December 05, 2012

Introducing: a bashism a week

No matter how many scripting programming languages exist, it appears that shell programming is here to stay around. In many cases it is fast, it "does the job", and best of all: it is available "everywhere". The shell is used by makefiles, on every call to system(), and whatnot.

However, it is a real pain, implementations differ from the standards, some implementations still in use pre-date them, they leave room for undefined behaviour, and bugs in the implementations are nothing but unknown. You can't just specify a given shell interpreter and think you've dealt with the problem. Writing shell scripts that are portable among many platforms is a nightmare, if even possible.

Surprisingly, in spite of all that, a great amount of shell scripts appear to work flawlessly in many systems.

The switch from bash to dash as the default shell interpreter in Debian wasn't done without quite some work (more if you list archived bug reports), and the work ain't over.

For the following months I will be writing about different "bashisms" every Wednesday, hopefully helping people write slightly-more-portable shell scripts. The posts are going to be focused on widely-seen bashisms, probably ignoring those that Debian's policy defines as required to be implemented.

The term "bashism" must be understood as any feature or behaviour not required by SUSv3 (aka POSIX:2001), no matter what its origins are or even if the behaviour is not exhibited by the bash shell.

One of the key points is documenting the script's requirements, starting by specifying the right shell interpreter in the shebang.

Let's see what comes out of this experiment.

As a matter of fact, I have a few months worth of posts written already. All posts are going to be published at scheduled dates, just like this very post.


  1. I maintain several scripts, some of which are cross platform - GNU/Linux and (Mac) OS X - so looking forward to your posts.

  2. i've often pondered that Debian (or any distro) should have something like a 'continuing education' class where more experienced debian contributors make short posts about useful features or common packaging issue or like you, covers a useful topic that many folks face. People dont always package things outside of their narrow focus but its still useful to know about other areas in debian and how to deal with them or to know about useful tools that many might overlook. I cant wait to read your upcoming posts.