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Lab 3 - Shell Scripting

Facilitator: Laksith

18 min read

Table of contents

  1. Overview
    1. About this Lab
  2. Scripting with the Bourne-Again Shell (Bash)
    1. Shebang!
    2. Shell Variables and Types
    3. Arithmetic
    4. test
    5. Flow Control
      1. if-then-elif-else
      2. while
    6. Functions
  3. Examples
  4. Python for Sysadmins
  5. Scripting Lab Assignment
    1. Some tips to make things easier


Many of the tasks that someone would like to perform on a computer are regular, require repetition, or are menial or tedious to do by hand. Shell scripting allows one to interact programmatically with a shell to do certain tasks. For example, the command for scanning log files in the previous topic guide could be automated to be performed on a schedule by means of a shell script. bash scripts are an incredibly powerful tool for sysadmins to automate tasks that are otherwise difficult to remember or long-running.

In cases where shell syntax is inappropriate for the task at hand, one can instead call into programs written in other languages, such as Python, which can read from stdin, process data, and write to stdout.

About this Lab

We’ve included a somewhat extensive runthrough of many of bash’s basic features below. There is only one required task (Scripting Lab Assignment) and one optional task. Feel free to use the rest of the lab as a reference guide.

For the Gradescope submission, you will need to upload a file containing your script. If you edit and test your script in your VM using vim or another shell editor, you can copy the file to your local machine using scp or simply copy-paste the text into a local file.

Scripting with the Bourne-Again Shell (Bash)

While most programmers are likely familiar with bash in its popular capacity as a command line interpreter, it is in fact a powerful and full-featured programming language. Moreover, bash has a uniquely qualified claim to the title of scripting language in that programs written in bash are simply series of shell commands which bash reads off and executes line-by-line. Or, conversely, one might say that bash command line entries are simply short one-line scripts. So really, you’ve been bash scripting all along!


Shell scripts typically begin with the shebang line: #!path/to/interpreter.

#! is a human-readable representation of a magic number 0x23 0x21 which can tell the shell to pass execution of the rest of the file to a specified interpreter. If your script is run as an executable (e.g. ./awesome_shell_script) with a shebang line, then the shell will invoke the executable (usually an interpreter) at path/to/interpreter to run your script. If your script is passed as an argument to an interpreter e.g. bash awesome_shell_script, then the shebang has no effect and bash will handle the script’s execution.

Why is this important? The shebang line can be considered a useful piece of metadata which passes the concern of how a script is executed from the user to the program’s author. awesome_shell_script could be a bash script, a python script, a ruby script, etc. The idea is that only the script’s behavior, not its implementation details, should matter to the user who calls the script.

You may have seen some variant of #!/bin/sh. Although initially referencing the Bourne shell, on modern systems sh has come to reference to the Shell Command Language, which is a POSIX specification with many implementations. sh is usually symlinked to one of these POSIX-compliant shells which implement the Shell Command Language. On Debian, for instance, sh is symlinked to the shell dash. It is important to note that bash does not comply with this standard, although running bash as bash --posix makes it more compliant.

Why is this important? If awesome_shell_script uses bashisms (i.e. non-POSIX bash-specific features) but includes a shebang line pointing to sh, then trying to run the script as an executable e.g. ./awesome_shell_script will likely fail. So if you plan to use bashisms in your script, the shebang line should point to bash, not sh. Note that this will sacrifice portability, as only systems with bash installed will be able to execute your script. A list of common bashisms and specification differences between common shells can be found here. The commonly installed checkbashisms program can help to identify bashisms.

In contexts other than the shebang line, # indicates the beginning of a comment. Everything to the right of a # on a line will not be executed.

Shell Variables and Types

Like most other programming languages, bash facilitates stateful assignment of names to values as variables.

Variables can be assigned in bash with the syntax: NAME=value. Note the lack of spaces between the assignment operator = and its operands. Assignment is whitespace-sensitive.

You can retrieve the value of a variable by prepending a $ to it’s name. Getting the value of NAME must be done with $NAME. This is called variable interpolation.

$ NAME = "Tux" # Incorrect
-bash: NAME: command not found 
$ NAME="Tux" # Correct
$ echo NAME # Incorrect. We want the value we assigned to NAME, not the text 
# NAME itself.
$ echo $NAME # Correct

$? holds the exit code of the most recently executed command. In this context, exit code 0 generally means that a program has executed successfully. Other exit codes refer to the nature of the error which caused the program to fail.

