Speaking UNIX: Just a few clicks

Edit the command line like an expert

The way you interface with a computer is changing constantly. Operating systems that once started as a command line-only interface have moved to a graphical front end. But moving away from what made the operating system great isn't always a step in the right direction. The IBM® AIX® operating system has kept to what's important: stability, functionality, robustness. And it has done it by keeping a strong command-line interface (CLI). If you never learned to use the CLI or need a refresher on its basics, read on.


Adam Cormany, National Data Center Manager, Scientific Games Corporation

Adam Cormany is currently the manager of the National Data Center, but he has also been a UNIX systems engineer, a UNIX administrator, and operations manager for Scientific Games Corporation. Adam has worked extensively with AIX as well as in Solaris and Red Hat Linux administration for more than 10 years. He is an IBM eServer-Certified Specialist in pSeries AIX System Administration. In addition to administration, Adam has extensive knowledge of shell scripting in Bash, CSH, and KSH as well as programming in C, PHP, and Perl. You can reach him at acormany@yahoo.com.

01 July 2008

Also available in Chinese

The way you interface with a computer is changing constantly. Operating systems that once started as a command line-only interface have moved to a graphical front end. Sometimes, however, moving away from the building blocks that made the operating system isn't necessarily a step in the right direction. More often than not, moving toward a graphical user interface (GUI) means losing functionality; in addition, users become less inclined to learn more of the computer they’re working with. Thankfully the AIX operating system—like other UNIX® and Linux® systems—has kept to what's important: the stability, functionality, and robustness of a computer's operating system.

The various UNIX and Linux vendors have kept a strong grasp of the importance behind the CLI of an operating system. But for reasons of automation, making computing easier for users, or something else, users have either forgotten or never learned the ins and outs of the CLI. This article sheds some light on the CLI for those users who haven't touched it much or for those who may need a little nudge to remember why it's so important to administration, development, and general UNIX computing.

What is the command line?

When working on computers, it's important to understand what you're actually working on. If you've ever worked on UNIX or Linux, it's a fair bet that you've heard the term shell or the command line. The terms can be used synonymously and refer to the actual UNIX shell the user is running. The term shell in UNIX refers to the interface you use when typing commands or performing functions.

When a user logs in to a UNIX system through the console or over a network, a definable shell (in /etc/passwd) is evoked, the user's environment is set up through configuration files (explained later in this article), and the user is ready to perform actions in the shell. When the user is typing a command on the command line—that is, the shell he or she is using—the user only sees stdin, or standard in—that is, input that the user or a program provides. When the user clicks Enter or Return, the stdin is sent through the shell to execute, and the user may receive stdout, or standard out, as well as stderr, or standard error, depending on how the output is redirected (for example, to the user's display, a file, a printer). The term stdout is the output data that the program executed returns, and stderr refers to errors that the program encountered or returned. The user doesn't see all the low-level code executions to handle single or multiple commands but rather a very simplistic input, output, and error. Because of this, the program the user evoked when logging in has been rightfully called a shell, because it hides all the operating system's low-level calls.

The history of the shell

The UNIX shell has been around for more than 35 years now—through evolution and enhancements—and is still going strong! It all began in 1971, when Ken Thompson of AT&T Bell Laboratories created the first UNIX shell named (appropriately) the Thompson shell. Fundamentals of the Thompson shell, such as redirection of data, exists in shells used today, although the shell lacked some important built-in functions that UNIX users use every day, such as pipes (|), the ability to write shell scripts, and if conditional statements.

As a result, the Thompson shell was replaced with the Bourne shell, or sh, in 1977. The Bourne shell, created by Stephen Bourne of AT&T Bell Laboratories, became the default shell for UNIX version 7 (V7). The shell took a huge leap into the future for UNIX. Now, users could write shell scripts; store and export information in variables; control file descriptors; control signal handling, for loops, and case statements; and so much more. Even though the Bourne shell was created more than 30 years ago, it is still widely used by many current UNIX systems and is the default shell for the superuser—root—on many UNIX systems today.

Over the past three decades, there have been changes and improvements to the UNIX shell. As a result, several different shells have been created. Figure 1 illustrates the family tree of a few of the UNIX shells. This figure is by no means complete, but it shows the major shells from which other, minor shells have been derived.

Figure 1. The UNIX shell family tree
The UNIX shell family tree

The Korn shell

The Korn shell, or ksh, was originally developed by David Korn of AT&T Bell Laboratories in 1982. The shell, like many other shells, is backwards compatible with the Bourne shell (sh) and has evolved into a robust, stable, and very reliable shell in its more than 25 years of existence. IBM uses the Korn shell as its default shell in AIX. Two versions of Korn shell are available, and AIX contains both.

The first—and default shell for normal users in AIX—is the standard ksh shell. The Korn shell conforms to the Portable Operating System Interface for Computer Environments (POSIX), which is an international standard for operating systems.

