Top 10 Unix Command Line Utilities 2012

Another selection of the some useful unix commands which I found useful.

Posted on December 30, 2012 unix, bash .

This year has been quite busy with lot’s of great but stressful changes in my professional and personal life. That’s why I did not find a lot of time to write new blog posts. Now that the year is turning to an end I at least want to summarize some of the unix commands I found helpful over the year.
As last year I’m going to list 10 unix commands out of a larger collection of little examples I jotted down. The list has no particular order, just the way they came in handy for me.

1> tr

Whenever you need to do some small text substitutions tr can come in handy (tr stands for translate or transliterate). It will take some input, apply a transformation and spit out the result.
tr takes 2 parameters, the first one is a set of characters that it should translate, the second the set of characters that will act as a replacement. So the arguments “abc” “123” would mean that a gets replaced by 1, b with 2 and so on.

As a simple example, this line changes the case of the characters ‘a’ through ‘z’:

tmp > echo "Hello" | tr "A-Za-z" "a-zA-Z"

More realistic example: split your $PATH into it’s elements:

tmp > echo $PATH | tr ":" "\n" | sort

2> sort

Simple command to sort input in different manners. By default this in alphabetic order, but using the -n option will sort in a numeric fashion:

tmp > du /bin/* | sort -n -r | head -4
1320	/bin/ksh
1264	/bin/sh
1264	/bin/bash
592	/bin/zsh

sort will take multiple files as input and will merge and sort all of the files for you. Some of the most used options include -r for sorting in reverse order and -f for sorting case-insensitive.

3> uniq

Want to get rid of duplicate lines? uniq solves this problem efficiently. Note that it will only compare adjacent lines for equality, so you might want to sort before you use uniq.
Nice options: -c will prepend the count of equal elements before a line, -u will only output lines that are not repeated and -i does the whole thing case-insensitive.

Here is an example that combines tr, sort and uniq such that you can get the frequency of all words in a wikipedia article:

tmp > curl \
      | tr -cs "A-Za-z" "\n" | tr "A-Z" "a-z" \
      | sort | uniq -c | sort -n -r
% Total    % Received % Xferd  Average Speed   Time    Time     Time  Current
                                 Dload  Upload   Total   Spent    Left  Speed
100 93342  100 93342    0     0   279k      0 --:--:-- --:--:-- --:--:--  323k
1031 a
 568 span
 442 href
 435 class
 308 li
 300 b
 284 title
 229 wiki
 211 the
 209 cite
 206 id
 192 spanning
 184 i
 169 tree
 166 minimum

This fetches an html-page from wikipedia and first does some preprocessing using tr:
tr -cs "A-Za-z" "\n" — split on all non-alphabetic characters
tr "A-Z" "a-z" — make everything lowercase
sort | uniq -c — sort, remove dups but remember the count
sort -n -r — sort numerically in reverse order

4> split and cat

Again a very simple command but can be surprisingly helpful.
This is an example that splits a huge file into 75 MB chunks:

split -b 75m

This will result in a bunch of files that are named with 3 letters starting from xaa,xab,…
To reassemble the lot, all those files have to be concatinated in alphabetic order:

cat `ls x*` >

Just a quick check to make sure we ended up with the same content:

tmp > ls *.zip | xargs md5
MD5 ( = d760b448595f844b1162eaa3c04f83d8
MD5 ( = d760b448595f844b1162eaa3c04f83d8

5> substitution operations

Operations on multiple files are very frequent. Some situation I found myself in several times was that I needed to extract audio from a bunch of mp4 files.
I found 2 good ways to solve this: my prefered one makes use of substitution operations:

for i in *.mp4; do ffmpeg -i "$i" "${i%.mp4}.mp3"; done

Here the subtitution operator ${i%.mp4} deletes the shortest possible match from the right side.
This is nice and terse…but there is another variant that might even be a little more explicit: using basename

for i in *.mp4; do ffmpeg -i "$i" "`basename $i .mp4`.mp3"; done

6> calculate the size of all files found by find

There are for sure hundreds of ways to achieve this…I liked the combination of a simple find with a short and sweet awk function:

tmp > find . -iname "*.png" -ls | awk '{s += $7} END {print s}'

As some people on hn pointed out awk is probably not the simplest solution for summing up space usage. So I include an example inspired from this blog.

tmp > find . -iname "*.png" -print0 | xargs -0 du -ch | tail -1
2.2M	total

7> df

Classic. Collects some disk space usage information about your system.

tmp > df -h
Filesystem     Size   Used  Avail Capacity  iused   ifree %iused  Mounted on
/dev/disk0s2  156Gi  138Gi   17Gi    89% 36247400 4528347   89%   /

8> dd

Basically dd is just a form of copying from some input to some output (by default from stdin to stdout) that let’s you configure the block size used for the copy. It will duplicate a bitstream from it’s input. I’ve also heard people call it data destroyer ‘cause you can easily shoot yourself in the foot by inadvertently mixing up input and output…
Turns out there are quite some interesting usecases for it.