Special positional parameters allow arguments to be passed into your script. $0 is the name of the script, $1 is the first argument passed to the script, $2 is the second argument passed to the script, $3 is the third argument, etc. $# gives the number of arguments passed to the script.

So ./awesome_shell_script foo bar could access foo from $1 and bar from $2.

Bash variables are untyped. They are usually treated as text (strings), but a variable can be treated as a number if it contains digits and arithmetic operations are applied to it. Note that this is different from most programming languages. Variables don’t have types themselves, but operators will treat their values differently in different contexts. In other words, bash variables are text and don’t have any inherent behaviors or properties beyond that of text which can be manipulated, but operators will interpret this text according to its content (digits or no digits?) and the context of the expression.


Bash supports integer arithmetic with the let builtin.

$ x=1+1
$ echo $x # Incorrect. We wanted 2, not the text 1+1.
$ let x=1+1
$ echo $x # Correct

Note that let is whitespace sensitive. Operands and operators must not be separated by spaces.

bash does not natively support floating point arithmetic, so we must rely on external utilities if we want to deal with decimal numbers. A common choice for this is bc. Fun fact: bc is actually it’s own complete language!

We commonly access bc via a pipe (represented as |), which allows the output of one command to be used as the input for another. We include the -l option for bc in order to enable floating point arithmetic.

$ echo 1/2 | bc -l


Bash scripts frequently use the [ (a synonym for test) shell builtin for the conditional evaluation of expressions. test evaluates an expression and exits with either status code 0 (true) or status code 1 (false).

test supports the usual string and numeric operators, as well as a number of additional binary and unary operators which don’t have direct analogs in most other programming languages. You can see a list of these operators, along with other useful information, by entering help test in your shell. The output of this is shown below. Note that help is similar to man, except it is used for bash functions instead of other programs.

$ help test
test: test [expr]
    Exits with a status of 0 (true) or 1 (false) depending on
    the evaluation of EXPR.  Expressions may be unary or binary.  Unary
    expressions are often used to examine the status of a file.  There
    are string operators as well, and numeric comparison operators.

    File operators:

        -a FILE        True if file exists.
        -b FILE        True if file is block special.
        -c FILE        True if file is character special.
        -d FILE        True if file is a directory.
        -e FILE        True if file exists.
        -f FILE        True if file exists and is a regular file.
        -g FILE        True if file is set-group-id.
        -h FILE        True if file is a symbolic link.
        -L FILE        True if file is a symbolic link.
        -k FILE        True if file has its `sticky' bit set.
        -p FILE        True if file is a named pipe.
        -r FILE        True if file is readable by you.
        -s FILE        True if file exists and is not empty.
        -S FILE        True if file is a socket.
        -t FD          True if FD is opened on a terminal.
        -u FILE        True if the file is set-user-id.
        -w FILE        True if the file is writable by you.
        -x FILE        True if the file is executable by you.
        -O FILE        True if the file is effectively owned by you.
        -G FILE        True if the file is effectively owned by your group.
        -N FILE        True if the file has been modified since it was last 

      FILE1 -nt FILE2  True if file1 is newer than file2 (according to
                       modification date).

      FILE1 -ot FILE2  True if file1 is older than file2.

      FILE1 -ef FILE2  True if file1 is a hard link to file2.

    String operators:

        -z STRING      True if string is empty.

        -n STRING
        STRING         True if string is not empty.

        STRING1 = STRING2
                       True if the strings are equal.
        STRING1 != STRING2
                       True if the strings are not equal.
        STRING1 < STRING2
                       True if STRING1 sorts before STRING2 lexicographically.
        STRING1 > STRING2
                       True if STRING1 sorts after STRING2 lexicographically.

    Other operators:

        -o OPTION      True if the shell option OPTION is enabled.
        ! EXPR         True if expr is false.
        EXPR1 -a EXPR2 True if both expr1 AND expr2 are true.
        EXPR1 -o EXPR2 True if either expr1 OR expr2 is true.

        arg1 OP arg2   Arithmetic tests.  OP is one of -eq, -ne,
                       -lt, -le, -gt, or -ge.