The second Korn shell available in AIX is the enhanced Korn shell, called ksh93. In addition to all the great features of the standard Korn shell, the enhanced Korn shell contains such features as:

  • Arithmetic enhancements
  • Compound variables
  • Compound assignments
  • Associative arrays
  • Variable name references
  • Parameter expansions
  • Discipline functions
  • Function environments
  • PATH search rules
  • Shell history
  • Additional built-in commands

For a complete list of enhancements and differences between ksh and ksh93, see Resources.

Setting up the command-line environment with ksh

Before looking at editing the command line with ksh, you must set up your environment. Setting up the Korn shell to your liking is relatively simple: While logged in under ksh, view your current settings by using the -o switch with the set command:

# set -o

Current option settings are:
allexport        off
bgnice           on
emacs            off
errexit          off
gmacs            off
ignoreeof        on
interactive      on
keyword          off
markdirs         off
monitor          on
noexec           off
noclobber        off
noglob           off
nolog            off
notify           off
nounset          off
privileged       off
restricted       off
trackall         off
verbose          off
vi               off
viraw            on
xtrace           off

Here’s a brief explanation of each setting. (You can also find this explanation by running man set.)

  • allexport: Export all defined subsequent variables automatically.
  • bgnice: Run all processes in the background at a lower priority.
  • emacs: When editing the command-line text entered, use the emacs-style inline editor.
  • errexit: If a command has an exit status of anything but 0 (zero), execute the ERR trap (if it is set and exists).
  • gmacs: When editing the command-line text entered, use the gmacs-style inline editor.
  • ignoreeof: Ignore end-of-file characters, and do not exit the shell. If the user wants to exit, the user must type the exit command or press Control-D 11 times.
  • keyword: Rather than placing only the arguments that precede a command, this option places all arguments in the environment for a command, which can be viewed with the set command.
  • markdirs: Place a forward slash (/) on the end of all directories that are from a file name substitution.
  • monitor: Run all processes in the background, as a separate process, and inform the user when the process has finished by printing a line to stdout.
  • noexec: Do not execute the commands. Instead, just check for syntax errors.

    Note: This parameter isn't used if attempted in interactive shells.

  • noclobber: This flag prohibits existing files from being truncated when output is redirected to it. If this option is used, truncating can still occur if a greater-than symbol and a pipe (>|) are used, instead.
  • noglob: File name substitution is disabled.
  • nolog: Function definitions will not be stored in the history file if this option is used.
  • nounset: If substituting, all unset parameters will be returned as an error.
  • restricted: Run a restricted shell. Users cannot change directories; change their SHELL, ENV, or PATH variables; execute a command that contains a forward slash (/) in the pathname; or redirect output.
  • trackall: Each command, when initially run, will be a tracked alias.
  • verbose: Display all input lines to stdout as the shell reads them.
  • vi: When editing the command-line text entered, use the vi-style inline editor.
  • viraw: As each character is typed, execute it as if it were typed in the vi editor.
  • xtrace: Display all commands and arguments as they are being executed to stdout.

To turn options on with the built-in command set, use the -o switch. If you change your mind, you can turn off the options you set by using the +o switch, instead.

The main option I focus on in this article is the inline editor switch. Depending on the individual, some favor one file editor over another, be it vi, emacs, or gmacs. The Korn shell accommodates all three. However, I focus on the vi inline editor. Setting the inline editor option to vi is easy. Simply enter the option into the command you used to view all the current settings:

# set -o vi

That's it! To verify the setting, you can look at your current settings again:

# set -o

Current option settings are:
allexport        off
bgnice           on
emacs            off
errexit          off
gmacs            off
ignoreeof        on
interactive      on
keyword          off
markdirs         off
monitor          on
noexec           off
noclobber        off
noglob           off
nolog            off
notify           off
nounset          off
privileged       off
restricted       off
trackall         off
verbose          off
vi             on
viraw            on
xtrace           off

Using the Korn shell vi inline editor

Now that your shell has been configured to use the vi inline editor, it's time to test it out.

Modifying text on the command line

When you type on the command line now, think of it as you're now in insert mode in the vi editor. If you make a mistake or need to add something to the command to execute, simply click the Esc key to exit insert mode and switch back to command mode.

For example, the present working directory you're in has the contents:

# ls
fileA    fileAA   fileAAA  fileAB   fileABA  fileABB  fileB    fileBAA  fileBB   fileBBB

You want to find files that begin with fileAA and remove them:

# find . -name "fileAB*" -exec rm {} \;

Before executing the line you typed, you notice that you made a mistake and accidentally typed fileAB instead of fileAA! No need to worry. Simply exit insert mode to switch into command mode, move the cursor to the incorrect letter, and replace it—all using vi commands. To break down the command sequence, while still in the insert mode of the inline editor:

  1. Click Esc to switch to command mode.
  2. Move the cursor left to highlight the B in the string "fileAB*" using vi-style movement commands. (The H key moves left.)

    Note: If you're accustomed to using the arrow keys in vi, it's wise to learn the actual letters on the keyboard to move the cursor, as the TERM type may differ and you may not achieve the desired results with the arrow keys:

    • h: Left
    • l: Right
    • k: Up
    • j: Down
  3. Replace the B with A using the vi-style "replace single character" commands (that is, click R, and then type A).

