In the last chapter, we talked about how your "current directory" provides context for commands you run. Another way of providing context is through something called environment variables. In programming, variables are used to store data and to be able to reference and retrieve that data at a later point using a name. In the command
cd $HOME, the
$HOME part is a reference to the
HOME variable, and is replaced by the path to your home directory when the command is run. In other words, running
cd $HOME is the same as running
cd /home/ubuntu, assuming your home directory is
When you log in to the command line, a variety of environment variables are automatically set. You can see exactly what variables have been set, along with their values, by running
env at the command line. Type
env, hit enter, and find the value for
HOME. It should say something like
/home/ubuntu, where ubuntu will be replaced by your username. If you're doing this on a Mac, the value will probably be something like
/Users/bob. This is the path to your home directory.
While there are several environment variables that are set for you automatically, you can also set your own or modify existing variables. You can do this on the fly, so that your changes only affect the current command or the current session, or you can make the changes more permanent so that they stick between sessions.
Note: The term "session" refers to the state of being logged in to a computer's command line interface. When you log in, you start a new session, in which your commands will be recorded and other contextual information will be maintained. When you close Terminal or type "exit", your session is closed and that context and data is lost.
There are two ways to set an environment variable on the fly:
Set the variable on its own line, then use it anywhere:
$ SOMETHING="some value" $ echo $SOMETHING some value
Set the variable before a command, on the same line:
$ SOMETHING="a value" env ... SOMETHING=a value ...
Note: You cannot (very easily) use a value on the same line that you set it. That's because variables are evaluated before the setting occurs:
$ SOMETHING="something else" echo $SOMETHING # no output
Did you notice that when you set a variable you don't prepend the dollar sign, but when you reference it, you do? Also note that there should be no spaces between the variable and the equal sign or the equal sign and the value. Lastly, it's usually best to use quotations around the value that you are assigning to the variable, but you don't have to when the value doesn't have any special characters.
Let's try changing our current session's environment. Maybe you'd like to simplify your prompt. To change your prompt, adjust the
PS1 variable to whatever you'd like it to be:
$ PS1="(testprompt)> " (testprompt)>
As you can see, the prompt is now
(testprompt)>, and every time a command finishes, it will show up again. If you want a more complicated prompt, try the following:
$ PS1="\n\[\e[0;37m\][\h] \e[0;35m\]\d\e[0m\]\n\[\e[0;31m\]\u\[\e[0;34m\] in \[\e[1;33m\]\w\[\e[m\]\[\e[0;31m\]\n\[\033[35m\]$\[\033[00m\] " [chopin] Wed Apr 08 ubuntu in ~ $
The new prompt is multi-line and has color-coding. If you want to revert to your old prompt, just close your session and start a new one. Since we made the changes to the environment variable
PS1 on the fly, they won't be used in future sessions.
It is possible to make more permanent changes to the command line environment. When you start a command line session by opening a new Terminal window, one or more environment files are executed. These files can be used to modify or create environment variables. They are usually located in your home directory and include the following files:
.bash_profile in Bash, and
.zprofile in Zsh. Because they start with a
., they are considered to be "hidden" files, and using the
ls command alone won't show them. Type
ls -a ~ to see them listed along with other files in your home directory. Remember, the
ls is the command, and the
~ are arguments to the
ls command. The
-a flag tells the
ls command to include files that start with
. in its output, while the
~ is the directory that
ls should inspect (recall that
~ means your "home" directory).
Note: Editing hidden files can be a bit tricky if you've never done it before. Many editors don't show hidden files by default. However, most have a configuration option or extension that can reverse that setting, and most also let you interactively toggle the display of hidden files.
If worse comes to worst, you can use the extremely basic Nano editor that is available on almost all systems. The following steps will guide you through editing your
.bashrc file, for instance.
Open the hidden file with Nano by entering the
nano command and the full name of the file. For instance:
Make the necessary changes to your file.
Save the file by pressing
<Ctrl> + o then
<Enter>. Exit Nano by pressing
<Ctrl> + x.
Restart your terminal session (exit then start the Terminal program, for instance.)
In spite of these instructions, we still encourage you to learn how to use your editor of choice for dealing with hidden files.
Notes for Bash
.bashrc and a
.bash_profile file with the following command:
touch ~/.bashrc ~/.bash_profile # Be careful about the spaces
If the files already exist, this command won't change them. You should edit the
.bash_profile file and add the following line somewhere near the top of the file:
[ -r ~/.bashrc ] && . ~/.bashrc # be careful with the spaces
The above command checks whether you have a readable
.bashrc file in your home directory and, if you do, it executes the file. Depending on your configuration, Bash may or may not need this command, but it usually doesn't hurt to have it.
Open a new Terminal window to make sure it still works.
