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Write a Shell in C (2015)


Stephen Brennan • 16 January 2015

It’s easy to leer your self as “no longer a true programmer.” There are programs out
there that everyone makes enlighten of, and it’s easy to establish their builders on a pedestal.
Though organising mountainous draw projects isn’t easy, many situations the elemental
idea of that draw in all equity straightforward. Enforcing it your self is a fun draw to
point to that you’ve what it takes to be a true programmer. So, that is a
walkthrough on how I wrote my possess simplistic Unix shell in C, within the hopes that
it makes assorted other folks basically feel that draw too.

The code for the shell described right here, dubbed lsh, is on hand on

University college students beware! Many classes procure assignments that inquire of you to
write a shell, and some college are privy to this tutorial and code. Whilst you’re
a pupil in this kind of class, you shouldn’t copy (or copy then regulate) this code
with out permission. And even then, I’d say in opposition to carefully relying on this tutorial.

Total lifetime of a shell

Let’s examine at a shell from the head down. A shell does three predominant issues in its

  • Initialize: In this step, a frequent shell would read and discontinue its
    configuration recordsdata. These alternate parts of the shell’s behavior.
  • Clarify: Next, the shell reads instructions from stdin (which will be
    interactive, or a file) and executes them.
  • Terminate: After its instructions are finished, the shell executes any
    shutdown instructions, frees up any memory, and terminates.

These steps are so normal that they would per chance per chance put collectively to many programs, but we’re
going to make enlighten of them for the premise for our shell. Our shell will be so straightforward that
there won’t be any configuration recordsdata, and there won’t be any shutdown repeat.
So, we’ll correct name the looping characteristic after which conclude. But in phrases of
architecture, it’s crucial to amass into memoir that the lifetime of the program is
bigger than correct looping.

int predominant(int argc, char argv)
  // Load config recordsdata, if any.

  // Shuffle repeat loop.

  // Kind any shutdown/cleanup.

  return EXIT_SUCCESS;

Here you might per chance well presumably also watch that I correct came up with a characteristic, lsh_loop(), that can
loop, interpreting instructions. We’ll watch the implementation of that subsequent.

Total loop of a shell

So we’ve sorted how the program will procure to start up. Now, for the elemental
program logic: what does the shell carry out right thru its loop? Properly, a straightforward draw to
take care of instructions is with three steps:

  • Read: Read the repeat from normal input.
  • Parse: Separate the repeat string staunch into a program and arguments.
  • Develop: Shuffle the parsed repeat.

Here, I’ll translate these solutions into code for lsh_loop():

void lsh_loop(void)
  char *line;
  char args;
  int reputation;

  carry out {
    printf("> ");
    line = lsh_read_line();
    args = lsh_split_line(line);
    reputation = lsh_execute(args);

  } while (reputation);

Let’s stroll thru the code. The main few lines are correct declarations. The
carry out-while loop is more convenient for checking the reputation variable, since it
executes as soon as earlier than checking its worth. Inside the loop, we print a advised,
name a characteristic to read a line, name a characteristic to separate the line into args, and
discontinue the args. Sooner or later, we free the line and arguments that we created
earlier. Utter that we’re utilizing a reputation variable returned by lsh_execute() to
prefer when to exit.

Discovering out a line

Discovering out a line from stdin sounds so straightforward, but in C it in general is a bother. The
unhappy thing is that you don’t know sooner than time how worthy text a client will enter
into their shell. You are going to also’t merely allocate a block and hope they don’t exceed
it. As a replacement, you might per chance procure first of all a block, and if they carry out exceed it,
reallocate with extra space. This is a frequent strategy in C, and we’ll enlighten it to
put in pressure lsh_read_line().

