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Writing a Bash Builtin in C to Parse INI Configs

Why Not Just Parse INI Configs With Bash?

Shell languages such as Bash excel at certain tasks, such as gluing programs together or quickly automating a set of command line steps. In contrast to those strengths, using a Shell to parse an INI config file is a bit like writing a poem in mud, you might succeed, but the result will probably be inscrutable and your swear jar will be full! As this wonderful Stack Overflow post attests there are many different ways to parse an INI file in Bash, but few of the answers provided are elegant.

So if you have a task poorly suited to Bash, what are your options?

  1. Choose another language for the task? (Perhaps sensible, but not always fun.)

  2. Write a custom Bash builtin to extend Bash for the task? (Spoiler, this is the route we will choose!)

What is a Bash Builtin?

A builtin is a command in Bash that is implemented in the shell itself, rather than as a separate program. They are the batteries included with Bash. If you type help in Bash you get a list of all the currently enabled builtins, or you can use type printf to check if a specific command is a builtin. Many of the commands you use regularly are builtins, e.g. echo, printf, and cd. They are typically implemented in the language used to write the shell itself, so in the case of Bash, C. Some of Bash's builtins are also available as separate commands, depending on how your operating system is configured. For example printf is a Bash builtin, but it is also usually available on a Linux box as a separate program, try which printf to find out. Builtins are preferred in Bash over external programs, as if they were placed first in your PATH. Bash also allows you to write your own custom builtins and load them into the shell, as does Zsh and the KornShell.

Why Would You Write a Builtin?

  • Why are builtins helpful?
  • Why not just rely entirely on external commands?

You could build a shell with a minimal set of builtins, but certain builtins are still necessary. For example the cd command must be a builtin, since calling chdir(2) in a forked process will have no effect on the parent shell process. The shell must execute the cd and thus the chdir(2) call in its own process. There are at least three cases, including the cd example, where builtins are necessary or useful:

  1. Avoiding the need to fork an external process.

  2. Calling a system function that affects the shell process itself, e.g. chdir(2).

  3. Modifying a shell's internal state, e.g. adding a variable.

Our INI config parser builtin will demonstrate the utility of reason number (3). However, before we implement that builtin, let us try implementing sleep as a builtin. Implementing sleep is a custom builtin challenge akin to printing Hello World! in a new language.

Minimal Builtin, Implementing sleep

Everyone needs sleep, but it can be costly in Bash. We had a program that ironically slowed down after a spinner was added to provide feedback to the user that the program was still running. The spinner called sleep 0.04 in a loop while printing the spinner characters to the screen. The creation of 25 forked processes per second actually slowed down the program! Bash does have a sleep builtin, but it is not enabled by default, let's create a simple implementation:

#include "builtins.h"
#include "shell.h"
#include "bashgetopt.h"
#include "common.h"
#include <errno.h>

char *sleep_doc[] = {"Patience please, wait for a bit!", NULL};

int sleep_builtin(WORD_LIST *list) {
  if (!list) {
    return EX_USAGE;
  char *endptr;
  char *secs_arg = list->word->word;
  uintmax_t secs = strtoumax(list->word->word, &endptr, 10);
  if ((secs == UINTMAX_MAX && errno == ERANGE) || (*endptr != '\0')) {
    builtin_error("Unable to convert `%s` to an integer", secs_arg);
  unsigned int rem = sleep(secs);
  if (rem == 0) {
  } else {
    builtin_error("Sleep interrupted, %d secs remaining", rem);

/* Provides Bash with information about the builtin */
struct builtin sleep_struct = {
    .name = "sleep",             /* Builtin name */
    .function = sleep_builtin,   /* Function implementing the builtin */
    .flags = BUILTIN_ENABLED,    /* Initial flags for builtin */
    .long_doc = sleep_doc,       /* Array of long documentation strings. */
    .short_doc = "sleep NUMBER", /* Usage synopsis; becomes short_doc */
    .handle = 0                  /* Reserved for internal use */

