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Introduction to Linux Bash programming: 5 `for` loop tips

Bash for loops aren't life-changing for everyone, but they certainly can enhance your productivity.
Intro to Linux Bash programming: 5 For loop tips

Every sysadmin probably has some skill they've learned over the years that they can point at and say, "That changed my world." That skill, or that bit of information, or that technique just changed how I do things. For many of us, that thing is looping in Bash. There are other approaches to automation that are certainly more robust or scalable. Most of them do not compare to the simplicity and ready usability of the for loop, though.

If you want to automate the configuration of thousands of systems, you should probably use Ansible. However, if you're trying to rename a thousand files, or execute the same command several times, then the for loop is definitely the right tool for the job.

[ You might also like: Mastering loops with Jinja templates in Ansible ]

If you already have a programming or scripting background, you're probably familiar with what for loops do. If you're not, I'll try to break it down in plain English for you.

The basic concept is: FOR a given set of items, DO a thing.

The given set of items can be a literal set of objects or anything that Bash can extrapolate to a list. For example, text pulled from a file, the output of another Bash command, or parameters passed via the command line. Converting this loop structure into a Bash script is also trivial. In this article, we show you some examples of how a for loop can make you look like a command line hero, and then we take some of those examples and put them inside a more structured Bash script.

Basic structure of the for loop

First, let's talk about the basic structure of a for loop, and then we'll get into some examples.

The basic syntax of a for loop is:

for <variable name> in <a list of items>;do <some command> $<variable name>;done;

The variable name will be the variable you specify in the do section and will contain the item in the loop that you're on.

The list of items can be anything that returns a space or newline-separated list.

Here's an example:

$ for name in joey suzy bobby;do echo $name;done

That's about as simple as it gets and there isn't a whole lot going on there, but it gets you started. The variable $name will contain the item in the list that the loop is currently operating on, and once the command (or commands) in the do section are carried out, the loop will move to the next item. You can also perform more than one action per loop. Anything between do and done will be executed. New commands just need a ; delimiting them.

$ for name in joey suzy bobby; do echo first $name;echo second $name;done;
first joey
second joey
first suzy
second suzy
first bobby
second bobby

Now for some real examples.

Renaming files

This loop takes the output of the Bash command ls *.pdf and performs an action on each returned file name. In this case, we're adding today's date to the end of the file name (but before the file extension).

for i in $(ls *.pdf); do
mv $i $(basename $i .pdf)_$(date +%Y%m%d).pdf

To illustrate, run this loop in a directory containing these files:


The files will be renamed like this:


In a directory with hundreds of files, this loop saves you a considerable amount of time in renaming all of them.

Extrapolating lists of items

Imagine that you have a file that you want to scp to several servers. Remember that you can combine the for loop with other Bash features, such as shell expansion, which allows Bash to expand a list of items that are in a series. This can work for letters and numbers. For example:

$ echo {0..10}
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Assuming your servers are named in some sort of pattern like, web0, web1, web2, web3, you can have Bash iterate the series of numbers like this:

$ for i in web{0..10};do scp somefile.txt ${i}:;done;

This will iterate through web0, web1, web2, web3, and so forth, executing your command on each item.

You can also define a few iterations. For example:

$ for i in web{0..10} db{0..2} balance_{a..c};do echo $i;done

You can also combine iterations. Imagine that you have two data centers, one in the United States, another in Canada, and the server's naming convention identifies which data center a server HA pair lived in. For example, web-us-0 would be the first web server in the US data center, while web-ca-0 would be web 0's counterpart in the CA data center. To execute something on both systems, you can use a sequence like this:

$ for i in web-{us,ca}-{0..3};do echo $i;done

In case your server names are not easy to iterate through, you can provide a list of names to the for loop:

$ cat somelist

$ for i in `cat somelist`;do echo "ITEM: $i";done
ITEM: first_item
ITEM: middle_things
ITEM: foo
ITEM: bar
ITEM: baz
ITEM: last_item


You can also combine some of these ideas for more complex use cases. For example, imagine that you want to copy a list of files to your web servers that follow the numbered naming convention you used in the previous example.

You can accomplish that by iterating a second list based on your first list through nested loops. This gets a little hard to follow when you're doing it as a one-liner, but it can definitely be done. Your nested for loop gets executed on every iteration of the parent for loop. Be sure to specify different variable names for each loop.

