Temporary stores of information
For those of you that have dabbled in programming before, you'll be quite familiar with variables. For those of you that haven't, think of a variable as a temporary store for a simple piece of information. These variables can be very useful for allowing us to manage and control the actions of our Bash Script. We'll go through a variety of different ways that variables have their data set and ways we can then use them.
Variables are one of those things that are actually quite easy to use but are also quite easy to get yourself into trouble with if you don't properly understand how they work. As such there is a bit of reading in this section but if you take the time to go through and understand it you will be thankful you did later on when we start dabbling in more complex scripts.
A variable is a temporary store for a piece of information. There are two actions we may perform for variables:
Variables may have their value set in a few different ways. The most common are to set the value directly and for its value to be set as the result of processing by a command or program. You will see examples of both below.
To read the variable we then place its name (preceded by a $ sign) anywhere in the script we would like. Before Bash interprets (or runs) every line of our script it first checks to see if any variable names are present. For every variable it has identified, it replaces the variable name with its value. Then it runs that line of code and begins the process again on the next line.
Here are a few quick points on syntax. They will be elaborated on and demonstrated as we go into more detail below.
Command line arguments are commonly used and easy to work with so they are a good place to start.
When we run a program on the command line you would be familiar with supplying arguments after it to control its behaviour. For instance we could run the command ls -l /etc. -l and /etc are both command line arguments to the command ls. We can do similar with our bash scripts. To do this we use the variables $1 to represent the first command line argument, $2 to represent the second command line argument and so on. These are automatically set by the system when we run our script so all we need to do is refer to them.
Let's look at an example.
Let's break it down:
We'll discuss their useage a little more in the next section ( 3. Input ).
There are a few other variables that the system sets for you to use as well.
If you type the command env on the command line you will see a listing of other variables which you may also refer to.
Some of these variables may seem useful to you now. Others may not. As we progress to more complex scripts in later sections you will see examples of how they can be useful.
As well as variables that are preset by the system, we may also set our own variables. This can be useful for keeping track of results of commands and being able to refer to and process them later.
There are a few ways in which variables may be set (such as part of the execution of a command) but the basic form follows this pattern:
This is one of those areas where formatting is important. Note there is no space on either side of the equals ( = ) sign. We also leave off the $ sign from the beginning of the variable name when setting it.
Variable names may be uppercase or lowercase or a mixture of both but Bash is a case sensitive environment so whenever you refer to a variable you must be consistent in your use of uppercase and lowercase letters. You should always make sure variable names are descriptive. This makes their purpose easier for you to remember.
Here is a simple example to illustrate their usage.
Let's break it down:
It is important to note that in the example above we used the command echo simply because it is a convenient way to demonstrate that the variables have actually been set. echo is not needed to make use of variables and is only used when you wish to print a specific message to the screen. (Pretty much all commands print output to the screen as default so you don't need to put echo in front of them.)
Variables can be useful for making our scripts easier to manage. Maybe our script is going to run several commands, several of which will refer to a particular directory. Rather than type that directory out each time we can set it once in a variable then refer to that variable. Then if the required directory changes in the future we only need to update one variable rather than every instance within the script.
In the example above we kept things nice and simple. The variables only had to store a single word. When we want variables to store more complex values however, we need to make use of quotes. This is because under normal circumstances Bash uses a space to determine separate items.
Because commands work exactly the same on the command line as in a script it can sometimes be easier to experiment on the command line.
When we enclose our content in quotes we are indicating to Bash that the contents should be considered as a single item. You may use single quotes ( ' ) or double quotes ( " ).
Command substitution allows us to take the output of a command or program (what would normally be printed to the screen) and save it as the value of a variable. To do this we place it within brackets, preceded by a $ sign.
Command substitution is nice and simple if the output of the command is a single word or line. If the output goes over several lines then the newlines are simply removed and all the output ends up on a single line.
Let's break it down:
When playing about with command substitution it's a good idea to test your output rather than just assuming it will behave in a certain way. The easiest way to do that is simply to echo the variable and see what has happened. (You can then remove the echo command once you are happy.)
Remember how in the previous section we talked about scripts being run in their own process? This introduces a phenomenon known as scope which affects variables amongst other things. The idea is that variables are limited to the process they were created in. Normaly this isn't an issue but sometimes, for instance, a script may run another script as one of its commands. If we want the variable to be available to the second script then we need to export the variable.
Now lets run it and see what happens.
The output above may seem unexpected. What actually happens when we export a variable is that we are telling Bash that every time a new process is created (to run another script or such) then make a copy of the variable and hand it over to the new process. So although the variables will have the same name they exist in separate processes and so are unrelated to each other.
Exporting variables is a one way process. The original process may pass variables over to the new process but anything that process does with the copy of the variables has no impact on the original variables.
Exporting variables is something you probably won't need to worry about for most Bash scripts you'll create. Sometimes you may wish to break a particular task down into several separate scripts however to make it easier to manage or to allow for reusability (which is always good). For instance you could create a script which will make a dated (ie todays date prepended to the filename) copy of all filenames exported on a certain variable. Then you could easily call that script from within other scripts you create whenever you would like to take a snapshot of a set of files.
Let's explore variables.