[001.1] Great Command-Line Tools, Part 1

An introductory overview of ps, awk, pipes, htop, and jq

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Great Command-Line Tools, Part 1 [11.22.2017]

For Thanksgiving week we thought we would do some content around command-line workflows. To that end, I'd like to show off a few basic CLI tools, how I use them, and how unix tools play nicely together via pipes. Let's get started.



The first command we'll look at is ps. If you don't know what ps does or want to review the options available to you, you should check out its man page.

man ps

We can see that the utility's name stands for Process Status. By default it just shows your user's processes:


For the next step, I'm going to open a few files in neovim:

# one in each terminal
vim 1
vim 2
vim 3

If we want to see just the processes running neovim we can pipe this output to grep, searching for lines that contain nvim:

ps | grep 'nvim'

This is a little better, but here we can see that incidental processes are also showing up because they contain the characters nvim in their full command line, even if that's not the executable the process is running. We can't do much better than this with grep, but we can start to see how we could. First, let's modify the fields that ps returns:

ps -o pid,comm,args

Here we're just outputting a column for each of the pid, the raw command that was run, and the command plus arguments.

Let's move on to the next tool to see how we could filter this list:


awk is listed in its man page as a pattern scanning and processing language. In general, I use it to turn tabular data into structured data that I can filter or format or otherwise manipulate.

Let's first use it to print our PIDs just on their own, by capturing the first column of ps's output:

ps -o pid,comm,args | awk '{print $1}'

That's a nice start, but we're also capturing the header field as a value. Let's omit the first row. We can use the value NR to stand for the number of the row we're on.

ps -o pid,comm,args | awk 'NR > 0 {print $1}'

Oops, it's still there. awk rows start at row 1, just to mix things up a bit.

ps -o pid,comm,args | awk 'NR > 1 {print $1}'

There we go.

Next, let's include the command:

ps -o pid,comm,args | awk 'NR > 1 {print $1, $2}'

That's...beautiful. But it works. We can also just print out the line as it is, rather than specifying the columns to print:

ps -o pid,comm,args | awk 'NR > 1 {print}'

This is useful if we want to eventually pipe it without translation into a later usage of awk, for instance.

Next, we can filter out lines if the command isn't nvim:

ps -o pid,comm,args | awk '{ if ($2 == "nvim") {print} }'

That's showing us all of my nvim instances, nice. It would be nice if we could get the arguments for nvim on their own, without the duplicated command name. We can, of course, by just using the extra field that will have been created by the space after nvim:

ps -o pid,comm,args | awk '{ if ($2 == "nvim") {printf "%s is being run on %s in pid %s\n", $2, $4, $1} }'

And finally, if we wanted to add user information that's easy as well:

ps -o pid,user,comm,args | awk '{ if ($3 == "nvim") {printf "%s is being run on %s in pid %s by user %s\n", $3, $5, $1, $2} }'

awk is way more useful than this, but it seemed like a good way to get a quick and dirty intro to it.


Next, I just wanted to give a shout-out to htop. It's an interactive process viewer and I use it instead of top on any machine I happen to be using.

htop screenshot


Here it's showing me my CPU and memory usage, and a list of processes that are running. There are interactive commands from here. For instance, to filter to nvim instances I can press F4 and then type nvim. I can also press F5 to see the process tree, which will show child processes nicely.

From here you can also modify a process's nice value, which can help you tweak the priority a given process receives from the scheduler. A lower nice means more priority is given to that process.


Finally, I really like jq for interacting with JSON data.

There's a great tutorial for jq. I'll go through part of it to show the tool off.

First, you need to have some JSON data to work with. We'll grab the most recent commits to the jq repository on GitHub.

curl 'https://api.github.com/repos/stedolan/jq/commits?per_page=5'

That's a mess of text in our console. We can pipe it through jq to pretty print it, for starters:

curl 'https://api.github.com/repos/stedolan/jq/commits?per_page=5' | jq .

Here we're giving the argument . to jq. That's our filter, and it basically means select everything.

OK, so what does this get us? Well, in this case, it just colorized the output seemingly, but even just this I use as my JSON pretty printer. If I have a chunk of JSON I want to look nice, I'll pipe it through jq . - I do this from vim all the time.

Here's an example:

vim foo

Then read in the JSON data with:

:r https://api.github.com/repos/stedolan/jq/commits?per_page=5

It comes from github pretty, but we can mangle it by removing all whitespace on each line:


Now we can go from this mangled json to pretty json by piping it through jq . inside of vim. We'll select it all with ggVG, then pipe it through jq:

:!jq .

Now it's formatted nicely!

But jq can do so much more. Let's say we just want to see the authors for the last five commits:

curl 'https://api.github.com/repos/stedolan/jq/commits?per_page=5' | jq '.[] | { author: .commit.author.name }'

Here we're saying we got data as an array and would like to feed each, one at a time, through a mapping function that returns new json containing just the commit's author's name.

Let's add the commit message as well:

curl 'https://api.github.com/repos/stedolan/jq/commits?per_page=5' | jq '.[] | { author: .commit.author.name, message: .commit.message }'

One thing here - jq produces streams of JSON values. You'll notice that this isn't outputting an array of our json. We can change the output by collecting each of these into an array:

curl 'https://api.github.com/repos/stedolan/jq/commits?per_page=5' | jq '[.[] | { author: .commit.author.name, message: .commit.message }]'

Again, you can do a lot more with jq but this should at least get you interested if you've never heard of it.


In today's episode I showed off a variety of command-line tools that I use regularly. I know there are always tricks that one person's learned that aren't widely distributed, and these are a few of mine. I'd love to hear about yours, so just leave a comment. See you soon!