#clarify LSH_RL_BUFSIZE 1024
char *lsh_read_line(void)
  int bufsize = LSH_RL_BUFSIZE;
  int reveal = 0;
  char *buffer = malloc(sizeof(char) * bufsize);
  int c;

  if (!buffer) {
    fprintf(stderr, "lsh: allocation errorn");

  while (1) {
    // Read a persona
    c = getchar();

    // If we hit EOF, replace it with a null persona and return.
    if (c == EOF || c == 'n') {
      buffer[position] = '';
      return buffer;
    } else {
      buffer[position] = c;

    // If we procure exceeded the buffer, reallocate.
    if (reveal >= bufsize) {
      bufsize += LSH_RL_BUFSIZE;
      buffer = realloc(buffer, bufsize);
      if (!buffer) {
        fprintf(stderr, "lsh: allocation errorn");

The main phase is a spread of declarations. Whilst you hadn’t noticed, I possess to
defend the venerable C form of declaring variables earlier than the comfort of the code. The
meat of the characteristic is interior the (it sounds as if a spread of) while (1) loop. In
the loop, we read a persona (and retailer it as an int, no longer a char, that’s
crucial! EOF is an integer, no longer a persona, and even as you might per chance procure to procure to take a look at for it,
you might per chance procure to make enlighten of an int. This is a frequent newbie C mistake.). If it’s the
newline, or EOF, we null conclude our latest string and return it. In any other case,
we add the persona to our present string.

Next, we watch whether or no longer the following persona will plod outdoor of our latest buffer
dimension. If that is the case, we reallocate our buffer (checking for allocation errors) earlier than
persevering with. And that’s basically it.

Of us that are intimately conversant in more contemporary versions of the C library can also merely point to
that there may well be a getline() characteristic in stdio.h that does many of the work we
correct implemented. To be fully honest, I didn’t perceive it existed until after
I wrote this code. This characteristic used to be a GNU extension to the C library until
2008, when it used to be added to the specification, so latest Unixes will procure to procure
it now. I’m leaving my present code the trend it is a long way, and I support other folks to
be taught it this draw first earlier than utilizing getline. You’d be robbing your self of a
finding out opportunity even as you didn’t! Anyhow, with getline, the characteristic
turns into more straightforward:

char *lsh_read_line(void)
  char *line = NULL;
  ssize_t bufsize = 0; // procure getline allocate a buffer for us

  if (getline(&line, &bufsize, stdin) == -1){
    if (feof(stdin)) {
      exit(EXIT_SUCCESS);  // We recieved an EOF
    } else  {

  return line;

This is no longer 100% trivial because we silent have to take a look at for EOF or errors while
reading. EOF (discontinue of file) draw that either we were reading instructions from a
text file which we’ve reached the discontinue of, or the patron typed Ctrl-D, which
indicators discontinue-of-file. Either draw, it draw we can procure to exit successfully, and if
any assorted error occurs, we can procure to fail after printing the error.

Parsing the line

OK, so if we examine support at the loop, we watch that we procure now got implemented
lsh_read_line(), and we procure the line of input. Now, we must forever parse that
line staunch into a list of arguments. I’m going to make a evident simplification right here,
and sigh that we won’t allow quoting or backslash escaping in our repeat line
arguments. As a replacement, we can merely enlighten whitespace to separate arguments from
every assorted. So the repeat echo "this message" wouldn’t name echo with a
single argument this message, but pretty it would per chance per chance well name echo with two
arguments: "this and message".

With these simplifications, all we must forever carry out is “tokenize” the string utilizing
whitespace as delimiters. Which draw we can rupture out the normal library
characteristic strtok to carry out a couple of of the dirty work for us.

#clarify LSH_TOK_BUFSIZE 64
#clarify LSH_TOK_DELIM " trna"
char lsh_split_line(char *line)
  int bufsize = LSH_TOK_BUFSIZE, reveal = 0;
  char tokens = malloc(bufsize * sizeof(char*));
  char *token;

  if (!tokens) {
    fprintf(stderr, "lsh: allocation errorn");

  token = strtok(line, LSH_TOK_DELIM);
  while (token != NULL) {
    tokens[position] = token;

    if (reveal >= bufsize) {
      bufsize += LSH_TOK_BUFSIZE;
      tokens = realloc(tokens, bufsize * sizeof(char*));
      if (!tokens) {
        fprintf(stderr, "lsh: allocation errorn");

    token = strtok(NULL, LSH_TOK_DELIM);
  tokens[position] = NULL;
  return tokens;

If this code appears to be like to be suspiciously same to lsh_read_line(), it’s since it
is! We’re utilizing the same strategy of getting a buffer and dynamically increasing
it. But this time, we’re doing it with a null-terminated array of pointers
in living of a null-terminated array of characters.