When you've reviewed your work and agree that this is what you want, click Enter to execute the command:

# find . -name "fileAA*" -exec rm {} \;# ls
fileA    fileAB   fileABA  fileABB  fileB    fileBAA  fileBB   fileBBB

File name completion

Another useful operation of the vi inline editor in the Korn shell is file name completion. When executing commands, there are often times when a file you're using as an argument for stdin or stdout (or stderr) is being written to a file. File names can become long, there may be several files with similar names, or you simply can't remember the full file name. This is where file name completion comes to the rescue. If, when typing the file name, you get halfway through, simply click the Esc key, then the backslash (\) key. It's convenient and saves a lot of time!

For example, I want to view the /etc/filesystems file on AIX, but I forgot the full file name. I know it's in /etc, and I know the file begins with file, but that's it. I simply type view /etc/file and click Esc-\, and voilá! ksh has completed the line for me. The command line now reads view /etc/filesystems.

The same can be done on a directory structure, because they are really just file names, too.

Viewing and modifying command history

How many times do you type the same command over and over while monitoring a process or performing some other function on your UNIX system? Rather than constant retyping, the Korn shell has a built-in command history for your review. If you also have your inline editor set to vi, ksh allows you to pull the history of commands executed by that user—sometimes only for that session, depending on how you've configured your system—and modify the commands as you would any other text typed on the command line.

If you've defined a file name in the variable HISTFILE, ksh allows users to pull from their history and modify the commands or simply re-execute the original command. For example, here are the last 10 occurrences of a sample $HISTFILE:

# tail -10 $HISTFILE
cd ~cormany/testdir/dirA
./fileA 1>fileA.out 2>fileA.errors
ps –fu cormany
df –k .
ps –fu cormany
find . –name “fileA.out” –ls
find . –name “fileA.errors” –ls
tail -10 $HISTFILE

While on the command line, simply click Esc to enter command mode in the vi inline editor, and then click K to pull the last command executed. Because you're still in command mode, you can continue clicking K to move up the history of commands executed or J to move down the list.

To help simplify the command-mode cursor movement, when you click Esc at a command prompt, think of your $HISTFILE being loaded as a normal file in vi. In the vi editor, the K key moves up one line, while the J key moves down a line. If clicking Esc-J and using the sample $HISTFILE, visualize editing the $HISTFILE and the cursor beginning at the bottom of the file. The line would be tail -10 $HISTFILE. If you clicked J again, you would move up a single line in the $HISTFILE you're editing, which would be find . -name "fileA.errors" –ls.

Figure 2 provides a small "cheat sheet" comparing regular vi command-mode cursor movement against the ksh vi inline editor command-mode movement.

Figure 2. A vi command-mode cheat sheet
A vi command-mode cheat sheet

Command line versus shell script

There are times for shell scripts and there are times for command line use. If a task is to be performed on a routine basis or the task requested is complex, requiring data manipulation, rather than asking users always to type the commands, a shell script becomes useful. Other times, when it's a single occurrence and something relatively simple, the command line can do the trick nicely.

For example, take this directory listing:

# ls
fileA.tar.gz   fileAA.tar.gz  fileB.tar.gz   fileBB.tar.gz

If you simply want to uncompress the files, recompress them with bzip2, and transfer them to ATC-AIX2, rather than typing a shell script, you could do it on the command line. Think of a shell script as several command-line entries typed at once, because that is what it really is, in a sense. When typing commands on a command line, it's just like typing them into a script, and then executing the script.

You want to loop through the files in the directory that end with gz, uncompress them, recompress with bzip2, and then use the scp command on the files to the destination server of ATC-AIX. A loop works on the command line as nicely as it does in a script. When beginning a loop…if conditional statement, case switch statement, or other code block statements, the ksh you're running will simply move the cursor to the next line, but the prompt will change to $PS2. When the code block has been completed, the code block will executed and return the user to a $PS1 prompt.

In other words:

  • $PS1 prompt: Waiting for the next command
  • $PS1 prompt: Code block starts
  • $PS2 prompt: Code block continues
  • $PS2 prompt: Code block continues
  • $PS2 prompt: Code block ends
  • Code block executes
  • $PS1 prompt: Waiting for the next command

The default value to variable PS2 is >. Going back to the previous function of uncompress and then recompress, you would simply type the following at a ksh command line:

# for _FNAME in 'ls -1 *.gz'
> do
> gzip -d ${_FNAME}
> bzip2 ${_FNAME%*.gz}
> scp ${_FNAME%*.gz}.bz2 cormany@ATC-AIX2:/home/cormany
> done

When you click Enter after completing the code block (that is, for a loop terminating with done), the loop will begin. The loop typed on the command line searches for all files in the current working directory ending with .gz, uncompress them, recompresses them with bzip2, and transfers them to the directory /home/cormany on ATC-AIX2. It's as simple as that.


After reading this article, you should now be able to use the Korn shell in ways you may not have known before. Mastering the command line can simplify your work and help you better understand how to make the shell and command line work for you rather than you working harder for it.



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