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Learning the Korn Shell

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Basic Shell Programming
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4.5 Advanced Examples: pushd and popd

We will conclude this chapter with a couple of functions that you may find handy in your everyday UNIX use.

Task 4.7

The functions pushd and popd implement a stack of directories that enable you to move to another directory temporarily and have the shell remember where you were. The C shell includes these functions, but for some reason the Korn shell omits them. Implement them as shell functions.

We will start by implementing a significant subset of their capabilities and finish the implementation in Chapter 6 .

If you don't know what a stack is, think of a spring-loaded dish receptacle in a cafeteria. When you place dishes on the receptacle, the spring compresses so that the top stays at roughly the same level. The dish most recently placed on the stack is the first to be taken when someone wants food; thus, the stack is known as a "last-in, first-out" or LIFO structure. [15] Putting something onto a stack is known in computer science parlance as pushing , and taking something off the top is called popping .

[15] Victims of the early-90s recession will also recognize this mechanism in the context of corporate layoff policies.

A stack is very handy for remembering directories, as we will see; it can "hold your place" up to an arbitrary number of times. The cd - form of the cd command does this, but only to one level. For example: if you are in firstdir and then you change to seconddir , you can type cd - to go back. But if you start out in firstdir , then change to seconddir , and then go to thirddir , you can use cd - only to go back to seconddir . If you type cd - again, you will be back in thirddir , because it is the previous directory. [16]

[16] Think of cd - as a synonym for cd $OLDPWD ; see the previous chapter.

If you want the "nested" remember-and-change functionality that will take you back to firstdir , you need a stack of directories along with the pushd and popd commands. Here is how these work: [17]

[17] More accurately, this is how the C shell does it, and yes, it is somewhat counterintuitive. A more intuitive way would be:

  • The first time pushd dir is called, pushd cd s to dir and pushes the current directory followed by dir onto the stack.

  • Subsequent calls to pushd cd to dir and push dir only onto the stack.

  • popd removes the top directory off the stack, revealing a new top. Then it cd s to the new top directory.

For example, consider the series of events in Table 4.6 . Assume that you have just logged in, and that you are in your home directory ( /home/you ).

We will implement a stack as an environment variable containing a list of directories separated by spaces.

Table 4.6: pushd/popd Example
Command Stack Contents Result Directory
pushd fred /home/you/fred /home/you /home/you/fred
pushd /etc /etc /home/you/fred /home/you /etc
popd /home/you/fred /home/you /home/you/fred
popd /home/you /home/you
popd <empty> (error)

Your directory stack should be initialized to the null string when you log in. To do this, put this in your .profile :


Do not put this in your environment file if you have one. The export statement guarantees that DIRSTACK is known to all subprocesses; you want to initialize it only once. If you put this code in an environment file, it will get reinitialized in every subshell, which you probably don't want.

Next, we need to implement pushd and popd as functions. Here are our initial versions:

function pushd {		# push current directory onto stack
    cd ${dirname:?"missing directory name."}
    DIRSTACK="$dirname ${DIRSTACK:-$PWD}"
    print "$DIRSTACK"
function popd {		# pop directory off stack, cd to new top
    cd ${DIRSTACK%% *}
    print "$PWD"

Notice that there isn't much code! Let's go through the two functions and see how they work, starting with pushd . The first line merely saves the first argument in the variable dirname for readability reasons.

The second line's main purpose is to change to the new directory. We use the :? operator to handle the error when the argument is missing: if the argument is given, then the expression ${dirname :?" missing directory name. "} evaluates to $ dirname , but if it is not given, the shell will print the message pushd: dirname: missing directory name and exit from the function.

The third line of the function pushes the new directory onto the stack. The expression ${DIRSTACK : -$PWD} evaluates to $DIRSTACK if it is non-null or $PWD (the current directory) if it is null. The expression within double quotes, then, consists of the argument given, followed by a single space, followed by DIRSTACK or the current directory. The double quotes ensure that all of this is packaged into a single string for assignment back to DIRSTACK . Thus, this line of code handles the special initial case (when the stack is empty) as well as the more usual case (when it's not empty).

The last line merely prints the contents of the stack, with the implication that the leftmost directory is both the current directory and at the top of the stack. (This is why we chose spaces to separate directories, rather than the more customary colons as in PATH and MAILPATH.)

The popd function makes yet another use of the shell's pattern-matching operators. Its first line uses the # operator, which tries to delete the shortest match of the pattern " * " (anything followed by a space) from the value of DIRSTACK. The result is that the top directory (and the space following it) is deleted from the stack.

The second line of popd uses the pattern-matching operator %% to delete the longest match to the pattern " * " (a space followed by anything) from DIRSTACK. This extracts the top directory as argument to cd , but doesn't affect the value of DIRSTACK because there is no assignment. The final line just prints a confirmation message.

This code is deficient in three ways: first, it has no provision for errors. For example:

  • What if the user tries to push a directory that doesn't exist or is invalid?

  • What if the user tries popd and the stack is empty?

Test your understanding of the code by figuring out how it would respond to these error conditions. The second deficiency is that it implements only some of the functionality of the C shell's pushd and popd commands-albeit the most useful parts. In the next chapter, we will see how to overcome both of these deficiencies.

The third problem with the code is that it will not work if, for some reason, a directory name contains a space. The code will treat the space as a separator character. We'll accept this deficiency for now. However, when you read about arrays in Chapter 6 , Command-line Options and Typed Variables , think about how you might use them to rewrite this code and eliminate the problem.

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