Before all the pieces of the characteristic, we start tokenizing by calling strtok. It
returns a pointer to the first token. What strtok() basically does is return
pointers to interior the string you give it, and living bytes at the discontinue of
every token. We retailer every pointer in an array (buffer) of persona

Sooner or later, we reallocate the array of pointers if fundamental. The course of repeats
until no token is returned by strtok, at which point we null-conclude the
list of tokens.

So, as soon as all is declared and carried out, we procure an array of tokens, in a position to complete.
Which begs the inquire of, how can we supply out that?

Now, we’re basically at the coronary heart of what a shell does. Starting processes is the
predominant characteristic of shells. So writing a shell draw that you might per chance procure to perceive precisely
what’s occurring with processes and how they start. That’s why I’m going to amass
us on a transient diversion to keep up a correspondence about processes in Unix.

There are most productive two ways of starting up processes on Unix. The main one (which
almost doesn’t depend) is by being Init. You watch, when a Unix computer boots,
its kernel is loaded. Once it is a long way loaded and initialized, the kernel begins most productive
one course of, which is known as Init. This course of runs for your complete length of
time that the computer is on, and it manages loading up the comfort of the
processes that you’d like for your computer to be adequate.

Since most programs aren’t Init, that leaves most productive one wise draw for
processes to start: the fork() draw name. When this characteristic is
called, the working draw makes a reproduction of the course of and begins them
both operating. The long-established course of is known as the “guardian”, and the unusual one is
called the “child”. fork() returns 0 to the baby course of, and it returns to
the guardian the course of ID number (PID) of its child. In essence, this draw
that the most productive draw for tag unusual processes is to start is by an present one
duplicating itself.

This would per chance per chance well sound adore a mumble. Assuredly, even as you might per chance procure to procure to flee a brand unusual course of,
you don’t correct desire one other copy of the same program – you might per chance procure to procure to flee a
assorted program. That’s what the exec() draw name is all about. It
replaces the latest operating program with an fully unusual one. This draw that
even as you name exec, the working draw stops your course of, loads up the unusual
program, and begins that one in its living. A course of by no draw returns from an
exec() name (unless there’s an error).

With these two draw calls, we procure the constructing blocks for the trend most programs
are flee on Unix. First, an present course of forks itself into two separate
ones. Then, the baby makes enlighten of exec() to interchange itself with a brand unusual program. The
guardian course of can proceed doing assorted issues, and it will even defend tabs on its
kids, utilizing the draw name wait().

Phew! That’s a spread of data, but with all that background, the following
code for launching a program will basically make sense:

int lsh_launch(char args)
  pid_t pid, wpid;
  int reputation;

  pid = fork();
  if (pid == 0) {
    // Minute one course of
    if (execvp(args[0], args) == -1) {
  } else if (pid < 0) {
    // Error forking
  } else {
    // Parent course of
    carry out {
      wpid = waitpid(pid, &reputation, WUNTRACED);
    } while (!WIFEXITED(reputation) && !WIFSIGNALED(reputation));

  return 1;

Alright. This characteristic takes the list of arguments that we created earlier.
Then, it forks the course of, and saves the return worth. Once fork() returns,
we basically procure two processes operating at the identical time as. The kid course of will
possess the first if situation (the build pid == 0).

In the baby course of, we desire to flee the repeat given by the patron. So, we enlighten
one of many a spread of variants of the exec draw name, execvp. The more than a couple of
variants of exec carry out a runt bit assorted issues. Some possess a variable resolution of
string arguments. Others possess a list of strings. Accumulated others point out you might per chance well presumably also specify
the environment that the course of runs with. This particular variant expects a
program name and an array (continually is known as a vector, as a result of this truth the ‘v’) of string
arguments (the first one has to be the program name). The ‘p’ draw that
in living of offering the fat file direction of the program to flee, we’re going to
give its name, and let the working draw examine for the program within the direction.

If the exec repeat returns -1 (or basically, if it returns at all), we know
there used to be an error. So, we enlighten perror to print the draw’s error message,
along with our program name, so customers know the build the error came from. Then, we
exit so that the shell can defend operating.

The 2d situation (pid < 0) tests whether or no longer fork() had an error. If that is the case,
we print it and defend going – there’s no handling that error beyond telling the
client and allowing them to establish if they have to quit.

