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3.6. Functions, Aliases, and the Environment

As mentioned earlier, PS1, PS2, PS3, PS4, and PROMPT_COMMAND are all stored in the Bash environment. For those of us coming from a DOS background, the idea of tossing big hunks of code into the environment is horrifying, because that DOS environment was small, and didn't exactly grow well. There are probably practical limits to what you can and should put in the environment, but I don't know what they are, and we're probably talking a couple of orders of magnitude larger than what DOS users are used to. As Dan put it:

"In my interactive shell I have 62 aliases and 25 functions. My rule of thumb is that if I need something solely for interactive use and can handily write it in bash I make it a shell function (assuming it can't be easily expressed as an alias). If these people are worried about memory they don't need to be using bash. Bash is one of the largest programs I run on my linux box (outside of Oracle). Run top sometime and press 'M' to sort by memory - see how close bash is to the top of the list. Heck, it's bigger than sendmail! Tell 'em to go get ash or something."

I guess he was using console only the day he tried that: running X and X apps, I have a lot of stuff larger than Bash. But the idea is the same: the environment is something to be used, and don't worry about overfilling it.

I risk censure by Unix gurus when I say this (for the crime of over-simplification), but functions are basically small shell scripts that are loaded into the environment for the purpose of efficiency. Quoting Dan again: "Shell functions are about as efficient as they can be. It is the approximate equivalent of sourcing a bash/bourne shell script save that no file I/O need be done as the function is already in memory. The shell functions are typically loaded from [.bashrc or .bash_profile] depending on whether you want them only in the initial shell or in subshells as well. Contrast this with running a shell script: Your shell forks, the child does an exec, potentially the path is searched, the kernel opens the file and examines enough bytes to determine how to run the file, in the case of a shell script a shell must be started with the name of the script as its argument, the shell then opens the file, reads it and executes the statements. Compared to a shell function, everything other than executing the statements can be considered unnecessary overhead."

Aliases are simple to create:

alias d="ls --color=tty --classify"
alias v="d --format=long"
alias rm="rm -i"

Any arguments you pass to the alias are passed to the command line of the aliased command (ls in the first two cases). Note that aliases can be nested, and they can be used to make a normal unix command behave in a different way. (I agree with the argument that you shouldn't use the latter kind of aliases - if you get in the habit of relying on "rm *" to ask you if you're sure, you may lose important files on a system that doesn't use your alias.)

Functions are used for more complex program structures. As a general rule, use an alias for anything that can be done in one line. Functions differ from shell scripts in that they are loaded into the environment so that they work more quickly. As a general rule again, you would want to keep functions relatively small, and any shell script that gets relatively large should remain a shell script rather than turning it into a function. Your decision to load something as a function is also going to depend on how often you use it. If you use a small shell script infrequently, leave it as a shell script. If you use it often, turn it into a function.

To modify the behaviour of ls, you could do something like the following:

function lf
{ 
    ls --color=tty --classify $*
    echo "$(ls -l $* | wc -l) files"
}

This could readily be set as an alias, but for the sake of example, we'll make it a function. If you type the text shown into a text file and then source that file, the function will be in your environment, and be immediately available at the command line without the overhead of a shell script mentioned previously. The usefulness of this becomes more obvious if you consider adding more functionality to the above function, such as using an if statement to execute some special code when links are found in the listing.