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Dots - A dotfile Management Tool

In the desktop *nix world "dotfiles" are the life and blood behind the customization of your environment. Everything from custom bash prompts to window manager configurations, dotfiles define your work flow. Because of this, it has become a very common practice to keep your dotfiles in a git repository and even make the repository available on GitHub for the community to explore.

The Problem

Keeping your dotfiles in a git repository can prove to be rather difficult however. Because dotfiles can be spread all across the users $HOME the process of tracking these files can be tedious. A few strategies have emerged within the community that offers command over dotfiles:

  • Keeping $HOME under git version control - This can be difficult and dangerous as every directory under your $HOME now appears to be in version control, so running a git command will never fail.

  • Keeping the $XDG_CONFIG_HOME directory under version control and using environment variables and scripts to force programs to read their configurations from the $XDG_CONFIG_HOME directory - A great overall strategy that keeps dotfiles more organized than keeping them in $HOME.

  • Keeping dotfiles in a directory under $HOME and writing an 'installation' script to symbolically link the files to their appropriate location in the users $HOME - While this method is rather robust, it can be difficult to manage a installation script specifically for your dot files, and may impose limits in how you organize your dotfiles.

However, none of these methods offer any sort of ability to manage dot files across multiple machines and environments. While you can use any one of these strategies to effectively manage dotfiles for a single machine, using the same dotfiles on another machine will be convoluted and cumbersome.

For example, say you manage a set of dotfiles for your desktop machine that includes configuration for bash, Vim, a window manager, and GTK theme settings. If you would like to use these dotfiles in a headless server environment then you would obviously not need your window manager and GTK configurations. Even worse, changes may need to be made to some of the configuration files for that specific environment.

The Solution

The dots utility aims to help make the installation, revision control, and organization of dot files easy and intuitive. The dots utility solves all of the problems that the solutions mentioned above solve while also facilitating the ability to maintain a single repository of dotfiles that can be installed on any machine you access and would like to have your environment configured in a snap.

dots offers the following features:

  • Configuration groups
    When installing your dotfiles onto a new machine, dots offers you the ability to select a specific 'group' of dotfiles that you would like to have installed into that environment. By organizing your dotfiles into logical groups (such as 'machine' groups) it's possible to only install the dotfiles that are required by that environment.

  • Cascading file structure
    By selecting multiple configuration groups there is the possibility that two groups both contain a dotfile with matching names. For example, if two configuration groups both contain a bashrc file then the dots utility will automatically merge these two files together. A special syntax is also offered to allow for one file to override another or for the cascading files to be merged into the files at specific points.

  • Installation time includes
    Some configuration file formats do not support a way to natively 'include' other configuration files into them. The dots utility allows for files to be inserted into a specific configuration file using a special include syntax (Known as "explict named append points"). The included file will also follow the cascading file structure previously mentioned.

  • Follows XDG Base Directory Standard
    The XDG Base Directory Standard specifies that all configuration files should be located in the $XDG_CONFIG_HOME directory. By default, this is where all configuration files and directories will be installed. While this does require a little extra work to ensure all programs read their configuration files from here it offers a much more organized view of user dotfiles.

  • Post installation scripts per file
    It's possible to include a .install script with any specific dotfile. This installation script will be executed any time the specific dotfile is installed. This is useful for situations where you need to symbolically link a configuration file into $HOME or if something needs to be done after installation (for example executing :BundleInstall for VIM).

These features are expanded on below.

Usage and configuration

NOTE: For a quick and easy way to get going managing your dot files more effectively see the dots-template repository that offers instructions for getting setup.

It's recommended to read through the entirety of this README to have a good understanding of how the dots management utility works. Here are a few key points to keep in mind however:

  • Configuration files will be installed into $XDG_CONFIG_HOME.
  • Configuration group directories are to be located in $HOME/.local/etc.
  • It's recomended to clone this repository into $HOME/.local/lib/dots but not required.
  • A PKGBUILD file is also available for Arch Linux on the AUR.
  • The dots script should be made available in your PATH.
  • The dots script should support Python > 2.7 / Python > 3.2.
  • See Evan Purkhisers personal dotfiles for an example configuration.

For details on using the dots tool itself see the dots help USAGE output.

The initialization bootstrap script

A initialization script is included in the contrib directory, providing an easy way to initialize your dotfiles into the proper directory, temporarily setup the PATH for the dots, and temporarily source the bash completion scripts. This way you can quickly setup your dotfiles, activate your configuration groups, and install the dotfiles themselves

For example:

$ cd ~
$ git clone
$ DOTS_CLONE_DIR=~/Dotfiles
$ source dots/contrib/initialize

This will do the following:

  1. Move the Dotfiles into $HOME/.local/etc
  2. Symbolically link the dots executable into $HOME/.local/bin
  3. Add $HOME/.local/bin into the PATH if it's not already
  4. Source the contrib/bash_completion script

You can then setup your dotfiles using the dots command:

$ dots groups set base machines/desktop
$ dots install

Bash completion

A bash completion script is included and provides completions for all aspects of the dots command. If you would like to take advantage of this it's recommended that you source this file in your bashrc.

Configuration groups

The primary feature of the dots utility is to allow for dotfiles to be organized into different "Configuration groups". These configuration groups can then be enabled or disabled for the specific environment that the dotfiles are being installed into.

Configuration groups are two-level directories containing configuration files and directories that will be installed when the group is activated. The dots utility also includes a special configuration group that is hard coded into the utility: The base group is a single-level directory, so all files and directories located in the base directory will be installed if the base group is activated.

Extending and Overriding configurations

Configuration groups can override or extend files that are included in configuration groups specified prior to them.

Extending configuration files

If a configuration file in the base group specifies most of what is needed, but for the specific environment you're installing the configuration files into requires a little extra configuration for that file it is possible to append to it.

For example, if you would like to add more options to the bashrc for your machine/desktop group, you can simply include the bash/bashrc file and it will automagically be appended to the base/bash/bashrc file upon installation.

Shebangs will be removed from the first line of the file being appended.

Extending with explicit append points

If a configuration file isn't procedural (in that you can't just append more configuration options to the end) such as a XML or JSON file, then you will need to use 'explicit append points'. This allows you to tell installer where to insert a subsequent configuration file contents.

There are two types of explicit append points: default and named.

Default append points

One 'default' append point may be defined per configuration file. This is the point where subsequent configuration files will be inserted into the file.

The default append point is denoted by a !!@@ with no trailing characters.

Named append points

One or more 'named' append points may be defined per configuration file. This allows you to include multiple subsequent configuration files into the file.

The named append point is denoted by a !!@@ followed by a name. That same name should be appended to the subsequent configuration file names prefixed with a dot.

For example, if you have a bashrc file that includes a !!@@aliases then the subsequent file that would be inserted at that append point would have the file name bashrc.aliases.


You can completely override a configuration file included in a previous group. This is similar to extending a configuration file as described in the previous section, however the file will simply replace the file specified in the environment group.

Enable overriding for a file by appending .override to the filename.

Installation Scripts

For each configuration file you may also include a .install script. This file will be executed when the specific configuration file has been installed. If the destination file has not been changed from the compiled file then the install script will not be executed.

The installation scripts will be executed with the destination directory as the current working directory. In order for the scripts to be executed, they must be executable and include a shebang.

For example: We have a base/vim/vimrc configuration file. We could also include a base/vim/vimrc.install file that executes some commands when the vimrc file is installed. The script will be executed with the $XDG_CONFIG_HOME/vim/ as the working directory.


A portable tool for managing a single set of dotfiles in an organized fashion





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