Once you've created these files, you can make most configuration changes in the
.bashrc file. You can generally ignore the
Notes for Zsh
.zshrc file with the following command:
touch ~/.zshrc # Be careful about the spaces
Open a new Terminal window to make sure it still works.
Once you've created the
.zshrc file, you can make most configuration changes there. You can generally ignore the
.zprofile file if you have one.
$ ls -a ~ . .cache .sudo_as_admin_successful .. .mysql_history .vbox_version .bash_history postinstall.sh .veewee_version .bash_logout .profile .vim .bashrc .ssh .viminfo
The rules behind which environment file is read for a new session are complicated and depend on your shell and how the session is created. For our purposes, using
.bashrc for Bash, and
.zshrc for Zsh, should be sufficient. If your edits aren't working, try updating
Log in to your console and type one of the following commands:
cat ~/.bashrc # If using bash cat ~/.zshrc # If using zsh
cat command reads the file and displays its contents. You may see a bunch of output from these commands, or nothing at all, depending on the current contents of these files.
Bash only: If you're ready to customize your prompt a bit more permanently, open the
.bashrc file in a code editor, and add your custom prompt to the bottom of your
export PS1="your custom prompt goes here " # Note space before closing quote
export isn't needed because the variable is already available globally. However, it doesn't hurt to specify it. Use the following pieces along with any custom text to make your prompt:
||Basename of current directory|
Did you notice that just editing and saving your
.bashrc file didn't do anything? The file is only evaluated, or run, when you first log in. If you want to re-run a particular environment file like
.bash_profile, use the
To revert back to your old prompt, edit the same file and remove your
PS1 setting. Then run
source on that file:
[my custom prompt]$ source ~/.bashrc $
Let's look for a moment at the different ways we can use environment variables.
First, variables can be used as arguments to commands. Take a look at the following example:
$ MESSAGE="Hello, world!" $ echo $MESSAGE Hello, world!
This is a very simple example, but you can see that the
$MESSAGE variable is used as the first (and only) argument to the
echo command. You can actually use variables as commands as well:
$ MESSAGE="Hello, world!" $ COMMAND="echo" $ $COMMAND $MESSAGE Hello, world!
Variables can also be interpolated, or included, in other strings. Take the following example:
$ MESSAGE1="This is message 1." $ MESSAGE2="This is message 2." $ MESSAGE="$MESSAGE1 $MESSAGE2" $ echo $MESSAGE This is message 1. This is message 2.
To ensure that variables will be interpolated, you must use double quotation marks (
"), not single quotes (
'). Try the following example in your command line to see the difference:
$ MESSAGE='$MESSAGE1 $MESSAGE2' $ echo $MESSAGE $MESSAGE1 $MESSAGE2
The difference between single and double quotes is primarily an issue of interpolation. With double quotes, a
$ is treated as the beginning of a value that will be interpolated into the string; with single quotes, a
$ is an ordinary character with no special meaning.
Single and double quotes also play a part with "escape literals" such as the
\u characters that you can use in the
PS1 environment variable (see above). Use single quotes to treat the
\ as an ordinary character; use double quotes to treat the
\ and the following character as an escape literal.
Finally, you can use double quotes to quote a string that contains single quotes, or single quotes to quote a string that contains double quotes:
$ echo "What's up, Doc?" $ echo 'My name is "Pete".'
The situation gets much more complicated if you have a string with both single and double quotes as well as
$ characters. We won't get into that here.
Environment variables can be used by commands (programs) behind the scenes. In other words, you can set a variable, then run a command without passing the variable as an explicit argument to that command, and the command could use that variable. The
PWD variable is automatically used by any command that tries to get the user's current directory. The
HOME variable is automatically used by
cd when you don't pass any arguments to it. If you make up a custom variable (like
PI=3.14), only programs that know about it will be able to use it without explicitly using it as an argument.
If you want to temporarily change a variable before it gets used in a command behind the scenes, you can set the variable immediately preceding the command on the same line:
# Set home to root directory and change to home. $ HOME=/ cd $ pwd / # Change to home directory. $ cd $ pwd /home/ubuntu
Note how the second
cd takes you to your original home directory, whereas the first
cd takes you to the root directory because that's what you set
One of the most important environment variables you'll work with on the command line is
PATH. In the last chapter, we discussed how commands are really just files, but we didn't talk about how the command line knew which file to execute for commands like
echo or other built-in or installed programs. The
PATH variable provides the additional context that the command line needs to figure out which particular file to execute. Let's look at a
PATH variable's value:
$ echo $PATH /usr/local/sbin:/usr/local/bin:/usr/sbin:/usr/bin:/sbin:/bin:/usr/games
If you examine the output of the
echo $PATH command above, you'll see that it is a bunch of paths connected by colons. You may have noticed that most of the paths end in
/bin. This is because
bin is short for "binary", and
bin is a standard directory name for executable files, or programs.