A nice one I found here is to securely wipe your drive: overwrite the entire drive with 0s:

dd if=/dev/zero of=/dev/hda

More secure (means harder to recover) is to use random data to wipe the drive:

dd if=/dev/urandom of=/dev/hda

And for the paranoid and the US Government we can repeatedly execute the fun:

for n in `seq 7`; do dd if=/dev/urandom of=/dev/sda bs=8b conv=notrunc; done

Safe MBR

A less destructive example shows how to create an image of the entire master boot record (including the partition table):

tmp > dd if=/dev/sda of=MBR.img bs=512 count=1

Here count=1 means copy only 1 input block, bs=512 sets both input and output block size to 512 bytes.

Generate Randomness

Sometimes very handy is to use dd to generate some random data for a file:

dd if=/dev/random of=random.bin bs=100 count=1

Tracking Progress

In some instances the process started with dd will take a considerable amount of time. Since you will not get any fancy progress bars, there is some trick to find out about the progress.
First you need to find out about the process id of the dd process:

tmp > pgrep -l '^dd$'
4523 dd

Then send the USR1 signal to the dd process:

tmp > kill -USR1 4523

When dd detects the USR1 signal, it will print out the current statistics to its stderr.

tmp > 123122312 bytes (xxx GB) copied, 3965.94 s, 13.9 MB/s

After reporting the status, dd will resume copying. To keep it going use watch:

tmp > watch -n 10 kill -USR1 4523

9> zip

Even though I prefer tar with either gzip or bzip2, the zip format is widely used especially among windows users. So I frequently use zip and unzip as well. Since it works quite differently compared to tar, I list the main usecases I need:

Most simple case: add some files to a zip-file (called “”):

zip abc file1 file2 file3

Of course you can also copy a whole directory “tmp” into “”.

zip -r abc tmp

Also quite handy: creating a password protected archives:

zip -e file1 file2

And finally list the files inside an archive

unzip -l

10> hexdump

When dealing with binary files it is often necessary to glimps a quick view to the actual data. I found that having a little command line utility can be very practical for such cases. hexdump has exactly what I need.

tmp > hexdump | head -5
0000000 70 a9 20 8d b1 a3 5c 1c 16 e3 17 b2 ef 94 16 ac
0000010 85 40 59 f9 89 40 45 ed 61 e8 10 f5 6f f5 99 a2
0000020 3a d6 69 62 e0 ab ee 0a 67 b8 c5 21 58 42 4d 52
0000030 2d 78 ae 2a 31 f2 78 c7 1f 22 99 07 e1 6a 55 bb
0000040 68 9a fe 8f c3 e0 e5 a3 4c 7d b3 6b f9 ae de 92

You can instruct it to display also the corresponding ASCII representation:

tmp > hexdump -C | head -5
00000000  70 a9 20 8d b1 a3 5c 1c  16 e3 17 b2 ef 94 16 ac  |p. ...\.........|
00000010  85 40 59 f9 89 40 45 ed  61 e8 10 f5 6f f5 99 a2  |.@[email protected]...|
00000020  3a d6 69 62 e0 ab ee 0a  67 b8 c5 21 58 42 4d 52  |:.ib....g..!XBMR|
00000030  2d 78 ae 2a 31 f2 78 c7  1f 22 99 07 e1 6a 55 bb  |-x.*1.x.."...jU.|
00000040  68 9a fe 8f c3 e0 e5 a3  4c 7d b3 6b f9 ae de 92  |h.......L}.k....|

Combining hex and octal output quickly allows for relating the hex values to their octal counterparts:

tmp > hexdump -xb | head -5
0000000    a970    8d20    a3b1    1c5c    e316    b217    94ef    ac16
0000000 160 251 040 215 261 243 134 034 026 343 027 262 357 224 026 254
0000010    4085    f959    4089    ed45    e861    f510    f56f    a299
0000010 205 100 131 371 211 100 105 355 141 350 020 365 157 365 231 242
0000020    d63a    6269    abe0    0aee    b867    21c5    4258    524d

short update: somebody took the time to translate this article into Serbo-Croatian