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LPI Linux Essentials Exam 010-160 - Topic 3.3 - Mastering Loops: FOR, UNTIL & WHILE

Within the Linux environment, the ability to iterate over sets of commands and data is a fundamental concept for automating repetitive tasks. The constructs for, until, and while offer distinct ways to cycle through loops, each serving specific use cases in shell scripting. Understanding their syntax and application empowers a user to efficiently handle batch processing and automate system tasks with precision.

Exploring the For Loop

The for loop is a versatile tool for traversing a sequence of items, such as strings, numbers, or file contents. Its syntax is elegantly straightforward, which allows it to be used with ease in many scenarios. Here's how you can write a basic for loop in a bash script:

for item in sequence
    # Actions to be performed on each item

In this construction, the sequence is the collection of items you wish to iterate over. During each iteration, the item variable captures the current element, which you can manipulate or use within the body of the loop, demarcated by do and done.

Practical Application: Processing Directories

Imagine a situation where you need to comb through several directories, searching for files exceeding a certain size threshold. With a for loop, you can seamlessly glide through each directory and perform the check:

for dir in /usr/share/doc /var/log /etc
    find $dir -type f -size +500k -exec ls -lh {} \;
done 2> /dev/null

In this snippet, the find command systematically inspects each directory specified in the list, searching for files larger than 500K. The -type f flag restricts the search to files, while -exec ls -lh {} \; executes a detailed list command on each file that meets the criteria. By redirecting errors to /dev/null, the output is kept clean, showing only the successful listings.

Service Status Inquiry

When managing system services, a for loop can be employed to query the status of each service in a list, providing a batch status report:

for service in sshd dbus rsyslog
    systemctl --no-pager status $service

This loop runs the systemctl status command on a trio of essential services (sshd, dbus, rsyslog), yielding their operational status in sequence, thus streamlining system checks into a simple, repetitive task.

Delving into the Until Loop

In contrast to the for loop, the until loop continues execution until the provided condition evaluates to true. This loop is particularly useful when the termination condition is easier to define than the continuation condition. The basic structure of an until loop looks like this:

until [ condition ]
    # Commands to execute until the condition is met

Here, the condition is evaluated before each iteration, and the commands within the do and done block are executed so long as the condition remains false. Once the condition is satisfied, the loop ceases to execute.

Counting to Five

An example of the until loop in action could be a simple counter that prints numbers incrementally:

until [ $counter -gt 5 ]
    echo $counter
    sleep 1
    (( counter++ ))

The variable counter begins at 1 and the loop runs until it increments to a value greater than 5. Each iteration pauses for a second (thanks to sleep 1), allowing for a time-staggered output.

File Existence Monitoring

Consider a scenario where you need to wait until a file is removed before proceeding. The until loop is perfectly suited for this task:

touch /tmp/remove_me.txt
until [ ! -f /tmp/remove_me.txt ]
    echo "Waiting for removal of /tmp/remove_me.txt - timestamp: $(date)"
    sleep 5

In this case, the loop continually checks for the non-existence of /tmp/remove_me.txt. It prompts the user at regular intervals, allowing another process or user to remove the file as required for the loop to terminate.

The While Loop

The while loop offers yet another looping mechanism, with the distinction that it continues as long as the given condition is true. This is useful in cases where you need to execute a set of commands indefinitely or until a certain state changes. A while loop's syntax is as follows:

while [ condition ]
    # Commands to execute while the condition is true

In every while loop, the condition is evaluated before each iteration, and if it holds true, the commands between do and done are executed. When the condition fails, the loop exits.

Iterative Counting

Similar to the until loop, you can use a while loop to count from 1 to 5, only this time the condition keeps the loop running as long as the counter is less or equal to 5:

while [ $counter -le 5 ]
    echo $counter
    sleep 1
    (( counter++ ))

Each pass through the loop prints the current count, waits a moment, and then increments the counter. When the counter exceeds 5, the loop concludes.

Processing File Contents

When faced with the need to read through a file line by line, while combined with read is a potent combination:

while IFS= read -r line
    if echo $line | grep -q '/sbin/nologin'; then
        echo "No login shell found: $line"
done < /etc/passwd

In this example, the script reads from /etc/passwd and passes each line to the loop. Inside the loop, it searches for lines that contain /sbin/nologin, indicating an account with a disabled login shell. The use of grep -q quietly checks for the presence of the string, only producing output when a match is found.


Setting IFS= with no value followed by read command, as in IFS= read -r line, changes the behavior of the read built-in bash command. It tells read to consider the entire line as a single field and to not split it up into different fields based on the presence of spaces, tabs, or other IFS characters. This is particularly useful when reading lines that contain spaces or tabs that you do not want to be interpreted as field separators.

The careful design of these loops in shell scripts is integral to the smooth and automated functioning of many routine Linux tasks. Whether deploying scripts for administrative purposes or batch processing, the correct use of for, until, and while loops will significantly streamline and enhance your shell scripting endeavors.

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