Skip to content
Switch branches/tags

Latest commit


Git stats


Failed to load latest commit information.
Latest commit message
Commit time

sed-bin: Compile a sed script

This project allows to translate sed to C to be able to compile the result and generate a binary that will have the exact same behavior as the original sed script, for example echo foo | sed s/foo/bar/ will be replaced by echo foo | ./sed-bin.

Table of contents

Quick start


Clone the repo and move inside its directory, you'll need the usual UNIX core and build utils (sed, libc, C compiler, shell, make).

Note: this project is currently tested with the GNU libc (2.31), GNU sed (4.5) and GCC (10.1.1) on Fedora 32. Some additional tests have been done on FreeBSD 12.1

How to use

Quick step-by-step

Let's take a simple example:

sh$ echo foo | sed s/foo/bar/

Assuming you want to compile s/foo/bar/:

  • Use the provided compile shell script, this takes care of the C translation and compilation steps:
sh$ echo s/foo/bar/ | ./compile
+ cat
+ ./par.sed
+ make
cc    -c -o sed-bin.o sed-bin.c
cc    -c -o address.o address.c
cc    -c -o operations.o operations.c
cc    -c -o read.o read.c
cc   sed-bin.o address.o operations.o read.o   -o sed-bin
Compiled sed script available: ./sed-bin
  • Once the generated C code is compiled, you can use the resulting sed-bin binary in place of sed s/foo/bar/:
sh$ echo foo | ./sed-bin

That's about it!

Full walk-through with a bigger script

Say you want to compile the following sed script which is used to generate the table of contents of this project's README (can also be found in the samples directory):

#!/bin/sed -f

# Generate table of contents with links for markdown files
# Usage: sed -f <this-script> <mardown file>

# ignore code blocks

# no need to index ourselves
/^# Table of contents/d

# found heading
  # save our line and first work on the actual URI
  # strip leading blanks
  # punctuation and anything funky gets lost
  # swap with hold and work on the displayed title
  # get rid of last leading # and potential white spaces
  # the remaining leading # (if any) will be used for indentation
  s/#/  /g
  # prepare the first half of the markdown
  s/\( *\)\(.*\)/\1* [\2](#/
  # append the link kept and remove the newline

Let's use the provided translator par.sed which is a big sed script translating other sed scripts to C code. Redirect the output to a file named generated.c. Another file with some declarations called generated-init.c will be created by the translator automatically. You'll need those two files to generate a working binary.

sh$ sed -f par.sed < samples/generate-table-of-contents.sed > generated.c

If you take a peek at generated.c, you'll note that for simplicity and readability the generated code is mostly functions calls, the actual C code doing the work is not generated but mostly found in operations.c. Now we're ready to compile the generated code:

sh$ make
cc    -c -o sed-bin.o sed-bin.c
cc    -c -o address.o address.c
cc    -c -o operations.o operations.c
cc    -c -o read.o read.c
cc   sed-bin.o address.o operations.o read.o   -o sed-bin

A binary named sed-bin has been generated, it should have the exact same behavior as the sed script:

sh$ ./sed-bin <
* [sed-bin: Compile a sed script](#sed-bin-Compile-a-sed-script)
* [Quick start](#Quick-start)
  * [Setup](#Setup)
  * [How to use](#How-to-use)
  * [Quick step-by-step](#Quick-step-by-step)
  * [Full walk-through with a bigger script](#Full-walk-through-with-a-bigger-script)
* [Sample scripts](#Sample-scripts)
* [How it works](#How-it-works)
  * [Some generated code](#Some-generated-code)
* [Why](#Why)
* [Translating the translator](#Translating-the-translator)
* [Using this project as a sed alternative](#Using-this-project-as-a-sed-alternative)
* [Notes](#Notes)

Sample scripts

Some example sed scripts are available in the samples directory:

Other notable sed scripts tested with this project:

  • sokoban.sed, a sokoban game written by Aurelio Jargas
  • dc.sed, an arbitrary precision reverse polish notation calculator written by Greg Ubben
  • chainlint.sed, a git internal tool to detect broken "&&" chains in shell scripts.

How it works

Some generated code

The translator par.sed (which is written in sed itself) converts sed commands calls to valid C code:

sh$ echo y/o/u/ | sed -f ./par.sed

Will output:

y(&status, "o", "u");

The actual logic to handle y (and most other commands) is not generated, we just need to translate the sed syntax to valid C code, which here stays fairly readable.

