4.9. Shells

A shell provides a command line interface for interacting with the operating system. A shell receives commands from the input channel and executes them. Many shells provide built in functions to help with everyday tasks such as file management, file globbing, command line editing, command macros, and environment variables. FreeBSD comes with several shells, including the Bourne shell (sh(1)) and the extended C shell (tcsh(1)). Other shells are available from the FreeBSD Ports Collection, such as zsh and bash.

The shell that is used is really a matter of taste. A C programmer might feel more comfortable with a C-like shell such as tcsh(1). A Linux® user might prefer bash. Each shell has unique properties that may or may not work with a user's preferred working environment, which is why there is a choice of which shell to use.

One common shell feature is filename completion. After a user types the first few letters of a command or filename and presses Tab, the shell completes the rest of the command or filename. Consider two files called foobar and football. To delete foobar, the user might type rm foo and press Tab to complete the filename.

But the shell only shows rm foo. It was unable to complete the filename because both foobar and football start with foo. Some shells sound a beep or show all the choices if more than one name matches. The user must then type more characters to identify the desired filename. Typing a t and pressing Tab again is enough to let the shell determine which filename is desired and fill in the rest.

Another feature of the shell is the use of environment variables. Environment variables are a variable/key pair stored in the shell's environment. This environment can be read by any program invoked by the shell, and thus contains a lot of program configuration. Table 4.4, “Common Environment Variables” provides a list of common environment variables and their meanings. Note that the names of environment variables are always in uppercase.

Table 4.4. Common Environment Variables
VariableDescription
USERCurrent logged in user's name.
PATHColon-separated list of directories to search for binaries.
DISPLAYNetwork name of the Xorg display to connect to, if available.
SHELLThe current shell.
TERMThe name of the user's type of terminal. Used to determine the capabilities of the terminal.
TERMCAPDatabase entry of the terminal escape codes to perform various terminal functions.
OSTYPEType of operating system.
MACHTYPEThe system's CPU architecture.
EDITORThe user's preferred text editor.
PAGERThe user's preferred utility for viewing text one page at a time.
MANPATHColon-separated list of directories to search for manual pages.

How to set an environment variable differs between shells. In tcsh(1) and csh(1), use setenv to set environment variables. In sh(1) and bash, use export to set the current environment variables. This example sets the default EDITOR to /usr/local/bin/emacs for the tcsh(1) shell:

% setenv EDITOR /usr/local/bin/emacs

The equivalent command for bash would be:

% export EDITOR="/usr/local/bin/emacs"

To expand an environment variable in order to see its current setting, type a $ character in front of its name on the command line. For example, echo $TERM displays the current $TERM setting.

Shells treat special characters, known as meta-characters, as special representations of data. The most common meta-character is *, which represents any number of characters in a filename. Meta-characters can be used to perform filename globbing. For example, echo * is equivalent to ls because the shell takes all the files that match * and echo lists them on the command line.

To prevent the shell from interpreting a special character, escape it from the shell by starting it with a backslash (\). For example, echo $TERM prints the terminal setting whereas echo \$TERM literally prints the string $TERM.

4.9.1. Changing the Shell

The easiest way to permanently change the default shell is to use chsh. Running this command will open the editor that is configured in the EDITOR environment variable, which by default is set to vi(1). Change the Shell: line to the full path of the new shell.

Alternately, use chsh -s which will set the specified shell without opening an editor. For example, to change the shell to bash:

% chsh -s /usr/local/bin/bash

Note:

The new shell must be present in /etc/shells. If the shell was installed from the FreeBSD Ports Collection as described in Chapter 5, Installing Applications: Packages and Ports, it should be automatically added to this file. If it is missing, add it using this command, replacing the path with the path of the shell:

# echo /usr/local/bin/bash >> /etc/shells

Then, rerun chsh(1).

4.9.2. Advanced Shell Techniques

Written by Tom Rhodes.

The UNIX® shell is not just a command interpreter, it acts as a powerful tool which allows users to execute commands, redirect their output, redirect their input and chain commands together to improve the final command output. When this functionality is mixed with built in commands, the user is provided with an environment that can maximize efficiency.

Shell redirection is the action of sending the output or the input of a command into another command or into a file. To capture the output of the ls(1) command, for example, into a file, simply redirect the output:

% ls > directory_listing.txt

The directory_listing.txt file will now contain the directory contents. Some commands allow you to read input in a similar one, such as sort(1). To sort this listing, redirect the input:

% sort < directory_listing.txt

The input will be sorted and placed on the screen. To redirect that input into another file, one could redirect the output of sort(1) by mixing the direction:

% sort < directory_listing.txt > sorted.txt

In all of the previous examples, the commands are performing redirection using file descriptors. Every unix system has file descriptors; however, here we will focus on three, so named as Standard Input, Standard Output, and Standard Error. Each one has a purpose, where input could be a keyboard or a mouse, something that provides input. Output could be a screen or paper in a printer for example. And error would be anything that is used for diagnostic or error messages. All three are considered I/O based file descriptors and sometimes considered streams.

Through the use of these descriptors, short named stdin, stdout, and stderr, the shell allows output and input to be passed around through various commands and redirected to or from a file. Another method of redirection is the pipe operator.

The UNIX® pipe operator, | allows the output of one command to be directly passed, or directed to another program. Basically a pipe will allow the standard output of a command to be passed as standard input to another command, for example:

% cat directory_listing.txt | sort | less

In that example, the contents of directory_listing.txt will be sorted and the output passed to less(1). This allows the user to scroll through the output at their own pace and prevent it from scrolling off the screen.

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