The struct builtin is what informs Bash about our builtin. Notably we provide a function here, sleep_builtin, which is essentially our builtin's main. This function is supplied with any args provided to our builtin. In our sleep_builtin function we check if we have an arg, if so, we try to convert the arg to an integer and sleep(3) for that number of seconds. Let's try it out:

$ enable -f ./ sleep
$ help sleep
sleep: sleep NUMBER
    Patience please, wait for a bit!
$ time sleep 1
real    0m1.000s
user    0m0.000s
sys 0m0.000s
$ sleep ⏰
bash: sleep: Unable to convert `` to an integer

Fabulous, so with a small amount of code and minimal boilerplate we have created a dynamically loaded Bash builtin! The sleep builtin satisfies reason number (1) on why you might write a builtin by eliminating the need to fork a process for each sleep execution. With sleep as a builtin each call is a function call rather than a process fork(2), i.e. bring back the spinner! But, it does not satisfy reason number (3), changing Bash's internal state. Let's implement an INI parser to satisfy reason number (3) and provide a more complete example of creating a Bash builtin.

Writing an INI Parser Builtin

Generating Help Output

First we'll create our help ini doc which provides the builtin documentation inside of Bash. This help text provides an overview of how our INI parser will affect Bash's state:

char *ini_doc[] = {
    "Reads an INI config from stdin input into a set of associative arrays.",
    "Reads an INI config from stdin input into a set of associative arrays.",
    "The sections of the INI config are added to an associative array",
    "specified by the `-a TOC` argument. The keys and values are then added to",
    "associative arrays prefixed by the `TOC` name and suffixed by their INI",
    "section name, `<TOC>_<INI_SECTION_NAME>`. The parsed INI section names",
    "must be valid Bash variable names, otherwise an error is returned.",
    "  Input input.ini:",
    "    [sec1]",
    "    foo = bar",
    "    [sec2]",
    "    biz = baz",
    "  Result:",
    "    $ ini -a conf < input.ini",
    "    $ declare -p conf",
    "    declare -A conf=([sec1]=\"true\" [sec2]=\"true\" )",
    "    $ declare -p conf_sec1",
    "    declare -A conf_sec1=([foo]=\"bar\" )",
    "    $ declare -p conf_sec2",
    "    declare -A conf_sec2=([biz]=\"baz\" )",
    "If the `-u FD` argument is passed the INI config is read from the `FD`",
    "file descriptor rather than from stdin. Variables are created with local",
    "scope inside a function unless the `-g` option is specified.",

Informing Bash About our Builtin

struct builtin ini_struct = {
    .name = "ini",            /* Builtin name */
    .function = ini_builtin,  /* Function implementing the builtin */
    .flags = BUILTIN_ENABLED, /* Initial flags for builtin */
    .long_doc = ini_doc,      /* Array of long documentation strings. */
    .short_doc =
        "ini -a TOC [-u FD] [-g]", /* Usage synopsis; becomes short_doc */
    .handle = 0                    /* Reserved for internal use */

As we did with the sleep builtin we initialize a struct builtin that includes our ini_doc array as well as our short doc string. The second member of the struct is the sh_builtin_func_t which is the main function of our builtin.

Parsing Options and Reading Stdin

Bash provides an internal_getopt function which is akin to getopt(3), but uses Bash's internal WORD_LIST structure. We parse our mandatory argument -a for the name of the associative array which will contain our INI section names. We parse our optional -u argument which specifies an alternative file descriptor to read from rather than the default of stdin. Once we have our file descriptor we call fdopen(3) to obtain a FILE stream structure which we pass to our INI parser.

