As I’ve become a better shell programmer over the last year or two, I’ve been surprised to discover some tools I didn’t know about. It eventually dawned on me, as I did more and more brute-force processing of large datasets, as well as some of the more delicate things that went into Aspersa -> Percona Toolkit, that many tasks I used to do with SQL and spreadsheets can be accomplished easily with well-structured text files and Unix utilities. And they don’t require loading data into a database or spreadsheet (the latter of which almost always performs terribly).
To give an idea, here are some of the relational operations (in SQL speak) you can perform:
- SELECT col1, col2… can be implemented with several variants of Unix
awkare the two most obvious. I tend to use
awkonly when needed, or when it’s more convenient to combine operations into a single tool.
- JOIN can be implemented with the… wait for it…
joinutility. You’ll need to
sortits input first, though.
- Many GROUP BY operations can be performed with combinations of
sortwith or without the
-urnkoptions (look at the man page—you can apply options to individual sort keys), and
uniqwith or without the
-coption. Many more can be done with 20 or 30 characters of
- Output formatting is easy with
column, especially with the
In addition to the above, Bash’s subshell input operator syntaxes can help avoid a lot of temporary files. For example, if you want to join two unsorted files, you can do it like this:
$ join <(sort file1) <(sort file2)
That’s kind of an overview—I end up hacking together a bunch of things, and I’m sure I’m forgetting something. But pipe-and-filter programming with whitespace-delimited files is generally a much more powerful (and performant) paradigm than I realized a few years ago, and that’s the point I wanted to share overall.
As a concrete example, I remember a mailing list thread that began with “I have
a 500GB file of 600 billion strings, max length 2000 characters, unsorted,
non-unique, and I need a list of the unique strings.” Suggestions included
Hadoop, custom programs, Gearman, more Hadoop, and so on—and the ultimate
sort -u and
sort --merge, trivially parallelized with Bash. (By
the way, an easy way to parallelize things is
What are your favorite “low-level” power programming techniques?