13.1 The Power of the Unix Shell

While it's true that the shell is an older style of interacting with a computer than the GUI, the graphical user interface is actually the more primitive interface. The GUI is easy to learn and widely used, but the shell is vastly more sophisticated. Using a GUI is somewhat like communicating in American Indian sign language. If your message is a simple one, like "We come in peace," you can communicate it by using a few gestures. However, if you attempted to give Lincoln's Gettysburg address?a notably short public discourse?you'd find your task quite formidable.[1]

[1] American Sign Language, used to communicate with those who have a hearing impairment, is a much richer language than American Indian sign language. Unfortunately, programmers have not yet risen to the challenge of creating graphical user interfaces that are equally sophisticated.

The designer of a program that provides a GUI must anticipate all the possible ways in which the user will interact with the program and provide ways to trigger the appropriate program responses by means of pointing and clicking. Consequently, the user is constrained to working only in predicted ways. The user is therefore unable to adapt the GUI program to accommodate unforeseen tasks and circumstances. In a nutshell, that's why many system administration tasks are performed using the shell: system administrators, in fulfilling their responsibility to keep a system up and running, must continually deal with and overcome the unforeseen.

The shell reflects the underlying philosophy of Unix, which provides a wide variety of small, simple tools (that is, programs), each performing a single task. When a complex operation is needed, the tools work together to accomplish the complex operation as a series of simple operations, one step at a time. Many Unix tools manipulate text, and since Unix stores its configuration data in text form rather than in binary form, the tools are ideally suited for manipulating Unix itself. The shell's ability to freely combine tools in novel ways is what makes Unix powerful and sophisticated. Moreover, as you'll learn, the shell is extensible: you can create shell scripts that let you store a series of commands for later execution, saving you the future tedium of typing or pointing and clicking to recall them.

The contrary philosophy is seen in operating systems such as Microsoft Windows, which employ elaborate, monolithic programs that provide menus, submenus, and dialog boxes. Such programs have no way to cooperate with one another to accomplish complex operations that weren't anticipated when the programs were designed. They're easy to use so long as you remain on the beaten path, but once you step off the trail, you find yourself in a confusing wilderness.

Of course, not everyone shares this perspective. The Usenet newsgroups, for example, are filled with postings debating the relative merits of GUIs. Some see the Unix shell as an arcane and intimidating monstrosity. But, even if they're correct, it's inarguable that when you learn to use the shell, you begin to see Unix as it was intended (whether that's for better or for worse).

When you are performing common, routine operations, a GUI that minimizes typing can be a relief, but when faced with a complex, unstructured problem that requires a creative solution, the shell is more often the tool of choice. Creating solutions in the form of shell scripts allows solutions to be stored for subsequent reuse. Perhaps even more important, shell scripts can be studied to quickly bone up on forgotten details, expediting the solution of related problems.