Hi, I'm Ryan Tomayko

Software Engineer specializing in Web Development, Performance Engineering, and Distributed Systems. Follow me on Twitter & GitHub.

AWK-ward Ruby

This essay was to be published as a companion piece to The Shell Hater's Handbook, an introductory talk on UNIX shell programming for Ruby hackers given at GoGaRuCo 2010. Alas, the post-conference wrap up magazine will not be published this year and so I'm making the essay available here instead.

Ruby, like most successful languages, was assembled from pieces of things that came before it: Smalltalk’s consistent object system, Perl’s practical syntax, UNIX’s sensibilities. Not that it didn’t bring entirely new innovations of its own, but it’s amazing to consider how much of Ruby’s design rests on the elegant packaging of old concepts into a new coherent whole.

There’s something less obvious but perhaps more essential that Ruby borrowed: the very concept of blatant, unashamed borrowing. In his 1999 talk, Perl, the first postmodern computer language, Larry Wall states plainly that Perl was built mostly from things that “didn’t suck” in the languages that preceded it:

When I started designing Perl, I explicitly set out to deconstruct all the computer languages I knew and recombine or reconstruct them in a different way, because there were many things I liked about other languages, and many things I disliked. I lovingly reused features from many languages. (I suppose a Modernist would say I stole the features, since Modernists are hung up about originality.) Whatever the verb you choose, I’ve done it over the course of the years from C, sh, csh, grep, sed, awk, Fortran, COBOL, PL/I, BASIC-PLUS, SNOBOL, Lisp, Ada, C++, and Python. To name a few. To the extent that Perl rules rather than sucks, it’s because the various features of these languages ruled rather than sucked.

Ruby, the story goes, borrowed much from Perl: integral regular expressions, statement modifiers (do_this if that), array/hash literals, funny global variable names, and of course the philosophy of having more than one way to do the same thing (TMTOWTDI).

Or did it?

If these features didn’t originate with Perl, as Wall seems to imply, then where did they come from?

One of the most important influences on Perl’s design was AWK. So much so that Perl was sometimes described as a semantic superset of AWK. Are the relics of AWK still present in Ruby? Let’s see.

Today, AWK is probably best known as a versatile tool for extracting fields from delimited flat files in a shell pipeline:

cat /etc/passwd | awk -F: '{ print $1 }'

It’s rare to see AWK used for more complex problems in modern systems, but there’s actually a full blown programming language lurking beneath the surface. It was at one time used to solve a lot of the same problems people commonly use Ruby, Perl, or Python to solve today.

You might find some of AWK’s language features familiar:

Not bad for 1977.

It would seem that a large portion of Ruby’s basic syntax and semantics were present in AWK. So how did Perl come to dominate the problem space? There must be something very different about AWK.

While AWK had much of the primitive syntax right, it also overcompensated for a specific case: processing streams of delimited text. The top-level context is used exclusively for declaring one or more matching statements:

pattern { action }

Here, pattern is a full blown expression and action is a block of code executed when pattern evaluates truthfully. The pattern is tested for each line (or record) of input and action is executed when pattern returns truthfully. Omitting the pattern causes the action to be executed for every line.

There’s special patterns for setting actions up to run before the first line of input is read and after all lines have been processed. Here’s an example that uses the special BEGIN pattern along with a regular expression match. It prints all the usernames from /etc/passwd while avoiding comment lines:

cat /etc/passwd |
awk '
    BEGIN     { FS = ":" }
    /^[a-z_]/ { print $1 }

(NOTE: You can paste bomb that into your shell on just about any UNIX system.)

Here’s a more complex example that shows off some of AWK’s advanced features, like associative arrays and for-in syntax. It calculates word frequencies from the text of Jonathan Swift’s, A Modest Proposal:

curl -s http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1080/1080.txt |
awk '
    BEGIN { FS="[^a-zA-Z]+" }

        for (i=1; i<=NF; i++) {
            word = tolower($i)

    END {
        for (w in words)
             printf("%3d %s\n", words[w], w)
' |
sort -rn

It may seem strange, but this style of programming was very common in UNIX’s hayday. Instead of programs being dominated by a single language like Perl or Ruby, you’d build pipelines that combined standard utilities (like sort shown above), sprinkle in bits and pieces of AWK as needed, and drop down to C when performance was critical.

Perl took the guts of AWK and left behind the mandatory pattern matching at the top-level. That simple design change turned what was a special purpose language for processing delimited text streams into what we know today as a general purpose scripting language.

But that’s not the end of the story.

It was important that Perl be able to act as a replacement for AWK in all its capacities, including within shell pipelines. This meant having the ability to run perl in a kind of top-level AWK mode. Ruby borrowed this capability from Perl, making it possible to use Ruby for the same style of programming facilitated by AWK, complete with BEGIN and END blocks!

Here’s the word frequency script in AWK-ish Ruby:

curl -s http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1080/1080.txt |
ruby -ne '
  BEGIN { $words = Hash.new(0) }

  $_.split(/[^a-zA-Z]+/).each { |word| $words[word.downcase] += 1 }

  END {
    $words.each { |word, i| printf "%3d %s\n", i, word }
' |
sort -rn

The -n argument causes Ruby to assume a while gets(); ... end loop around the provided script. $_ is set to the last line read and the BEGIN and END blocks function exactly as they did in AWK.