To copy the list of files file1.txt, file2.txt, and file3.txt to the web servers, use this nested loop:

$ for i in file{1..3};do for x in web{0..3};do echo "Copying $i to server $x"; scp $i $x; done; done
Copying file1 to server web0
Copying file1 to server web1
Copying file1 to server web2
Copying file1 to server web3
Copying file2 to server web0
Copying file2 to server web1
Copying file2 to server web2
Copying file2 to server web3
Copying file3 to server web0
Copying file3 to server web1
Copying file3 to server web2
Copying file3 to server web3

More creative renaming

There might be other ways to get this done, but remember, this is just an example of things you can do with a for loop. What if you have a mountain of files named something like FILE002.txt, and you want to replace FILE with something like TEXT. Remember that in addition to Bash itself, you also have other open source tools at your disposal, like sed, grep, and more. You can combine those tools with the for loop, like this:

$ ls FILE*.txt
FILE0.txt  FILE10.txt  FILE1.txt  FILE2.txt  FILE3.txt  FILE4.txt  FILE5.txt  FILE6.txt  FILE7.txt  FILE8.txt  FILE9.txt

$ for i in $(ls FILE*.txt);do mv $i `echo $i | sed s/FILE/TEXT/`;done

$ ls FILE*.txt
ls: cannot access 'FILE*.txt': No such file or directory

$ ls TEXT*.txt
TEXT0.txt  TEXT10.txt  TEXT1.txt  TEXT2.txt  TEXT3.txt  TEXT4.txt  TEXT5.txt  TEXT6.txt  TEXT7.txt  TEXT8.txt  TEXT9.txt

Adding a for loop to a Bash script

Running for loops directly on the command line is great and saves you a considerable amount of time for some tasks. In addition, you can include for loops as part of your Bash scripts for increased power, readability, and flexibility.

For example, you can add the nested loop example to a Bash script to improve its readability, like this:

$ vim
# !/bin/bash

for i in file{1..3};do
  for x in web{0..3};do
    echo "Copying $i to server $x"
    scp $i $x

When you save and execute this script, the result is the same as running the nested loop example above, but it's more readable, plus it's easier to change and maintain.

$ bash
Copying file1 to server web0
Copying file1 to server web1
Copying file3 to server web3

You can also increase the flexibility and reusability of your for loops by including them in Bash scripts that allow parameter input. For example, to rename files like the example More creative renaming above allowing the user to specify the name suffix, use this script:

$ vim
# !/bin/bash


for i in $(ls ${source_prefix}*.${suffix});do
  mv $i $(echo $i | sed s/${source_prefix}/${destination_prefix}/)

In this script, the user provides the source file's prefix as the first parameter, the file suffix as the second, and the new prefix as the third parameter. For example, to rename all files starting with FILE, of type .txt to TEXT, execute the script like this :

$ ls FILE*.txt
FILE0.txt  FILE10.txt  FILE1.txt  FILE2.txt  FILE3.txt  FILE4.txt  FILE5.txt  FILE6.txt  FILE7.txt  FILE8.txt  FILE9.txt

$ bash FILE txt TEXT

$ ls TEXT*.txt
TEXT0.txt  TEXT10.txt  TEXT1.txt  TEXT2.txt  TEXT3.txt  TEXT4.txt  TEXT5.txt  TEXT6.txt  TEXT7.txt  TEXT8.txt  TEXT9.txt

This is similar to the original example, but now your users can specify other parameters to change the script behavior. For example, to rename all files now starting with TEXT to NEW, use the following:

$ bash TEXT txt NEW

$ ls NEW*.txt
NEW0.txt  NEW10.txt  NEW1.txt  NEW2.txt  NEW3.txt  NEW4.txt  NEW5.txt  NEW6.txt  NEW7.txt  NEW8.txt  NEW9.txt

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Hopefully, these examples have demonstrated the power of a for loop at the Bash command line. You really can save a lot of time and perform tasks in a less error-prone way with loops. Just be careful. Your loops will do what you ask them to, even if you ask them to do something destructive by accident, like creating (or deleting) logical volumes or virtual disks.

We hope that Bash for loops change your world the same way they changed ours.

Topics:   Linux   Scripting  
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Nathan Lager

Nate is a Technical Account Manager with Red Hat and an experienced sysadmin with 20 years in the industry.  He first encountered Linux (Red Hat 5.0) as a teenager, after deciding that software licensing was too expensive for a kid with no income, in the late 90’s.  Since then he’s run More about me

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Ricardo Gerardi

Ricardo Gerardi is Technical Community Advocate for Enable Sysadmin and Enable Architect. He was previously a senior consultant at Red Hat Canada, where he specialized in IT automation with Ansible and OpenShift.  More about me

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