    Arithmetic binary operators return true if ARG1 is equal, not-equal,
    less-than, less-than-or-equal, greater-than, or greater-than-or-equal
    than ARG2.

We can test integer equality

$ [ 0 -eq 0 ]; echo $? # exit code 0 means true
$ [ 0 -eq 1 ]; echo $? # exit code 1 means false

string equality

$ [ zero = zero ]; echo $? # exit code 0 means true
$ [ zero = one ]; echo $? # exit code 1 means false

and a number of other string and numeric operations which you are free to explore.

Flow Control

bash includes control structures typical of most programming languages – if-then-elif-else, while for-in, etc. You can read more about conditional statements and iteration in the Bash Guide for Beginners from the Linux Documentation Project (LDP). You are encouraged to read those sections, as this guide provides only a brief summary of some important features.


The general form of an if-statement in bash is








Indentation is good practice, but not required.

For example, if we write

# contents of awesome_shell_script

if [ $1 -eq $2 ]; then
  echo args are equal
  echo args are not equal

we see

$ ./awesome_shell_script 0 0
args are equal
$ ./awesome_shell_script 0 1
args are not equal


The general form of a while loop in bash is




If TEST-COMMANDS exits with status code 0, CONSEQUENT-COMMANDS will execute. These steps will repeat until TEST-COMMANDS exits with some nonzero status.

For example, if we write

# contents of awesome_shell_script

while [ $n -gt 0 ]; do
  echo $n
  let n=$n-1

we see

$ ./awesome_shell_script 5


bash supports functions, albeit in a crippled form relative to many other languages. Some notable differences include:

  • Functions dont return anything, they just produce output streams (e.g. echo to stdout)
  • bash is strictly call-by-value. That is, only atomic values (strings) can be passed into functions.
  • Variables are not lexically scoped. bash uses a very simple system of local scope which is close to dynamic scope.
  • bash does not have first-class functions (i.e. no passing functions to other functions), anonymous functions, or closures.

Functions in bash are defined by

name_of_function() {



and called by

name_of_function $arg1 $arg2 ... $argN

Note the lack of parameters in the function signature. Parameters in bash functions are treated similarly to global positional parameters, with $1 containing the $arg1, $2 containing $arg2, etc.

For example, if we write

# contents of awesome_shell_script

foo() {
  echo hello $1

foo $1

we see

$ ./awesome_shell_script world
hello world


Despite bash’s clumsiness, recursion and more complex programming logic are possible (read: painful).

# contents of fibonacci

if [ $# -eq 0 ]; then
    echo "fibonacci needs an argument"
    exit 1

fib() {
    if [ -z "${N##*[!0-9]*}" ]; then
        echo "fibonacci only makes sense for nonnegative integers"
        exit 1

    if [ "$N" -eq 0 ]; then
        echo 0
    elif [ "$N" -eq 1 ]; then
        echo 1
        echo $(($(fib $((N-2))) + $(fib $((N-1)))))

fib "$1"

bash can give us a recursive solution to finding the nth Fibonacci number.

$ ./fibonacci 10

Python for Sysadmins

Although bash scripts can be a simple and straightforward way to automate tasks involving the sequential execution of some shell commands, you may have already gathered that venturing beyond trivial conditional logic and simple functions introduces unnecessary syntactic complexity as compared to many other modern interpreted languages. For this reason, more complex scripts are popularly written in another, more general, programming language like python. Scripting with python is increasingly popular among sysadmins.

Countless great tutorials for learning python are available online. Alternatively, Berkeley offers several courses that teach or use python, notably CS 61A and Data 8.

Adapting python to command-line scripting is only a matter of using relevant modules. Here are some tips:

  • The argparse module in the python standard library is a popular way to implement command-line interfaces for python scripts
  • fabric simplifies some sysadmin tasks, mostly in regard to application deployment
  • salt is useful for general infrastructure management
  • psutil provides an interface to system information monitoring

In practice, the decision to write a script in either python or bash is largely dependent on the context of the task at hand. Generally, tasks solvable with simple shell commands and those requiring simple file reading, writing, and appending are often a good fit for a bash script. Those with complex control logic, recursion, and other more general programming patterns are a better fit for a python script.

