How Learning Bash Helps you Learn Linux

When you set out to “Learn Linux” you’re actually embarking on a long journey of UNIX mastery. You’re joining a group of geeks whose ancestry goes back to the 1960’s, and perhaps even before, if you consider that UNIX didn’t grow out of nothing. Learning the Bourne Again SHell will teach you long-standing principles that have served programmers, admins, and geeks well since before 64k was a lot of memory up until now.

By the way, “UNIX” is a copyrighted product, but for many of us, “Unix” is a way of life. So I frequently use “Unix” to mean “Unix-like operating system” such as Linux.

The Terminal (Working In Your Head, Not the Display)

In this modern day and age, most people are used to graphical interfaces or GUIs. The terminal feels like a foreign planet to most computer users nowadays. But graphical layers depend on many other programs and devices working correctly. If any of those go wrong, only a console or terminal might be available. Even very simple problems can cause a graphical layer to go away. If you depend on only the graphical layer, you will experience more downtime and won’t be able to fix many not-so-difficult problems.

The early computers didn’t have the horsepower to show graphical layers. The first computers didn’t even have keyboards or monitors, let alone mice. Computer programs used to be stored on perforated paper. Even large floppy disks were an improvement. And people got lots of work done in those days by doing mental work in their heads instead of on the screen. So really, a terminal is a luxury!

To make sense of the terminal, you have to understand how computers are built and how they work. You won’t be seeing pictures of a hard disk or power supply or keyboard. You have to understand the basic hardware and ideas that make things work. So this article assumes you have that. If you don’t know what a network connection or memory card or disk drive is, you probably are not yet ready for Linux or Bash. (Even the term “card” and “disk” is starting to sound rather old.)

Keep Pieces Small, But Small Pieces Together Can Form Big Pieces

One of the first principles of Unix is that programs are designed to be small and do very specific things, but that these small programs can be joined together to do large, sophisticated jobs using Unix plumbing.

UNIX plumbing is a way of talking about redirecting input and output on the terminal. The notion of data flowing in a direction from one thing to another thing is not new. But in the terminal we constantly thing of STD_IN and STD_OUT and something else called STD_ERR. This is simply data flowing in, data flowing out, and then something going wrong with the flow of data.

Mind you, these small programs we’re talking about need data to work on. Let’s create a simple command at the terminal and print the word “Linux” to the display: echo 'Linux' at the terminal will cause the STD_OUT to be “Linux”.

To see an example of STD_IN you could take the STD_OUT of this command and “pipe” it (UNIX plumbing term) so it becomes the STD_IN of another program (we’ll use tr): echo 'Linux' | tr a-z A-Z

The end result of this is ‘LINUX’ at the prompt. echo produces and STD_OUT of ‘Linux’. Because of the pipe symbol ‘|’, this output now becomes the input to another program called tr. This is a terrific little program which I encourage you to read about. It simply “translates” or “modifies” some textual input to some kind of textual output. It can do different things to characters in a string. In this case, we’re replacing all lowercase characters with uppercase characters. The STD_OUT of one program has become the STD_IN of another program using Unix plumbing. This is a very, very useful concept that happens a lot in Linux and Unix.

You can stack up the commands in a sequence: echo "Linux" | tr a-z A-Z | sed 's/LINU/UNI/' sed is a terrific and powerful program that edits streams of text. Here, tr translates the text to uppercase and sed substitutes ‘LINU’ with ‘UNI’ to output the word ‘UNIX’ from the original ‘Linux’.

We have taken STD_OUT from one program and piped into STD_IN of another program, and then done the same thing again with that output so it becomes STD_IN for yet another program (sed) to produce yet another example of STD_OUT: ‘UNIX’.

There are many, many more examples of plumbing with Linux with more operators. The pipe symbol is just one. The point is, we’re using very small things to accomplish large tasks by gluing the small things together. This idea is fundamental to Bash and Unix/Linux.

Reusing Small and Useful Tools

The plumbing examples above show off another very important principle: reusing common tools.

Imagine you had a screwdriver that had an unlimited number of bits for it. You could use the same screwdriver on slot head screws as well as phillips head screws as well as Torx head screw as well as anything else. These small Unix/Linux tools are very much like that.

Let’s use some plumbing together with the tr command and show how flexible small and reusable tools can be when used together: echo 'I Love Linux' | tr a-z A-Z | tr -s ' ' '\n' | tr -d 'X' > ~/ilike.txt

This example reuses the tr command to uppercase a string, to substitute newlines for blank spaces, and to remove a character from the final string, before redirecting the output to a filename in the user’s home directory (which is another example of Unix/Linux plumbing).

When you use this command, you won’t see anything on STD_OUT, because that output has been redirected to a filename. If you type cat ~/ilike.txt then you’ll see the output. tr has been reused three times in the same command, each with a unique result.

When you start using Bash, you may easily underestimate how flexible and re-usable each of the simple commands can be in your day-to-day work. Many of these small commands will become indispensible tools you cannot live without each day.

Pre-eminance of Text

You’ll notice that each of these commands uses text in STD_OUT and STD_IN. That’s by intention. Linux/Unix depends on text files, not binary files so much. There can be individual programs in Linux/Unix that use binary files, but most of Linux/Unix just use plain old text files. You’ll edit your Bash programs with a simple text editor. It will create simple, flat text files. The advantage to this is you can easily fix things by altering text files.

Computers break rather often. Even when just doing routine maintenance, your system will be in some sort of broken or semi-broken state. If you depend on flat text files to reconfigure and fix things, those are easy to repair even with a broken system. Text files can almost always be edited, even under severe breakage of a system. No special tools required. This has been one of the most beloved aspects of Unix: text files are key.

This implies another of the fundamental princples: Keep it simple. Text is simple.

Silence is Golden

With Bash, if everything went okay, the terminal will not say anything extra. When a Bash program has nothing surprising to report, it stays mum. If you type echo 'Hello World' and execute it, there’s no notice that your command succeeded. There’s only the output your program created.

Beyond that, you can see if you got a non-zero or a zero exit status: echo $?. Basically, if there’s a problem, Linux/Unix will probably tell you. It just assumes you know what you’re doing. It will only throw some kind of error if you made a syntax error or something. Otherwise, Bash will simply try to give you exactly what you asked for. And this is consistent with Linux/Unix design.

Keep it Simple

Cleaverness kills in programming. Just be clear. Not only will you be following Unix philosophy, but people will be able to read your Bash scripts. Also, whenever you’re ready to put a script into production, ask yourself if you could understand what you’re doing even if you have a really bad hangover.

It’s easy to indulge our egos when we’re feeling cleaver and show off how smart we were that day in our script. But that “successful” feeling can turn into annoyance as soon as you stop feeling very cleaver. Write the script so you can follow your own work on your dumb days too, not just your cleaver days.