June 5, 2018

You Don't Know Bash: An Introduction to Bash Arrays

Although software engineers regularly use the command line for many aspects of development, arrays are likely one of the more obscure features of the command line (although not as obscure as the regex operator =~). But obscurity and questionable syntax aside, Bash arrays can be very powerful.

Wait, but why?

Writing about Bash is challenging because it's remarkably easy for an article to devolve into a manual that focuses on syntax oddities. Rest assured, however, the intent of this article is to avoid having you RTFM.

A real (actually useful) example

To that end, let's consider a real-world scenario and how Bash can help: You are leading a new effort at your company to evaluate and optimize the runtime of your internal data pipeline. As a first step, you want to do a parameter sweep to evaluate how well the pipeline makes use of threads. For the sake of simplicity, we'll treat the pipeline as a compiled C++ black box where the only parameter we can tweak is the number of threads reserved for data processing: ./pipeline --threads 4.

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