The third situation draw that fork() finished successfully. The guardian
course of will land right here. All people is aware of that the baby is going to complete the course of,
so the guardian needs to appear forward to the repeat to complete operating. We enlighten
waitpid() to appear forward to the course of’s reveal to alternate. Sadly,
waitpid() has a spread of alternatives (adore exec()). Processes can alternate reveal in
a complete bunch ways, and no longer all of them point out that the course of has ended. A course of
can either exit (infrequently, or with an error code), or it will be killed by a
signal. So, we enlighten the macros equipped with waitpid() to wait until either
the processes are exited or killed. Then, the characteristic finally returns a 1, as
a signal to the calling characteristic that we can procure to advised for input again.

Shell Builtins

You are going to also merely procure noticed that the lsh_loop() characteristic calls lsh_execute(), but
above, we titled our characteristic lsh_launch(). This used to be intentional! You watch,
most instructions a shell executes are programs, but no longer all of them. Some of them
are constructed staunch into the shell.

The motive is de facto lovely straightforward. Whilst you might per chance procure to procure to alternate itemizing, you'd like
to make enlighten of the characteristic chdir(). The thing is, the latest itemizing is a
property of a course of. So, even as you wrote a program called cd that changed
itemizing, it would per chance per chance well correct alternate its possess latest itemizing, after which conclude.
Its guardian course of’s latest itemizing would per chance per chance well be unchanged. As a replacement, the shell
course of itself needs to complete chdir(), so that its possess latest itemizing is
updated. Then, when it launches child processes, they'll inherit that
itemizing too.

Equally, if there used to be a program named exit, it wouldn’t present you with the selection to exit the
shell that called it. That repeat additionally needs to be constructed into the shell.
Also, most shells are configured by operating configuration scripts, adore
~/.bashrc. These scripts enlighten instructions that alternate the operation of the shell.
These instructions would per chance per chance well most productive alternate the shell’s operation if they were implemented
interior the shell itself.

So, it is a long way wise that we must forever add some instructions to the shell itself. The
ones I added to my shell are cd, exit, and support. Here are their characteristic
implementations below:

/Characteristic Declarations for builtin shell instructions:
int lsh_cd(char args);
int lsh_help(char args);
int lsh_exit(char args);

/Checklist of builtin instructions, followed by their corresponding capabilities.
char *builtin_str[] = {

int (*builtin_func[]) (char ) = {

int lsh_num_builtins() {
  return sizeof(builtin_str) / sizeof(char *);

/Builtin characteristic implementations.
int lsh_cd(char args)
  if (args[1] == NULL) {
    fprintf(stderr, "lsh: anticipated argument to "cd"n");
  } else {
    if (chdir(args[1]) != 0) {
  return 1;

int lsh_help(char args)
  int i;
  printf("Stephen Brennan's LSHn");
  printf("Kind program names and arguments, and hit enter.n");
  printf("The following are in-constructed: n");

  for (i = 0; i < lsh_num_builtins(); i++) {
    printf("  %sn", builtin_str[i]);

  printf("Verbalize the person repeat for data on assorted programs.n");
  return 1;

int lsh_exit(char args)
  return 0;

There are three parts to this code. The main phase contains forward
of my capabilities. A forward declaration is even as you say (but
don’t clarify) one thing, so that you might per chance well presumably also enlighten its name earlier than you clarify it. The
motive I carry out it is a long way because lsh_help() makes enlighten of the array of builtins, and the
arrays private lsh_help(). The cleanest draw to rupture this dependency cycle is
by forward declaration.

The next phase is an array of builtin repeat names, followed by an array of
their corresponding capabilities. This is so that, at some point soon, builtin instructions
will be added merely by modifying these arrays, pretty than modifying a mountainous
“switch” assertion someplace within the code. Whilst you’re stressed by the declaration
of builtin_func, that’s OK! I am too. It’s an array of characteristic pointers
(that possess array of strings and return an int). Any declaration provocative
characteristic pointers in C can salvage basically delicate. I silent examine up how characteristic
pointers are declared myself!

Sooner or later, I put in pressure every characteristic. The lsh_cd() characteristic first tests that
its 2d argument exists, and prints an error message if it doesn’t. Then, it
calls chdir(), tests for errors, and returns. The support characteristic prints a
nice message and the names of your complete builtins. And the exit characteristic returns
0, as a signal for the repeat loop to conclude.

