Shell scripting tutorial

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This is a shell scripting tutorial. We use the bash shell as it is standard in most Linux distributions.



Hello world

The easiest way to get your feet wet with a programming language is to start with a program that simply outputs a trivial text, the so-called hello-world-example. Here it is for bash:

  • create a file named hello in your home directory with the following content:
echo "Hello, world!"
chmod +x hello
  • now you can execute your file like this:
# ./hello
Hello, world!
  • or like this:
# bash hello
Hello, world!

You see - the output of your shell program is the same as if you had entered the commands into a console.

calling commands

In your shell script you can call every command that you can call when opening a console:

echo "This is a directory listing, latest modified files at the bottom:"
ls -ltr
echo "Now calling a browser"
echo "Continuing with the script"



To show you how to deal with variables, we will now write a script that asks for your name and greets you:

echo "what is your name? "
read name
echo "hello $name"

You see that the name is stored in a variable $name. Note the quotation marks " around "hello $name". By using these you say that you want variables to be replaced by their content. If you were to use apostrophes, the name would not be printed, but $name instead.


The ${} operator stands for the variable, there is no difference if you write

echo "$name"


echo "${name}"

So what is the sense of this? Imagine you want to echo a string directly, without any blank, after the content of a variable:

echo "if I add the syllable owa to your name it will be ${name}owa"

common mistakes

Note that the variable is called $name, however the correct statement to read it from the keyboard is

read name

It is a common mistake to write

read $name

which means "read a string and store it into the variable whose name is stored in $name"


How to define an array:

# a=(this is a test)

How to display its members:

# echo ${a[0]}
# echo ${a[1]}
# echo ${a[2]}
# echo ${a[3]}

Display the complete array:

# echo ${a[@]}
this is a test

Display its length:

# echo ${#a}


echo "Here are all parameters you called this script with: $@"
echo "Here is parameter 1: $1"
echo "Which parameter do you want to be shown? "
read number
echo "${args[$number-1]}"

return codes

Every bash script can communicate with the rest of the system by

  • sending data to stdout
  • sending data to stderr
  • delivering a return code

The return code is 0 if everything worked well. You can query it for the most recent command using $?:

$ echo "hello world"; echo $?
hello world
$ echo "hello world">/proc/cmdline; echo $?
bash: /proc/cmdline: Permission denied

In bash, true is 0 and false is any value but 0. There exist two commands, true and false that deliver true or false, respectively:

$ true; echo $?
$ false; echo $?

line feeds

Let's look at the following script:

read name
if [ $name = "Thorsten" ]; then echo "I know you"; fi

Instead of a semicolon you can write a line feed like this:

read name
if [ $name = "Thorsten" ]
  then echo "I know you"

And instead of a line feed you can use a semicolon:

read name; if [ $name = "Thorsten" ]; then echo "I know you"; fi

If you want to insert a line feed where you do not need one, e.g. to make the code better readable, you must prepend it with a backslash:

read \
if [ $name = "Thorsten" ]
  then \
    echo "I know you"

storing a command's output

To read a command's output into a variable use $(), backticks or piping.


arch=$(uname -m)
echo "Your system is a $arch system."


arch=`uname -m`
echo "Your system is a $arch system."


uname -m | while read arch; do echo "Your system is a $arch system."; done


The advantage of using backticks over $() is that backticks also work in the sh shell. The advantage of using $() over backticks is that you can cascade them. In the example below we use this possibility to get a list of all files installed with rpm on the system:

filelist=$(rpm -ql $(rpm -qa))

You can use the piping approach if you need to cascade in sh, but this is not focus of this bash tutorial.

common mistakes

Usually unexperienced programmers try something like

uname -m | read arch

which does not work. You must embed the read into a while loop.


The easiest form of a condition in bash is this if example:

echo "what is your name? "
read name
if [ $name = "Thorsten" ]; then echo "I know you"; fi

Now let's look closer at this, why does it work? Why is there a blank needed behind the [ sign? The answer is that [ is just an ordinary command in the shell. It delivers a return code for the expression that follows till the ] sign. To prove this we can write a script:

if true; then echo "the command following if true is being executed"; fi
if false; then echo "this will not be shown"; fi

empty strings

An empty string evaluates to false inside the [ ] operators so it is possible to check if a string result is empty like this:

tweedleburg:~ # result=
tweedleburg:~ # if [ $result ]; then echo success; fi
tweedleburg:~ # result=good
tweedleburg:~ # if [ $result ]; then echo success; fi

arithmetic expressions

echo "what is your age? "
read age
if (( $age >= 21 )); then echo "Let's talk about sex."; fi

I feel saisifted after reading that one.

common mistakes

Common mistakes are:


To redirect the output of a command to a file you have to consider that there are two output streams in UNIX, stdout and stderr.

filling files

To create a file, probably the easiest way is to use cat. The following example writes text into README till a line occurs that only contains the string "EOF":

This is line 1
This is line 2
This is the last line

Afterwards, README will contain the 3 lines below the cat command and above the line with EOF.


for loops

Here is an example for a for-loop. It makes a backup of all text files:

for i in *.txt; do cp $i $i.bak; done

The above command takes each .txt file in the current directory, stores it in the variable $i and copies it to $i.bak. So file.txt gets copied to file.txt.bat.

