Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Why use the Linux terminal

The command-line (aka terminal) is a scary thing for new Linux users. But understanding it can be a huge step in your Linux journey and a significant step in your career
Photo by Tianyi Ma on Unsplash

If you're new to Linux, the command-line interface (also known as CLI or terminal) may look scary. But it shouldn't. The CLI is a powerful and resourceful tool that every aspiring Linux user should learn and be comfortable with. On this article, let's review many reasons why you should learn and use the command line, commonly (and often incorrectly) referred to as terminal, shell, bash and CLI. 

Ubiquitous

The command-line interface (CLI) is available in every operating system, not only in Linux. Very frequently, developers and system administrators spend most of the time in them. If you want to work with Linux and technology in general, better start learning it.

Terminals are available in every operating system including Linux, Windows and Macs

Powerful

CLI-based apps are much more powerful than their GUI-based equivalents. That happens because usually GUIs are wrappers around libraries developed by developers. Very frequently, these libraries contain way more functionality than what's available in the graphical interface because, as you might expect, since software development takes time and costs money to produce, developers only add to GUI apps the most popular features. 

For example, these are some of the options that the GNU find tool provides us:

Does your GUI-based find tool has all those options?

Quicker

Common and repetitive tasks are also faster in the terminal with the advantage that you will be able to repeat and even schedule these tasks so they run automatically, releasing you to do actual work, leaving the repetitive tasks to computer.

For example, consider this standard development workflow:

  1. download code from GitHub
  2. make changes
  3. commit code locally
  4. push changes back to GitHub

If you were doing the above using a GUI-based git client (for example, Tortoise Git), the workflow would be similar to the below, taking you approximately 20 minutes to complete:

  1. Open Tortoise Git's web page
  2. Click Download
  3. Next -> Next -> Next -> Finish
  4. Right-click a folder in Nautilus (or Windows Explorer, or Finder) -> Select clone -> Paster the Url -> Click OK
  5. Wait for the download to Complete -> Click OK
  6. Back to Nautilus -> Find File -> Open it
  7. Make your changes (by probably using GEdit, KEdit or Visual Studio Code) -> Save
  8. Back to Nautilus
  9. Right Click -> Commit
  10. Right Click -> Push
  11. Take a deep breath

In the terminal (for example, in Ubuntu), the workflow would be equivalent to the below and could be completed in less than 2 minutes:

sudo apt update && sudo apt install git -y   # install git
git clone <url>     # clone the GitHub repo locally
vim/nano file -> save  # edit the file using a text-based editor
git commit -m <msg> # commits the file locally
git push  # push the changes back to our GitHub repo

Scriptable

Terminal/CLI-based tasks can be scripted (automated) and easily repeated meaning that you will be able to optimize a big part of your workflow. Another benefit is that these scripts can be easily shared, exactly as business and professional developers do!

So let's continue the above example. Our developer realized she is wasting too much time in the GUI and would like to speed up her workflow even more. She learned some bash scripting and wrote the function below:

gcp ()
{
    msg="More updates";
    if [ -n "$1" ]; then
        msg=$1;
    fi;
    git add ./ && git commit -m "$msg" && git push

She's happy because now she can run from the terminal, the below command as soon as she finishes her changes:

gcp <commit-msg>

What previously took 5 minutes is now is done in 2 seconds (1.8 seconds to write the commit message and 0.2 to push the code upstream). A huge advantage in her workflow. Imagine how much more productive she would be during the course of her career!

It's important to always think how can you optimize your workflow. These small optimizations add up to your productivity significantly over time.

Lightweight

Not only the CLI is faster and more lightweight than equivalent GUI-based applications but it's quicker to run the same commands. For example, consider a Git client like Tortoise Git. It was supposed to be lightweight (what most GUI apps aren't) but it takes 3s to completely load and uses 10Mb of memory:

Our GUI-based git client TortoiseGit

Meanwhile, its CLI equivalent, git status runs in 0.3s and consumes less than 1Mb. In other words, 20 times more efficient memory-wise and 10 times faster. 

A simple CLI command is 20x more efficient and 10x faster then its GUI equivalent

Disk Space Efficient

Another advantage of terminal apps over their GUI-equivalents is reduced disk space. For example, contrast these two popular apps. Can you spot the differences?

Application    Installation Size       Total Size       Memory Usage   
Visual Studio Code        80Mb 300Mb 500Mb (on sunny days)
Nano 0.2 Mb 0.8 Mb 3 Mb
400x more efficient 375x more efficient 160x more efficient

Extensible

Another important aspect is that the CLI is extensible. From it, skilled users could easily either extend its basic functionality using its built-in features like pipes and redirections combining inputs and outputs from different tools.

For example, sysadmins could list the first two users in the system who use Bash as a shell, ordered alphabetically with:

cat /etc/passwd | grep bash | cut -d : -f 1 | sort | head -2

What's interesting from the above command is how we combined 5 different tools to get the results we need. Once you master the Linux terminal, you'll too will be able to utilize these tools effectively to get work done significantly faster!

This is a more advanced topic. We'll see in future posts more details about it.

Customizable

As you might expect, the terminal is extremely customizable. Everything from the prompt to functions (as seen above) and even custom keybindings can be customized. For example, want to bind Ctrl+E to open the Nano text editor on the terminal? Simple. Add this to your .bashrc file:

bind '"\C-E":"nano\n"'

Extensive range of Apps

Contrary to what most newcomers thing, the terminal has apps too! You will find apps for pretty much any use case. For example:

Note: The above list is far from comprehensive. It's just to give you an idea of what you'd be able to find in there

For example, here's the Castero Podcast app running on a terminal:

Source; GitHub

Professional Development

Want to work with Linux? Another important aspect of using the terminal is that it will make you more ready for the job market. Since Linux servers usually don't have GUIs, you will end up having to use some of the above tools on your day-to-day work. So why not start now?

Learn more about Linux

Hopefully at this point you realize that you will learn way more about your Linux system and computers in general when you use the terminal. This is the secret sauce that the most productive developers want you to know!

It's also a huge win for testing new tools, maintaining your system, installing software, fixing issues and tweaking as you wish.

Getting Started

Ready to get started on your terminal/CLI journey? Watch the video below:

Note: We don't have any affiliation with the video above. We just want you to learn the terminal 😊

Conclusion

Every modern computer has a terminal. Learning it will save you time, allow you to automate common actions, make you learn more about your system, save time, grow professionally and be more comfortable with Linux. Well worth the effort, isn't it?

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