Scripting Lab Assignment

You’ll be completing a classic first shell scripting assignment: make a phonebook.

Write a shell script phonebook which has the following behavior:

  • ./phonebook new <name> <number> adds an entry to the phonebook. Don’t worry about duplicates (always add a new entry, even if the name is the same).

  • ./phonebook list displays every entry in the phonebook (in no particular order). If the phonebook has no entries, display phonebook is empty

  • ./phonebook remove <name> deletes all entries associated with that name. Do nothing if that name is not in the phonebook.

  • ./phonebook clear deletes the entire phonebook.

  • ./phonebook lookup <name> displays all phone number(s) associated with that name. You can assume all phone numbers are in the form ddd-ddd-dddd where d is a digit from 0-9.

    • NOTE: You can print the name as well as the number for each line. For an additional challenge, try printing all phone numbers without their names. (See the example below for more details)

For example,

$ ./phonebook new "Linus Torvalds" 101-110-0111
$ ./phonebook list
Linus Torvalds 101-110-1010
$ ./phonebook new "Tux Penguin" 555-666-7777
$ ./phonebook new "Linus Torvalds" 222-222-2222
$ ./phonebook list
Linus Torvalds 101-110-1010
Tux Penguin 555-666-7777
Linus Torvalds 222-222-2222
$ ./phonebook lookup "Linus Torvalds" 
$ ./phonebook lookup "Linus Torvalds"
Linus Torvalds 101-110-1010
Linus Torvalds 222-222-2222
$ ./phonebook remove "Linus Torvalds"
$ ./phonebook list
Tux Penguin 555-666-7777
$ ./phonebook clear
$ ./phonebook list
phonebook is empty

If you run into an edge case that isn’t described here, you can handle it however you wish (or don’t handle it at all). You can assume all inputs are in the correct format.

To help you in this task, skeleton code for this lab can be found here. Once you are done with this task, you can submit your work on Gradescope.

As an optional (but recommended) assignment: Try implementing the same Phonebook behavior, but in python! This will highlight some of the strengths and weaknesses between the two languages. If you’re already familiar with python, you may find it helpful to do this before implementing it in bash.

Some tips to make things easier

  • bash has an append operator >> which, as you might guess, appends the data from its first argument to the end of the second argument.
$ cat foobar.txt
$ echo "hello, reader" >> foobar.txt
$ cat foobar.txt
hello, reader
  • bash also has a redirect operator >, which takes the output of one command and outputs it to a file.
$ cat foobar.txt
$ echo "hello" > foobar.txt
$ cat foobar.txt
$ > foobar.txt
$ cat foobar.txt
  • Remember that you can simply write to and read from a file to persist data.
  • In bash, changing lines can be done through the sed command. If you wish to do so, the format sed -i "s/<old>/<new>/g" ./filename may be helpful in this lab (e.g. for deleting a line or part of a line). For example:
    $ echo "hello 123" > foobar.txt # writes hello to foobar.txt
    $ cat foobar.txt
    hello 123
    $ sed -i "s/h/j/g" foobar.txt
    $ cat foobar.txt
    jello 123
    # You can also use regex: learn more at regex101.com
    $ sed -i "s/[0-9]\{3\}/world/g" foobar.txt
    $ cat foobar.txt
    jello world
  • Recall that bash exposes its command line arguments through the $<integer> positional parameters:
# contents of argscript.sh

echo "$1"
echo "$2"
$ ./argscript.sh foo bar
  • In bash, single quotes '' preserve the literal value of the characters they enclose. Double quotes "" preserve the literal value of all characters except for $, backticks `, and the backslash \\. The most important implication of this is that double quotes allow for variable interpolation, while single quotes do not. You can think of single quotes and the stronger “escape everything” syntax while double quotes are the more lax “escape most things” syntax.
$ echo '$LANG'
$ echo "$LANG"
  • In python, you can interact with command-line arguments through the sys.argv list
# !/usr/bin/python
# contents of argscript.py

import sys 
# end of file
$ ./argscript.py foo bar
  • python lets you manipulate files with the open function, commonly used with the with control structure
# !/usr/bin/python
# contents of fileman.py

with open('./newfile.txt', 'w') as f: f.write("hello from python\n")
# end of file
$ python fileman.py
$ cat newfile.txt
hello from python