36.6. Optimizations

Most shell scripts are quick 'n dirty solutions to non-complex problems. As such, optimizing them for speed is not much of an issue. Consider the case, though, where a script carries out an important task, does it well, but runs too slowly. Rewriting it in a compiled language may not be a palatable option. The simplest fix would be to rewrite the parts of the script that slow it down. Is it possible to apply principles of code optimization even to a lowly shell script?

Check the loops in the script. Time consumed by repetitive operations adds up quickly. If at all possible, remove time-consuming operations from within loops.

Use builtin commands in preference to system commands. Builtins execute faster and usually do not launch a subshell when invoked.

Avoid unnecessary commands, particularly in a pipe.
cat "$file" | grep "$word"

grep "$word" "$file"

#  The above command-lines have an identical effect,
#+ but the second runs faster since it launches one fewer subprocess.
The cat command seems especially prone to overuse in scripts.


Certain operators, notably expr, are very inefficient and might be replaced by double parentheses arithmetic expansion. See Example A-59.

Math tests

math via $(( ))
real          0m0.294s
user          0m0.288s
sys           0m0.008s

math via expr:
real          1m17.879s   # Much slower!
user          0m3.600s
sys           0m8.765s

math via let:
real          0m0.364s
user          0m0.372s
sys           0m0.000s

Condition testing constructs in scripts deserve close scrutiny. Substitute case for if-then constructs and combine tests when possible, to minimize script execution time. Again, refer to Example A-59.

Test using "case" construct:
real          0m0.329s
user          0m0.320s
sys           0m0.000s

Test with if [], no quotes:
real          0m0.438s
user          0m0.432s
sys           0m0.008s

Test with if [], quotes:
real          0m0.476s
user          0m0.452s
sys           0m0.024s

Test with if [], using -eq:
real          0m0.457s
user          0m0.456s
sys           0m0.000s


Erik Brandsberg recommends using associative arrays in preference to conventional numeric-indexed arrays in most cases. When overwriting values in a numeric array, there is a significant performance penalty vs. associative arrays. Running a test script confirms this. See Example A-60.

Assignment tests

Assigning a simple variable
real          0m0.418s
user          0m0.416s
sys           0m0.004s

Assigning a numeric index array entry
real          0m0.582s
user          0m0.564s
sys           0m0.016s

Overwriting a numeric index array entry
real          0m21.931s
user          0m21.913s
sys           0m0.016s

Linear reading of numeric index array
real          0m0.422s
user          0m0.416s
sys           0m0.004s

Assigning an associative array entry
real          0m1.800s
user          0m1.796s
sys           0m0.004s

Overwriting an associative array entry
real          0m1.798s
user          0m1.784s
sys           0m0.012s

Linear reading an associative array entry
real          0m0.420s
user          0m0.420s
sys           0m0.000s

Assigning a random number to a simple variable
real          0m0.402s
user          0m0.388s
sys           0m0.016s

Assigning a sparse numeric index array entry randomly into 64k cells
real          0m12.678s
user          0m12.649s
sys           0m0.028s

Reading sparse numeric index array entry
real          0m0.087s
user          0m0.084s
sys           0m0.000s

Assigning a sparse associative array entry randomly into 64k cells
real          0m0.698s
user          0m0.696s
sys           0m0.004s

Reading sparse associative index array entry
real          0m0.083s
user          0m0.084s
sys           0m0.000s

Use the time and times tools to profile computation-intensive commands. Consider rewriting time-critical code sections in C, or even in assembler.

Try to minimize file I/O. Bash is not particularly efficient at handling files, so consider using more appropriate tools for this within the script, such as awk or Perl.

Write your scripts in a modular and coherent form, [1] so they can be reorganized and tightened up as necessary. Some of the optimization techniques applicable to high-level languages may work for scripts, but others, such as loop unrolling, are mostly irrelevant. Above all, use common sense.

For an excellent demonstration of how optimization can dramatically reduce the execution time of a script, see Example 16-47.



This usually means liberal use of functions.