Escalate Your Scripts

Anyone who knows me knows I love the shell. I got my “start” in bash and still have a plethora of scripts lying around doing all sorts of useful and fun things for me. Recently, however, I tackled a task that I had attempted many times in shell script always to be met with frustration. How did I finally figure it out? I made it a rake task and did it in ruby.

Ask me last month what I thought the best tool for this job would’ve been, and 99 times out of 100 I would’ve said “shell script”. But guess what, I couldn’t do it – just never worked out. Now, after having written quite a nice little Rakefile, I can say confidently that I wish I had thought to do this sooner – and I hope I’ll think to do it again.

I want to write about this exercise mainly because I found the process to be quite enjoyable. When I needed to do imperative flow control, call system commands, and move things about the file system, I felt no resistance. More importantly, I could use all of the higher-level features to keep the code clear and clean.

And this is not just praise for ruby (though it does a good job), I’m more recommending that when presented with a task that makes sense as a shell script – think for a second if it might not be possible to do in a higher-level language, you might be surprised.

The Problem

I’ve got a repo (as a lot of you probably do) that contains my main dotfiles. It’s a collection of files that are usually scattered throughout my home directory which I’ve centralized into one folder and placed under version control. The normal approach with this is to symlink these files from the central location out into the proper places under $HOME.

I wanted to automate this process. I wanted to be able to setup a new box by cloning this repo and running a single script. After that script completes, I want as much of my environment as is generally applicable to be fully configured.

The challenges here were that not all of the files in the repo made sense on every machine, some required parent directories to exist and, of course, I had to be careful not to clobber anything already present.

Nothing about this is insurmountable; the (albeit self-imposed) challenge is to do it as simply and maintainably as possible.


The interesting thing about this script is what parts are higher level and what parts are not. So first, here are all of the higher-level bits with the scriptier parts left out:

This shows the pattern I most often follow when scripting in ruby (which is very different than programming in ruby): one, top-level module to hold any script-wide logic or constants as well as classes to represent the data your working with.

With an overall module and a clean API of classes and methods, you provide yourself a useful set of commands above and beyond the flow control and backtick-interpolation you would normally lean on.

You’ll also notice, in that each method, something I’m calling a Parallel Good Decision. I decided to hardcode the list of dotfile paths relative to the repo. This solved a number of problems that were leading to very smelly code. I could’ve used git ls-files or a normal glob-and-blacklist approach, but simply hardcoding this list allows finer control over what files are linked and if they are treated as files or directories.

Had I made this decision in isolation, it might have been enough for me to get that shell script approach working – but I didn’t. For some reason, only when cleaning up everything else and approaching the problem from a (slightly) higher level did I see that a simple list of relative file paths made the most sense here.

Script It Out

Now that the skeleton-slash-library code is in place, we can fill in the gaps:

The stuff that’s easy is easy, the stuff that’s hard is easier and overall, the code is very clean and maintainable.

Oh, and I guess it’s nice that it works.

24 Mar 2012, tagged with ruby