int ini_builtin(WORD_LIST *list) {
  intmax_t intval;
  int opt, code;
  int fd = 0;
  bool global_vars = false;
  char *toc_var_name = NULL;
  while ((opt = internal_getopt(list, "a:gu:")) != -1) {
    switch (opt) {
    case 'a':
      toc_var_name = list_optarg;
    case 'g':
      global_vars = true;
    case 'u':
      code = legal_number(list_optarg, &intval);
      if (code == 0 || intval < 0 || intval != (int)intval) {
        builtin_error("%s: invalid file descriptor specification", list_optarg);
        return EXECUTION_FAILURE;
      fd = (int)intval;
      if (sh_validfd(fd) == 0) {
        builtin_error("%d: invalid file descriptor: %s", fd, strerror(errno));
        return EXECUTION_FAILURE;
    case GETOPT_HELP:
      return EX_USAGE;
      return EX_USAGE;
  if (!toc_var_name) {
    return EX_USAGE;
  FILE *file = fdopen(fd, "r");
  if (!file) {
    builtin_error("%d: unable to open file descriptor: %s", fd,
  /* snip */

Modifying Bash's Internal State, Injecting Data

The INI builtin creates a TOC or table of contents associative array specifying which INI sections were found. Then for each INI section it creates a <TOC>_<INI_SECTION_NAME> associative array. First we create the TOC var:

/* snip */
ini_conf conf = {};
conf.toc_var_name = toc_var_name;
if (variable_context && !global_vars) {
  conf.local_vars = true;
} else {
  conf.local_vars = false;
SHELL_VAR *toc_var = NULL;
if (conf.local_vars) {
  int vflags = 0;
  toc_var = make_local_assoc_variable(toc_var_name, vflags);
} else {
  toc_var = make_new_assoc_variable(toc_var_name);
if (!toc_var) {
  builtin_error("Could not make %s", toc_var_name);
if (ini_parse_file(file, handler, &conf) < 0) {
  builtin_error("Unable to read from fd: %d", fd);
/* snip */

We check Bash's variable_context to see if it is greater than zero which indicates we are in a function. If we are in a function we create local variables, unless the -g option was passed to our builtin. We then setup our config for our INI parser. Bash provides functions to create local, make_local_assoc_variable and global variables, make_new_assoc_variable. Once we have created our TOC variable we call the ini_parse_file function with our file, config, and handler function. We are using the excellent inih library to do the complicated parsing of the INI, but we do need to implement the inih handler function:

/* This is the inih handler called for every new section and for every name and
 * value in a section. This function creates and populates our associative
 * arrays in Bash. Both for the TOC array as well as for the individual section
 * arrays, <TOC>_<INI_SECTION_NAME> */
static int handler(void *user, const char *section, const char *name,
                   const char *value) {
  ini_conf *conf = (ini_conf *)user;
  char *toc_var_name = conf->toc_var_name;
  /* Create <TOC>_<INI_SECTION_NAME> */
  char *sep = "_";
  size_t sec_size = strlen(toc_var_name) + strlen(section) + strlen(sep) +
                    1; // +1 for the NUL character
  char *sec_var_name = xmalloc(sec_size);
  char *sec_end = sec_var_name + sec_size - 1;
  char *p = memccpy(sec_var_name, toc_var_name, '\0', sec_size);
  if (!p) {
    builtin_error("Unable to create section name");
    return 0;
  p = memccpy(p - 1, sep, '\0', sec_end - p + 2);
  if (!p) {
    builtin_error("Unable to create section name");
    return 0;
  p = memccpy(p - 1, section, '\0', sec_end - p + 2);
  if (!p) {
    builtin_error("Unable to create section name");
    return 0;
  if (!legal_identifier(sec_var_name)) {
    return 0;
  /* New section parsed */
  if (!name && !value) {
    SHELL_VAR *toc_var = find_variable(toc_var_name);
    if (!toc_var) {
      builtin_error("Could not find %s", toc_var_name);
      return 0;
    bind_assoc_variable(toc_var, toc_var_name, strdup(section), "true", 0);
    SHELL_VAR *sec_var = NULL;
    if (conf->local_vars) {
      int vflags = 0;
      sec_var = make_local_assoc_variable(sec_var_name, vflags);
    } else {
      sec_var = make_new_assoc_variable(sec_var_name);
    if (!sec_var) {
      builtin_error("Could not make %s", sec_var_name);
      return 0;
    return 1;
  if (!name) {
    builtin_error("Malformed ini, name is NULL!");
    return 0;
  if (!value) {
    builtin_error("Malformed ini, value is NULL!");
    return 0;
  SHELL_VAR *sec_var = find_variable(sec_var_name);
  bind_assoc_variable(sec_var, sec_var_name, strdup(name), strdup(value), 0);
  return 1;

