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How can I use variable variables (indirect variables, pointers, references) or associative arrays?

This is a complex page, because it's a complex topic. It's been divided into roughly three parts: associative arrays, evaluating indirect variables, and assigning indirect variables. There are discussions of programming issues and concepts scattered throughout.

1. Associative Arrays

We introduce associative arrays first, because in the majority of cases where people are trying to use indirect variable assignments/evaluations, they ought to be using associative arrays instead. For instance, we frequently see people asking how they can have a buch of related variables like IPaddr_hostname1, IPaddr_hostname2 and so on. A more appropriate way to store this data would be in an associative array named IPaddr which is indexed by the hostname.

To map from one string to another, you need arrays indexed by a string instead of a number. These exists in AWK as "associative arrays", in Perl as "hashes", and in Tcl simply as "arrays". They also exist in ksh93, where you'd use them like this:

BASH supports them from version 4 and up:

Prior to Bash 4 or if you can't use ksh93, your options are limited. Either move to another interpreter (awk, perl, python, ruby, tcl, ...) or re-evaluate your problem to simplify it.

There are certain tasks for which associative arrays are a powerful and completely appropriate tool. There are others for which they are overkill, or simply unsuitable.

Suppose we have several subservient hosts with slightly different configuration, and that we want to ssh to each one and run slightly different commands. One way we could set it up would be to hard-code a bunch of ssh commands in per-hostname functions in a single script and just run them in series or in parallel. (Don't reject this out of hand! Simple is good.) Another way would be to store each group of commands as an element of an associative array keyed by the hostname:

This is the kind of approach we'd expect in a high-level language, where we can store hierarchical information in advanced data structures. The difficulty here is that we really want each element of the associative array to be a list or another array of command strings. But the shell simply doesn't permit that kind of data structure.

So, often it pays to step back and think in terms of shells rather than other programming languages. Aren't we just running a script on a remote host? Then why don't we just store the configuration sets as scripts? Then it's simple:

Now we've removed the need for associative arrays, and also the need to maintain a bunch of extremely horrible quoting issues. It is also easy to parallelize using GNU Parallel:

1.1. Associative array hacks in older shells

Before you think of using eval to mimic associative arrays in an older shell (probably by creating a set of variable names like homedir_alex), try to think of a simpler or completely different approach that you could use instead. If this hack still seems to be the best thing to do, consider the following disadvantages:

  1. It's really hard to read, to keep track of, and to maintain.
  2. The variable names must match the RegularExpression ^[a-zA-Z_][a-zA-Z_0-9]* -- i.e., a variable name cannot contain arbitrary characters but only letters, digits, and underscores. We cannot have a variable's name contain Unix usernames, for instance -- consider a user named hong-hu. A dash '-' cannot be part of a variable name, so the entire attempt to make a variable named homedir_hong-hu is doomed from the start.

  3. Quoting is hard to get right. If a content string (not a variable name) can contain whitespace characters and quotes, it's hard to quote it right to preserve it through both shell parsings. And that's just for constants, known at the time you write the program. (Bash's printf %q helps, but nothing analogous is available in POSIX shells.)

  4. If the program handles unsanitized user input, it can be VERY dangerous!

Read BashGuide/Arrays or BashFAQ/005 for a more in-depth description and examples of how to use arrays in Bash.

If you need an associative array but your shell doesn't support them, please consider using AWK instead.

2. Indirection

2.1. Think before using indirection

Putting variable names or any other bash syntax inside parameters is generally a bad idea. It violates the separation between code and data, and as such puts you on a slippery slope toward bugs, security issues, etc. Even when you know you "got it right", because you "know and understand exactly what you're doing", bugs happen to all of us and it pays to respect separation practices to minimize the extent of damage they can cause.

Aside from that, it also makes your code non-obvious and non-transparent.

Normally, in bash scripting, you won't need indirect references at all. Generally, people look at this for a solution when they don't understand or know about Bash Arrays or haven't fully considered other Bash features such as functions.

2.2. Evaluating indirect/reference variables

BASH allows you to expand a parameter indirectly -- that is, one variable may contain the name of another variable:

KornShell (ksh93) has a completely different, more powerful syntax -- the nameref command (also known as typeset -n):

Unfortunately, for shells other than Bash and ksh93, there is no syntax for evaluating a referenced variable. You would have to use eval, which means you would have to undergo extreme measures to sanitize your data to avoid catastrophe.