Let's look at a slightly more complex example:


Translates to:

static Regex reg_1 = {.compiled = false, .str = "foo"};
if (addr_r(&status, &reg_1))



And an example of how labels are handled:

b end

# some comment
i \
Doesn't look like this\
code is reachable

: end

Translates to:

goto end_label;

// some comment
i("Doesn't look like this\ncode is reachable");



Not much practical use to this, here are some thoughts:

  • Debugging a sed script is hard, one possible way is to run sed in gdb, but this assumes some familiarity with the implementation. Here the generated C code is rather close to the original sed script, which should allow gdb to be easier to use (make -B CFLAGS=-g for symbols).
  • Might be useful for obfuscation or maybe to limit the scope of sed? Resulting binaries are usually smaller than a full sed binary as well.
  • Better speed? Since the generated code is specific to a script, one might expect it to be much faster than using sed, since we can skip parsing, walking the AST etc. I didn't do any serious measurements yet, but so far it seems slightly faster than GNU sed (around 20% faster to translate the translator for instance).

Translating the translator

The basic idea of this project is to translate sed code to C code, to compile it and have a resulting binary with the same behavior as the original script.

Now, since the translator from sed to C is written in sed, we should be able to translate the translator, compile it, and then be able to use the compiled version to translate other sed scripts.

Translate the translator (par.sed) with itself:

sh$ ./par.sed < ./par.sed > generated.c
sh$ make
cc    -c -o sed-bin.o sed-bin.c
cc    -c -o address.o address.c
cc    -c -o operations.o operations.c
cc    -c -o read.o read.c
cc   sed-bin.o address.o operations.o read.o   -o sed-bin

We now have a binary that should be able to translate sed code, let's try to translate the translator with it:

sh$ ./sed-bin < ./par.sed | diff -s generated.c -
Files generated.c and - are identical

Generated code is identical, which means that at this point we have a standalone binary that is able to translate other sed scripts to C. We no longer need another sed implementation as a starting point to make the translation.

Using this project as a sed alternative

A shell script named sed is available in this repository, providing the same interface as a POSIX sed implementation.

sh$ echo foo | ./sed s/foo/bar/

Here ./sed automates argument parsing, translation, compilation and execution of the resulting binary. On one hand this is much heavier than the usual sed implementation, but on the other hand it provides an easy way to quickly test and compare this project with other implementations.

The default translation is done with the ./par.sed translator script, which will use the default sed binary available on the system. So that means we need to use a full sed implementation to provide another sed implementation which doesn't make much sense. To get rid of this initial sed dependency simply translate and compile par.sed, save the generated binary and then use the sed shell script with SED_TRANSLATOR environment variable set to the newly created binary.

For example:

sh$ BIN=compiled-translator ./compile ./par.sed
+ cat ./par.sed
+ ./par.sed
+ make
cc    -c -o address.o address.c
cc    -c -o operations.o operations.c
cc    -c -o read.o read.c
cc    -c -o sed-bin.o sed-bin.c
cc address.o operations.o read.o sed-bin.o -o compiled-translator
Compiled sed script available: compiled-translator
sh$ echo foo | SED_TRANSLATOR=./compiled-translator ./sed 's/foo/bar/'


  • Incomplete features / known issues:

    • with 2 addresses, the c command will be executed every time for each matching line instead of only once when leaving the range
    • no pattern/hold space overflow checks, currently both limited to 8192 bytes as per the minimum POSIX spec requirement. Going over that limit will most likely cause a segfault.
  • The translator does not handle invalid sed scripts, it will just generate invalid C code which will probably fail to compile, make sure you can run your script with an actual sed implementation before attempting to translate it.

  • Non POSIX support is currently not planned, if you are using GNU sed, you can try to see what is not supported by running your script with the --posix option. Also check out the POSIX specification.

  • Only -n (suppress the default output) is accepted as a command line argument of the resulting binary.

  • The generated binaries currently only accept data from stdin: ./sed-bin < file not ./sed-bin file. If you have multiple files use cat file1 file2 file3 | ./sed-bin.

  • The C code is very rough around the edges (by that I mean dirty and unsafe, for instance allocating everything on the stack without checking any overflow), I'm still working on it, but contributions (issues/comments/pull requests) are also welcomed :)


sed to C translator written in sed