In the handler we create our sec_var_name or <TOC>_<INI_SECTION_NAME> string. Then if the handler was called at the start of a new section we create an associative array for that section. Otherwise, we use Bash's find_variable function to retrieve our existing variable. Once we have our variable, Bash provides functions to alter a variable's value. Here we use bind_assoc_variable to populate an entry in our associative array with the name and value from the INI parser. With our handler function complete our Bash builtin is ready to parse some INI configs.

Building & Testing

We put together a little Makefile to build and test our builtins:

CFLAGS:=-c -Wall -Wextra -fPIC
BASH_FLAGS:=$(shell pkgconf --cflags bash)
    -DINI_USE_STACK=0 inih/ini.o %.o
    $(CC) -o $@ $^ $(LDFLAGS)

%.o: %.c
    $(CC) $(CFLAGS) -o $@ $^

inih/ini.o: CFLAGS += $(INIH_FLAGS)
ini.o: CFLAGS += $(BASH_FLAGS)
sleep.o: CFLAGS += $(BASH_FLAGS)

    git submodule update --init

.PHONY: test
    @echo Tests Passed

.PHONY: clean
    shopt -s globstar; rm -f **/*.o **/*.so

Here we compile our ini.c file as well as the inih library, then we link them together into a shared library. Our testing methodology is rudimentary, we have a Bash script which exercises the features of our builtin and we compare its output against a canonical copy:


set -o errexit
set -o nounset

bash >"$new"
diff -u test_output "$new"

Let's Try It!

Now that we have compiled and tested our INI builtin, let's feed it a config for a fictional RSS reader and see how it performs.

$ enable -f ./ ini
$ ini -a rss_conf <<'EOF'
 > [Computers]
 > Vidar's Blog =
 > Two-Bit History =
 > =
 > [Comics]
 > xkcd =
 > [Books]
 > The Marlowe Bookshelf =
 > EOF
$ for section_name in "${!rss_conf[@]}"; do
 >   printf '## %s\n' "$section_name"
 >   declare -n section='rss_conf_'"$section_name"
 >   for key in "${!section[@]}"; do
 >     printf ' - %s: %s\n' "$key" "${section[$key]}"
 >   done
 > done
## Books
 - The Marlowe Bookshelf:
## Comics
 - xkcd:
## Computers
 - Two-Bit History:
 - Vidar's Blog:

Our TOC var rss_conf holds our section names, then we use Bash's nameref functionality to point a variable to each associative array for a given INI section from the rss_conf associative array and iterate over the section associative arrays. We have the RSS config loaded into our Bash program, now we just need to build the application to consume it!

Closing Thoughts

Bash builtins provide a number of positive features. They provide an interesting avenue for extending Bash to perform tasks which are perhaps poorly suited to be written in the Bash language itself. Builtins also allow Bash to leverage the vast quantity of well tested and established C libraries. Lastly, as was hopefully demonstrated in the examples, Bash provides a good framework for builtins and a set of functions that makes modifying Bash's internal state straightforward.

Given the positives of Bash builtins, why aren't there more of them? There are two possibilities that stand out:

  1. The intersection of people that write Bash and C is rather small?
  2. The distribution of custom Bash builtins is not well paved, limiting their utility?

The second possibility rings the most true to me, I would love to see innovation and improvement on the use and distribution of Bash builtins. Ideally you could enable your builtins and they would be fetched along with your main script and packed into a single binary, perhaps something akin to ruby-packer but for Bash. Bring your ideas!

Further Reading

  1. The full source code of this ini builtin
  2. The inih library used to parse the INI configs
  3. Bash builtin examples from Bash's source code


Thanks to Randall Mason for providing feedback on this post.


Blog post on using a custom Bash builtin to parse INI config files








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