Better BASHing Through Technology

28 Aug 2020

I write a lot of bash scripts for both my day job and my personal projects, and while they are functional, bash scripts always seem to lack that structure that I want, especially when compared to writing something in Go or C#. The main problem I have with bash scripts is that when I use functions, I lose the ability to log things.

For example the get_config_path function will print the path to the configuration file, which will get consumed by the do_work function:

get_config_path() {
  echo "Finding Machine Configurtaion"

  if [ -n "$CONFIG_PATH" ] && [ -e "$CONFIG_PATH" ]; then
    # echo "Using Configuration from environment"
    echo "$CONFIG_PATH"

  if [ -e "~/.config/demo/config.toml" ]; then
    # echo "Using Configuration directory file"
    echo "~/.config/demo/config.toml"

  # echo "Unable to find configuration"
  exit 1

do_work() {
  local -r config=$(get_config_path)

  # actual work...

The problem is, if I include the echo statements which are log lines, the config variable in the do_work function will contain them too.

In the past, this has caused me to use functions in bash very sparingly; usually with things that are short that I don’t need to add much logging to. However, I was recently building some AMIs, and happened to be browsing the Consul and Vault terraform module source, which uses several bash scripts which are written in a different style, which makes them vastly more maintainable.

So let’s have a look at the new structure I use, which is heavily based off these scripts.

Better Bash Scripts

Before we get to the implementation, make sure you are using ShellCheck it provides static analysis of your scripts, pointing out many things like missing quotes, or incorrectly handling arrays. It has plugins for all your favourite editors too.

0. General Styles and Constructs

All variables should be declared readonly, and local if possible, to help prevent surprise values from being present if other functions forget to do the same.

#top level
readonly SCRIPT_NAME="$(basename "$0")"

some_method() {
  # within a method
  local -r config_path="$1"

Functions should assign their passed arguments to named variables as the first thing they do, preferably matching the variable name they are passed, which helps later when you are searching through a script for usages of “config_file” and not having to find other names/aliases for the same value.

read_config() {
  local -r config_file="$1"
  local -r skip_validation="$2"

  # ...

invoke() {
  # ...

  read_config "$config_file" "$skip_validation"

1. Error Handling

It should go without saying, but you really need to start your scripts with the following:


set -euo pipefail;

There are many better articles on what these specifically do, but suffice to say:

  • e causes the script to stop on errors
  • u causes it to error on undefined variables being used
  • o pipefail causes a non-zero exit code from any command in a pipeline to fail the script too (rather than just the last command.)

2. Logging

The real advantage of this structure is we get to have log statements! This is achieved by doing all logging to stderr instead of stdout. We use a standardised log function across all the scripts, which also includes the script’s name so when calling other scripts you can see which one wrote the log line:

readonly SCRIPT_NAME="$(basename "$0")"

log() {
  local -r level="$1"
  local -r message="$2"
  local -r timestamp=$(date +"%Y-%m-%d %H:%M:%S")

  >&2 echo -e "${timestamp} [${level}] [$SCRIPT_NAME] ${message}"

Invoking the function is log "INFO" "Some status" or log "WARN" "Something concerning" etc.

3. Error Checking

We have some standard assertion functions which are used by the script when starting up to validate arguments:

assert_not_empty() {
  local -r arg_name="$1"
  local -r arg_value="$2"

  if [[ -z "$arg_value" ]]; then
    log "ERROR" "The value for '$arg_name' cannot be empty"
    exit 1

assert_is_installed() {
  local -r name="$1"

  if [[ ! $(command -v "$name") ]]; then
    log "ERROR" "The binary '$name' is required by this script but is not installed or in the system's PATH."
    exit 1

4. Argument parsing

When scripts need to take parameters in, I prefer to use long-flag style, as they are little more readable for people checking invocations again in the future. This function is usually always called run, and is the last function defined, and is invoked immediately after definition, passing in all script arguments (run "[email protected]"):

run() {
  local namespace=""
  local suffix=""
  local dry_run="false"

  while [[ $# -gt 0 ]]; do
    local key="$1"

    case "$key" in
        assert_not_empty "$key" "$2"
        log "ERROR" "Unrecognized argument: $key"
        exit 1


  # mandatory flag validation
  assert_not_empty "--namespace" "$namespace"

  # make sure tools are installed
  assert_is_installed "vault"
  assert_is_installed "openssl"
  assert_is_installed "jq"

  # do the work!
  local -r cert=$(generate_cert "$suffix")

  store_cert "$namespace" "$cert" "$dry_run"


run "[email protected]"

The validation uses the assert_not_empty function defined above, which is used in two ways: after the while loop to check mandatory values have been filled in, and within the case statement for optional flags values.

We also use assert_is_installed to validate that utilities we need are installed, such as vault, openssl and jq

The print_usage function is just a set of echo statements giving all the flags, and an example of invokation:

print_usage() {
  echo "Usage: $SCRIPT_NAME [OPTIONS]"
  echo "This script creates a new certiticate, and it installs it into the right namespace"
  echo "Options:"
  echo -e "  --namespace\tThe namespace to install the certificate in"
  echo -e "  --suffix\tAn optional suffix for the hostname"
  echo -e "  --dry-run\tDon't install the certificate"
  echo "Example:"
  echo "  $SCRIPT_NAME --namespace test --dry-run"


I keep a single template file which has all of this written into it, and new scripts start off with a copy-paste of the template. Could it be DRYer? Sure, but then I have to deal with dependency management, and it’s just not worth the hassle and overhead.

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