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The Art of Unix Programming
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Unix Programming - Environment Variables - When to Use Environment Variables

When to Use Environment Variables

What both user and system environment variables have in common is that it would be annoying to have to replicate the information they contain in a large number of application run-control files, and extremely annoying to have to change that information everywhere when your preference changes. Typically, the user sets these variables in his or her shell session startup file.

A value varies across several contexts that share dotfiles, or a parent needs to pass information to multiple child processes. Some pieces of start-up information are expected to vary across several contexts in which the calling user would share common run-control files and dotfiles. For a system-level example, consider several shell sessions open through terminal emulator windows on an X desktop. They will all see the same dotfiles, but might have different values of COLUMNS, LINES, and TERM. (Old-school shell programming used this method extensively; makefiles still do.)

A value varies too often for dotfiles, but doesn't change on every startup. A user-defined environment variable may (for example) be used to pass a file system or Internet location that is the root of a tree of files that the program should play with. The CVS version-control system interprets the variable CVSROOT this way, for example. Several newsreader clients that fetch news from servers using the NNTP protocol interpret the variable NNTPSERVER as the location of the server to query.

A process-unique override needs to be expressed in a way that doesn't require the command-line invocation to be changed. A user-defined environment variable can be useful for situations in which, for whatever reason, it would be inconvenient to have to change an application dotfile or supply command-line options (perhaps it is expected that the application will normally be used inside a shell wrapper or within a makefile). A particularly important context for this sort of use is debugging. Under Linux, for example, manipulating the variable LD_LIBRARY_PATH associated with the ld(1) linking loader enables you to change where libraries are loaded from — perhaps to pick up versions that do buffer-overflow checking or profiling.

In general, a user-defined environment variable can be an effective design choice when the value changes often enough to make editing a dotfile each time inconvenient, but not necessarily every time (so always setting the location with a command-line option would also be inconvenient). Such variables should typically be evaluated after a local dotfile and be permitted to override settings in it.

There is one traditional Unix design pattern that we do not recommend for new programs. Sometimes, user-set environment variables are used as a lightweight substitute for expressing a program preference in a run-control file. The venerable nethack(1) dungeon-crawling game, for example, reads a NETHACKOPTIONS environment variable for user preferences. This is an old-school technique; modern practice would lean toward parsing them from a .nethack or .nethackrc run-control file.

The problem with the older style is that it makes tracking where your preference information lives more difficult than it would be if you knew the program had a run-control file under your home directory. Environment variables can be set anywhere in several different shell run-control files — under Linux these are likely to include .profile, .bash_profile, and .bashrc at least. These files are cluttered and fragile things, so as the code overhead of having an option-parser has come to seem less significant preference information has tended to migrate out of environment variables into dotfiles.


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The Art of Unix Programming
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