Let's look at what resides in one of the directories listed in the
$ ls /usr/bin [ mysqlanalyze 2to3 mysqlbinlog 2to3-2.7 mysqlbug a2p mysqlcheck aclocal mysql_client_test aclocal-1.11 mysql_convert_table_format ... mysql zdump mysqlaccess zsoelim mysqladmin
Depending on your computer, different types of files may have different colors. On many computers, for example, executables will probably be colored green. If you look at the files located in your home directory, however, they are probably white and blue, which tells us that they are not executable.
One of the items in the
/usr/bin directory is
man. If I type
man on the command line and hit enter, it will execute that file. How can I be sure that it will execute that file, and not some other file that happens to be named
man on my server?
When you type a word into the command line, and it doesn't start with a
~, or a
. (because those would indicate a path to an actual file), the command line will search each of the directories listed in the
PATH environment variable for that command. Thus, when we type
man and hit enter, the CLI searches
/usr/local/bin since those are first in the list. It then moves on through the list of directories until it finds a file named "man" in one of them. It then stops searching and executes the file. We can verify which file is getting executed by using the
$ which man /usr/bin/man
which searches the paths for the named command (
man, in this case) and displays the first one it finds. (Some versions of
which will locate all occurrences of the command in the path, but most only report one.) As you can see, the path that is output by the
which command corresponds with the
man command we found earlier.
You can create or install executables. To make it so that a custom executable can be used like a built-in command, all you have to do is make sure it has the correct permissions (discussed in the next chapter), and add the path to the directory it is contained in to the
PATH variable in
Note how we added the executables directory, then the colon, then the
$PATH variable again. This preserves the old
PATH locations while making your directory the highest priority. We're adding our directory to the top of the list.
Note that if this path you're adding to the
$PATH environment variable contains an executable file called "man", then when you type
man from the command line, this new file will be executed instead of the correct one in
/usr/bin. The path lookup rules for all commands relies heavily on managing this
$PATH environment variable carefully.
To sum up:
PATHvariable determines which directories are searched when a command is entered
PATHis an ordered, colon-delimited, list of directories that contain executables
PATHvariable is first-found-first-execute
~before your command, the command line will interpret that as an actual path to a file, and will not use the
PATHto make more commands available without having to memorize their exact path
PATH, or any environment variable, on the fly will not be permanent; permanent modifications should be done in an environment file, like
Run the following commands to experiment with altering your command line environment:
$ cd $ PS1="\u@\w$ " ubuntu@~$ echo "Hello world" Hello world ubuntu@~$
Exit out of Terminal (make sure to close each tab and window if you are on a Mac) and open it up again. What does your prompt look like now? The value you set
PS1 to above should no longer be in effect.
Set your prompt in your
~/.zshrc if appropriate) file:
echo 'export PS1="this is a test$ "' >> ~/.bashrc
Note that we are using single quotes in this command to surround the argument
export PS1="this is a test$ ". We do that since part of the argument includes double quotes -- if we used double quotes around the entire argument, bash would have trouble with the command.
The redirection operator (
>>) is used to append text to a file. If the target file doesn't exist, then it will be created.
Exit and open up a new terminal. You should see something like this:
this is a test$
~/.bashrc file (or
~/.zshrc if appropriate), remove the last line, and run
source ~/.bashrc (or
source ~/.zshrc) to return your prompt to its previous state.
As discussed previously in this chapter, the
PATH variable determines which files can be executed without specifying their path explicitly. Run through the commands in this exercise to see this principle in action.
Set the current
PATH variable to another variable so we can revert to it later:
$ OLDPATH=$PATH $ echo $OLDPATH /usr/local/bin:/bin:/usr/bin:/usr/local/sbin:/usr/sbin:/sbin:/opt/aws/bin:/home/ubuntu/bin
PATH and try to run a program that is no longer located in the directories specified in
$ cd /usr/local $ ls bin etc games include lib man sbin share src $ PATH="" ls -bash: ls: No such file or directory $ ls bin etc games include lib man sbin share src
Note: The contents of
local folder may be different in your case.
Now, create an executable in your home directory by entering the following:
cd ~ echo '#!/bin/bash' > test.sh echo 'echo "Hello world"' >> test.sh chmod +x test.sh # Make sure test.sh has the executable permission
Run the executable, first by specifying the path, then by running it like a command:
$ ./test.sh Hello world $ test.sh -bash: test.sh: command not found
PATH more permanently for your current session, and try to run
$ PATH=$PATH:$HOME $ echo $PATH /usr/local/bin:/bin:/usr/bin:/usr/local/sbin:/usr/sbin:/sbin:/opt/aws/bin:/home/ubuntu/bin:/home/ubuntu $ test.sh Hello world $ cd / $ test.sh Hello world
Exit out of Terminal and then open it up again. Try running test.sh again:
$ test.sh -bash: test.sh: command not found
Video Walkthrough (Part 1)
Video Walkthrough (Part 2)