Shell Quickstart

This year we are running an IT Graduate program here at Net-a-Porter. The four graduates are doing three-month rotations with various teams, getting experience with many aspects of our business. I volunteered to give them a quick introduction to shell programming and regular expressions. Killing two birds with one stone, I have adapted the shell programming part of that session into this blog post — the regular expressions part of the workshop will be the topic of a future post.

This is the Unix philosophy: write programs that do one thing, and do it well. Write programs to work together. Write programs to handle text streams, because that is a universal interface.

—Doug McIlroy

Look through /bin and /usr/bin on any Unix system and you’ll find hundreds of little tools that can be glued together and used to accomplish complex tasks. If you are serious about becoming a confident command-line jockey, it is a good idea to skim the man pages for all the commands covered in those directories. You don’t have to memorise them, but read enough to understand what each program does.

To whet your appetite, I’ll introduce you to some of my favourite shell commands. But first, let’s start by quickly covering how one can string programs together. A Unix program generally has one input stream and two output streams, known respectively as:

  • Standard Input (aka stdin)
  • Standard Output (aka stdout)
  • Standard Error (aka stderr)

stdout and stderr are usually connected to the terminal where the program is invoked. Sometimes there’s a command-line switch to redirect output to a file instead. stdin is usually connected to the keyboard, though often programs will read input from any files given as command line arguments. Here are some examples:

# Downloads a file and dumps its content to the terminal
curl -L

# Save output of URL to a file
curl -L -o primes.txt

# Dump the content of a file to the terminal
cat primes.txt


Some programs don’t have switches to decide where to read from, or a way to name files for their output. Transcribing input from a file as input to your program is hardly ideal. Neither would transcribing output from the terminal and into an output file. Your friendly shell can help. We can ask the shell to redirect the input, output or error streams for a program to or from files. We use the following symbols to do that:

  • < redirect stdin
  • > redirect stdout
  • 2> redirect stderr

Here are some examples. (In some cases, these examples just show variants of the above. That is intentional. There’s more than one way to skin a cat.)

# Download a file and dump its content into a file
curl -L > primes.txt

# .. again, but redirect progress/errors to a different file
curl -L > primes.txt 2> primes.err

# Redirect standard input
cat < primes.err

# Concatenate two files, dump the result in a third
cat primes.txt primes.err > foo


With input and output redirection and judicious use of temporary files you should now be able to chain simple programs together into ad-hoc bigger ones. However, it’s not very convenient. In Unix you can use a pipe (|) to redirect a program’s output directly to another program’s input. Some examples:

# Count combined characters/words/lines in two files
cat primes.err primes.txt | wc

# Count stuff in OUTPUT from a previous wc:
wc primes.txt | wc

You can, of course, combine pipes and input/output redirection:

# Direct stderr to a file, count lines in stdout
curl -L 2> errors.txt | wc -l

# Meaningless (but valid) use of pipes and redirection...
wc < primes.txt | wc | wc > foo


We’ll be using the file you’ve already downloaded a few times now in these exercises. It contains a list of UK Prime Ministers, 1 line per year. You’ll need the following commands:

  • curl: transfer data to or from URLs.
  • wc: counts characters/words/lines.
  • sort: sorts its input.
  • uniq: removes duplicate lines from its input.
  • head & tail: return the first/last N lines from a file/stream.

Some of the exercises requires you to invoke these commands with various command-line switches to alter their basic behaviour. You will have to use the man command to read about which switches are available and what they do. For example, man sort will bring up sort‘s manual page.

OK. Ready? Go:

  1. Download primes.txt if you haven’t already.
  2. Count the total number of lines in primes.txt.
    • Answer: 289 (290 including final newline)
  3. Count the number of unique prime ministers.
    • Answer: 53
  4. Count the prime ministers that served more than one year.
    • Answer: 40
  5. Count the prime ministers that served only 1 year.
    • Answer: 13
  6. Return the 3 prime ministers with highest number of years, in ascending order.
    • Answer: Jenkinson, Pitt, Walpole
    • Note that returning three lines containing additional information is fine.
  7. As the previous, but return the primes in position 2, 3 & 4 them in descending order.
    • Answer: Pitt, Jenkinson, Gladstone
    • Note that returning three lines containing additional information is fine.
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