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Shebang - What's the point of #!/bin/bash?


Some material is very old and may be incorrect today

© July 2013 Anthony Lawrence

2013/07/28

If you want the geekish explanation, Wikipedia has a good overview of shebang. Here, I want to look at it from a more pragmatic view.

You've undoubtedly seen shell scripts begin with "#!/bin/bash" and you may have noticed Perl scripts that begin with "#!/usr/bin/perl". You may have also noticed that you seemingly don't really need "#!/bin/bash" but "#!/usr/bin/perl" isn't quite so optional.

Let's take a look at a simple and pointless shell script. We'll run it with and without "#!/bin/bash" and see what happens.



#!/bin/bash
while :
do
sleep 30
done
 

I'll call that "t.sh" and run it as "./t.sh":

$ ./t.sh &
[1] 836
 

A "ps" shows what's running:

  464 ttys001    0:00.02 -bash
  836 ttys001    0:00.00 /bin/bash ./t.sh
  837 ttys001    0:00.00 sleep 300
 

Now we'll make a copy of that ("tcopy.sh") but take out the first line:

while :
do
sleep 30
done
 

We'll run that:

$ ./tcopy.sh &
[2] 848
$ ps
  PID TTY           TIME CMD
  464 ttys001    0:00.02 -bash
  836 ttys001    0:00.00 /bin/bash ./t.sh
  837 ttys001    0:00.00 sleep 30
  848 ttys001    0:00.00 -bash
  849 ttys001    0:00.00 sleep 30
 

One difference stands out: the version with "#!/bin/bash" shows us "t.sh" in the "ps" listing, but the other version just shows "bash" (actually, "-bash", but that's a story for another day).

Let's kill those off:

$ kill 836 848
$ ps
  PID TTY           TIME CMD
  464 ttys001    0:00.03 -bash
  855 ttys001    0:00.00 sleep 30
  992 ttys001    0:00.00 sleep 30
[1]-  Terminated: 15          ./t.sh
[2]+  Terminated: 15          ./tcopy.sh
 

Notice that the "sleep"'s are still running - that too is a story for another day, but they'll go away soon enough. So, right away we see one advantage of the shebang: it lets us see the name of a shell script in "ps".

We're not quite done. Let's create a Perl script:

#!/usr/bin/perl
exec("./t.sh");
 

What happens when we use that?

$ ./t.pl &
[1] 1050
$ ps
  PID TTY           TIME CMD
  464 ttys001    0:00.04 -bash
 1050 ttys001    0:00.01 /bin/bash ./t.sh
 1051 ttys001    0:00.00 sleep 30
 

Same thing, right? How about we exec "tcopy.sh" from that script instead?

$ cat t.pl
#!/usr/bin/perl
exec("./tcopy.sh");
$ ./t.pl &
[1] 1085
$ ps
  PID TTY           TIME CMD
  464 ttys001    0:00.05 -bash
 1085 ttys001    0:00.01 sh ./tcopy.sh
 1086 ttys001    0:00.00 sleep 30
 

The difference?

 1050 ttys001    0:00.01 /bin/bash ./t.sh
 1085 ttys001    0:00.01 sh ./tcopy.sh
 

So that's another thing: if our shebang-less script is run by something other than bash, it's /bin/sh that ends up running it. Certainly in this case it doesn't matter - sh or bash will do the same thing. But other scripts might have bash specific commands and /bin/sh would fail or behave badly.

So is there any reason to leave out the shebang?

Let's make t.sh and tcopy.sh very simple:

$ cat t.sh; echo " ";cat tcopy.sh
#!/bin/bash
x=1024
echo $x
exit
 
x=1024
echo  $x
exit
 

Now let's have them race each other:

$ time ./t.sh;time ./tcopy.sh
1024

real	0m0.003s
user	0m0.001s
sys	0m0.001s
1024

real	0m0.001s
user	0m0.001s
sys	0m0.001s
 

Whoah! What's that?? Why is the shebangless version faster?

The man page for bash tells us the difference in the "COMMAND EXECUTION" section:


If the search is successful, or if the command name contains one or more slashes, the shell executes the named program in a separate execution environment. Argument 0 is set to the name given, and the remaining arguments to the command are set to the arguments given, if any.

If this execution fails because the file is not in executable format, and the file is not a direc- tory, it is assumed to be a shell script, a file containing shell commands. A subshell is spawned to execute it. This subshell reinitializes itself, so that the effect is as if a new shell had been invoked to handle the script, with the exception that the locations of commands remembered by the parent (see hash below under SHELL BUILTIN COMMANDS) are retained by the child.

If the program is a file beginning with #!, the remainder of the first line specifies an interpreter for the program. The shell executes the specified interpreter on operating systems that do not han- dle this executable format themselves. The arguments to the interpreter consist of a single optional argument following the interpreter name on the first line of the program, followed by the name of the program, followed by the command arguments, if any.

So, it's quicker to fail and run the subshell than to succeed. Not by much, of course, but the difference is real. I can't imagine a circumstance where it would actually matter unless you had some strange system that was constantly firing of short little shell scripts to do this and that - you'd need to be doing an awful lot of that to even notice~


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