PSA: Doing less is more with system and exec

I’ve come across a lot of cases where people take an array of arguments and turn it into a string before passing them to system or exec. I want to spread the news that it isn’t needed and that we can save ourselves from bugs in the future with a little less code.

I don’t mean to pick on defunkt specifically — it’s a pattern I see all the time, but this example is one I had available:

def self.perform(*args)
  script = args.join(' ')
  puts "$ #{script}"
  Open3.popen3(args.join(' ')) do |stdin, stdout, stderr|

You can see the code on GitHub here.

What is Open3.popen3 really doing? It calls a bunch of stuff, like IO::pipe, but in the end, it calls exec with the same arguments that were passed to it:


You can see the whole source for popen3 here.

What happens if we pass a multi-word argument to perform?

ShellJob.perform('rm', '/Library/Keyboard Layouts/Qwerty.bundle')

The arguments are joined and turn into:

"rm /Library/Keyboard Layouts/Qwerty.bundle"

When this is passed to the ruby exec method, the results are parsed with the ruby shell argument parser and it ends up with a child process holding an ARGV of:

["rm", "/Library/Keyboard", "Layouts/Qwerty.bundle"]

…but this isn’t what we wanted!

To understand the basics of what is going on, we have to understand the underlying call that the ruby interpreter calls: execv(3):

execv(const char *path, char *const argv[]);

The argv[] array that is passed into execv(3) is copied into the child process as ARGV. Handy isn’t it?

The problem is, there is no version of the C function that takes a single char * of all of the arguments and Does The Right Thing. Because of this, the ruby interpreter has to fake it, using an approximation of how the shell parses arguments.

But there is a better way.

From the documentation for Kernel#exec (emphasis mine):

Replaces the current process by running the given external command. If exec is given a single argument, that argument is taken as a line that is subject to shell expansion before being executed. If multiple arguments are given, the second and subsequent arguments are passed as parameters to command with no shell expansion.

What’s great is, in this case (and in a lot of them), we actually already have an array with all of the arguments in it.

So, we can actually just change the popen3 line to say:

Open3.popen3(*args) do |stdin, stdout, stderr|

and everything will work the way we want.

You can see the full code on GitHub here.

Posted Wednesday, January 20 2010 (∞).

written by Eric Lindvall

I also appear on the internet on GitHub and Twitter as @lindvall and work hard to make Papertrail awesome.

themed by Adam Lloyd.