notes

Typically, the most common programs you are going to use are grep, sed, cat, echo, printf, and [/test. You will use a lot of the other programs too, but if you look at shell scripts a lot you will see that these are the most common.

To anyone who wants to learn, I wish you the best of luck! If any of you people actually find this guide helpful, email me at [email protected] for a part 2!

Scripting · Shell