Inserting collectively builtins and processes

The the relaxation lacking fragment of the puzzle is to place in pressure lsh_execute(), the
characteristic that can either start either a builtin, or a course of. Whilst you’re
reading this a long way, you’ll know that we’ve build of living ourselves up for a basically straightforward

int lsh_execute(char args)
  int i;

  if (args[0] == NULL) {
    // An empty repeat used to be entered.
    return 1;

  for (i = 0; i < lsh_num_builtins(); i++) {
    if (strcmp(args[0], builtin_str[i]) == 0) {
      return (*builtin_func[i])(args);

  return lsh_launch(args);

All this does is take a look at if the repeat equals every builtin, and if that is so, flee it.
If it doesn’t match a builtin, it calls lsh_launch() to start the course of.
The one caveat is that args would per chance per chance well correct private NULL, if the patron entered an
empty string, or correct whitespace. So, we must forever take a look at for that case at the
starting up.

Inserting all of it collectively

That’s your complete code that goes into the shell. Whilst you’ve read along, you might per chance procure to
mark fully how the shell works. To are trying it out (on a Linux machine),
you might per chance well have to copy these code segments staunch into a file (predominant.c), and produce collectively
it. Be obvious that to most productive include one implementation of lsh_read_line(). You’ll
have to include the following headers at the head. I’ve added notes so that you
know the build every characteristic comes from.

  • #include
    • waitpid() and associated macros
  • #include
    • chdir()
    • fork()
    • exec()
    • pid_t
  • #include
    • malloc()
    • realloc()
    • free()
    • exit()
    • execvp()
  • #include
    • fprintf()
    • printf()
    • stderr
    • getchar()
    • perror()
  • #include
    • strcmp()
    • strtok()

Whilst you've the code and headers, it will be as straightforward as operating gcc -o
predominant predominant.c
to bring collectively it, after which ./predominant to flee it.

Alternatively, you might per chance well presumably also salvage the code from
That link goes straight to the latest revision of the code at the time of this
writing– I can also merely rob to update it and add unusual parts sometime at some point soon.
If I carry out, I’ll are trying my most productive to update this article with the info and
implementation solutions.

Wrap up

Whilst you read this and wondered how within the arena I knew guidelines on how to make enlighten of these draw
calls, the reply is straightforward: man pages. In man 3p there may well be thorough
documentation on every draw name. If what you’re attempting to search out, and
you correct prefer to perceive guidelines on how to make enlighten of it, the person pages are your most productive buddy. Whilst you
don’t know what accomplish of interface the C library and Unix present you with, I'd
point you in direction of the
POSIX Specification,
particularly Allotment 13, “Headers”. You are going to gain every header and all the pieces it
is required to clarify in there.

Clearly, this shell isn’t characteristic-prosperous. Some of its more evident omissions

  • Most productive whitespace environment apart arguments, no quoting or backslash escaping.
  • No piping or redirection.
  • Few normal builtins.
  • No globbing.

The implementation of all of these items is principally appealing, but draw bigger than
I would per chance per chance well ever match into a chunk of writing adore this. If I ever salvage around to
implementing any of them, I’ll be obvious to write down a note-up about it. But I’d
support any reader to are trying implementing these items your self. Whilst you’re met
with success, fall me a line within the feedback below, I’d possess to take a look at the code.

And finally, thanks for reading this tutorial (if someone did). I loved
writing it, and I hope you liked reading it. Let me know what you mediate in
the feedback!

Edit: In an earlier version of this article, I had a pair horrible bugs in
lsh_split_line(), that correct took place to assassinate every assorted out. Thanks to
/u/munmap on Reddit (and assorted commenters) for catching them! Compare
this diff
to take a look at precisely what I did hideous.

Edit 2: Thanks to client ghswa on GitHub for contributing some null tests for
malloc() that I forgot. He/she additionally pointed out that the
for getline() specifies that the first argument will procure to be freeable, so
line will procure to be initialized to NULL in my lsh_read_line() implementation
that makes enlighten of getline().

Edit 3: It’s 2020 and we’re silent finding bugs, for this reason draw is
onerous. Credit to harishankarv on Github, for
finding a mumble with my “straightforward” implementation of lsh_read_line() that
is dependent on getline(). Inquire this scenario
for info – the text of the weblog is updated.

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