You can also use subsequent numbers as a for loop using the command seq like this:

for i in $(seq 1 1 3); do echo $i; done

Me too! Hope it is working out for you. I was lucky egounh to have one meeting cancelled so I am using that to catch up on things with some much needed desk time - like checking a few blogs :) The rest of the day is fairly full, but at least not stressfull. Enjoy the time to refresh if you get any!!Much love,B


You can negate a result with the ! operator. $? is the last command's return code:

# true
# echo $?
# false
# echo $?
# ! true
# echo $?
# ! false
# echo $?

So you get an endless loop out of:

while ! false; do echo hallo; done

The following code checks the file /tmp/success to contain "success". As long as this is not the case it continues checking:

while ! (grep "success" /tmp/success)
  sleep 30

The following code checks if the file dblog.log exists. As long as this is not the case it tries to download it via ftp:

while ! (test -e dblog.log); do
  ftp -p ftp://user:password@server/tmp/dblog.log >/dev/null
  echo -en "."
  sleep 1

sending a process to the background

To send a process to the background, use the ampersand sign (&):

firefox & echo "Firefox has been started"

You see a newline is not needed after the &

forking a process

You can build a process chain using parantheses. This is useful if you want to have two instruction streams being executed in parallel:

(find -iname "helloworld.txt") & (sleep 5; echo "Timeout exceeded, killing process"; kill $!)


To define a function in bash, use a non-keyword and append opening and closing parentheses. Here a function greet is defined and it prints "Hello, world!". Then it is called:

    echo "Hello, world!"

react on CTRL_C

The command trap allows you to trap CTRL_C keystrokes so your script will not be aborted


trap shelltrap INT

    echo "You pressed CTRL_C, but I don't let you escape"

while true; do read line; done
You can still pause your script by pressing CTRL_Z, send it to the background and kill it there. To catch CTRL_Z, replace INT by TSTP in the above example. To get an overview of all signals that you might be able to trap, open a console and enter
kill -l

helpful programs

awk: read a specific column

awk is a program that is installed on almost all Linux distributions. It is a good helper for text stream processing. It can extract columns from a text. Let's imagine you want to use the program vmstat to find out how high the CPU user load was. Here is the output from vmstat:

procs -----------memory---------- ---swap-- -----io---- -system-- -----cpu------
 r  b   swpd   free   buff  cache   si   so    bi    bo   in   cs us sy id wa st
 1  0      0 1304736 190232 885840    0    0    20     8   11   17  1  0 99  0  0

We see the user load is in colum 13, and we only want to print this column. We do it with the following command:

vmstat 5 | awk '{print $13}'

This will print a line from vmstat all 5 seconds and only write the column 13. It looks like this:

# vmstat 5 | awk '{print $13}'


To store the CPU user load into a variable we use

load=$(vmstat 1 2 | tail -n 1 | awk '{print $13}')

What happens here? First vmstat outputs some data in its first line. The data about CPU load can only be rubbish because it did not have any time to measure it. So we let it output 2 lines and wait 1 second between them ( => vmstat 1 2 ). From this command we only read the last line ( => tail -n 1 ). From this line we only print column 13 ( => awk '{print $13}' ). This output is stored into the variable $load ( => load=$(...) ).

grep: search a string

grep is a program that is installed on almost all Linux distributions. It is a good helper for text stream processing. It can extract lines that contain a string or match a regex pattern. Let's imagine you want all external links from's main page:

wget -O linuxintro.txt
grep "http:" linuxintro.txt 

sed: replace a string

sed is a program that is installed on almost all Linux distributions. It is a good helper for text stream processing. It can replace a string by another one. Let's imagine you want to print your distribution's name, but lsd_release outputs too much:

# lsb_release -d
Description:    openSUSE 12.1 (x86_64)

You want to remove this string "Description" so you replace it by nothing:

lsb_release -d | sed "s/Description:\t//"
openSUSE 12.1 (x86_64)

Once you understand regular expressions you can use sed with them:

  • to replace protocol names for a given port (in this case 3200) in /etc/services:
sed -ri "s/.{16}3200/sapdp00 3200/" /etc/services
  • if you have an apache web server here's how you get the latest websites that have been requested:
cat /var/log/apache2/access_log | sed "<html><acronym title=substitute>s</acronym>;.*<acronym title="for every line remember a substring that is GET, then a blank, then an unknown count of characters that are not a quote">\(GET [^\"]*\)</acronym><acronym title="the part to be substituted will then be followed by an unknown number of arbitrary characters">.*</acronym>;<acronym title="replace this line by the first remembered part">\1;</acronym></html>"

tr: replace linebreaks

sed is a program that is installed on almost all Linux distributions. It is a good helper for text stream processing. It can replace a character by another one, even over line breaks. For example here is how you remove all empty lines from your processor information:

# cat /proc/cpuinfo | while read a; do ar=$(echo -n $a|tr '\n' ';'); if [ "$ar" <> ";" ]; then echo "$ar"; fi; done

wc: count

With the command wc you can count words, characters and lines. wc -l counts lines. For example to find out how many semicolons are in a line, use the following statement:

while read line; do echo "$line" | tr '\n' ' ' | sed "s/;/\n/g" | wc -l; done

It lets you input a line of text, counts the semicolons in it and outputs the number.

How does it do this?

It reads lines from your keyboard (while read line). It outputs the line (echo "$line"), but it does not output it in the console. The pipe (|) redirects the output to the input stream of the command tr. The command tr replaces the ENTER ('\ ') by a space (' '). The pipe (|) redirects the output to the input stream of sed. sed substitutes ("s/) the semicolon (;) by (/) a linefeed (\ ), globally (/g"). The pipe redirects the output to the input stream of the wc -l command that outputs the count of lines.

dialog: create dialogs

Dialog is a command that helps you creating dialogs in the shell. The answers given by the user are send to stderr and/or influence the command's return code. For example if you run this script:

if (dialog --title "Message"  --yesno "Are you having fun?" 6 25)
then echo "glad you have fun"
else echo "sad you don't have fun"

It will display this dialog:


This has been taken from Read there for more info.

See also

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