It's difficult to imagine a practical use for this that wouldn't be just as easily performed by using an associative array. But people ask it all the time (it is genuinely a frequently asked question).

ksh93's nameref allows us to work with references to arrays, as well as regular scalar variables. For example,

We are not aware of any trick that can duplicate that functionality in POSIX or Bourne shells (short of using eval, which is extremely difficult to do securely). Bash can almost do it -- some indirect array tricks work, and others do not, and we do not know whether the syntax involved will remain stable in future releases. So, consider this a use at your own risk hack.

It is not possible to retrieve array indices directly using the Bash ${!var} indirect expansion.

2.3. Assigning indirect/reference variables

Sometimes you'd like to "point" from one variable to another, for purposes of writing information to a dynamically configurable place. Typically this happens when you're trying to write a "reusable" function, and you want it to put its output in a variable of the caller's choice instead of the function's choice. (Reusability of shell functions is dubious at best, so this is something that should not happen often.)

Assigning a value "through" a reference (or pointer, or indirect variable, or whatever you want to call it -- I'm going to use "ref" from now on) is more widely possible, but the means of doing so are extremely shell-specific.

Before we begin, we must point out that you must control the value of the ref. That is, you should only use a ref whose value you assign within a program, or from trusted input. If an end user can populate the ref variable with arbitrary strings, the result can be unexpected code injection. We'll show an example of this at the end.

In ksh93, we can just use nameref again:

In Bash, we can use read and Bash's here string syntax:

However, this only works if there are no newlines in the content. If you need to assign multiline values, keep reading.

A similar trick works for Bash array variables too:

(Again, newlines in the input will break this trick. IFS is used to delimit words, so you may or may not need to set that.)

Another trick is to use Bash's printf -v (only available in recent versions):

The printf -v trick is handy if your contents aren't a constant string, but rather, something dynamically generated. You can use all of printf's formatting capabilities. This trick also permits any string content, including embedded newlines (but not NUL bytes - no force in the universe can put NUL bytes into shell strings usefully). This is the best trick to use if you're in bash 3.1 or higher.

Yet another trick is Korn shell's typeset or Bash's declare. These are roughly equivalent to each other. Both of them cause a variable to become locally scoped to a function, if used inside a function; but if used outside a function, they can operate on global variables.

Bash 4.2 adds declare -g which can put variables in the global context, even from inside a function.

The advantage of using typeset or declare over eval is that the right hand side of the assignment is not parsed by the shell. If you used eval here, you would have to sanitize/escape the entire right hand side first. This trick also preserves the contents exactly, including newlines, so this is the best trick to use if you're in bash older than 3.1 (or ksh88) and don't need to worry about accidentally changing your variable's scope (i.e., you're not using it inside a function).

However, with bash, you must still be careful about what is on the left-hand side of the assignment. Inside square brackets, expansions are still performed; thus, with a tainted ref, declare can be just as dangerous as eval:

This problem also exists with typeset in mksh and pdksh, but apparently not ksh93. This is why the value of ref must be under your control at all times.

If you aren't using Bash or Korn shell, you can do assignments to referenced variables using HereDocument syntax:

(Alas, read means we're back to only getting at most one line of content. This is the most portable trick, but it's limited to single-line content.)

Remember that, when using a here document, if the sentinel word (EOF in our example) is unquoted, then parameter expansions will be performed inside the body. If the sentinel is quoted, then parameter expansions are not performed. Use whichever is more convenient for your task.

Finally, some people just cannot resist throwing eval into the picture:

This expands to the statement that is executed:

The right-hand side is not parsed by the shell, so there is no danger of unwanted side effects. The drawback, here, is that every single shell metacharacter on the right hand side of the = must be escaped carefully. In the example shown here, there was only one. In a more complex situation, there could be dozens.

The good news is that if you can sanitize the right hand side correctly, this trick is fully portable, has no variable scope issues, and allows all content including newlines. The bad news is that if you fail to sanitize the right hand side correctly, you have a massive security hole. Use eval at your own risk.

3. See Also


2012-07-01 04:05