1. Overview

In many cases, template, configuration, or initialization files keep the names of bash variables as placeholders.

Thus, we need to fill in the variables’ values before actual use.

We’re going to learn how to do just that with the envsubst command.

2. Basic Features of envsubst

The envsubst command searches the input for pattern $VARIABLE or ${VARIABLE}. Then, it replaces the pattern with the value of the corresponding bash variable.

In contrast, a pattern that does not refer to any variable is replaced by an empty string.

Moreover, envsubst recognizes only exported variables.

The command is a part of the GNU ‘gettext’ package. Its basic syntax is:


3. Examples of Use

Let’s prepare a simple greetings template in the file welcome.txt. We’re going to address the user with the name, add the desktop session’s name, and end up with a specific greeting:

Hello user $USER in $DESKTOP_SESSION. It's time to say $HELLO!

Let’s export the HELLO variable:

$ export HELLO="good morning"
$ envsubst < welcome.txt
Hello user joe in Lubuntu. It's time to say good morning!

And now, let’s unset this variable:

$ unset HELLO
$ envsubst < welcome.txt
Hello user joe in Lubuntu. It's time to say !

4. Specify Variables with SHELL-FORMAT

The SHELL-FORMAT argument selects variables for substitution.

That is, only variables mentioned in this argument will be replaced. All other variables and all other words containing the dollar sign remain untouched.

The variable pattern is the same as with the command input – $VARIABLE or ${VARIABLE}.

Let’s give it a check on the shell_format_test.txt input file:

This is $FOO and this $BAR

Also, let’s set and export two variables, FOO and BAR:

$ export FOO=foo export BAR=bar

Now, we’re going to replace only FOO:

$ envsubst '$FOO' < shell_format_test.txt
This is foo and this $BAR

We should use apostrophes around the content of SHELL-FORMAT to prevent variable substitution before the call to envsubst.

5. The Format of SHELL-FORMAT

Let’s note that the structure of SHELL-FORMAT is very flexible. For example, variables may form a delimited list:

$ envsubst '$FOO,$BAR' < shell_format_test.txt
This is foo and this bar

Or, they can be a part of any text:

$ envsubst 'Please deal with $FOO and $BAR'< shell_format_test.txt
This is foo and this bar

The variable pattern must contain only alphanumeric ASCII characters and underscores and may not start with a digit.

6. Substituting All Environment Variables

As an example, let’s replace all environment variables found in our welcome.txt template file:

$ envsubst "$(printf '${%s} ' $(env | cut -d'=' -f1))" < welcome.txt
Hello user joe in Lubuntu. It's time to say $HELLO!

Now, let’s analyze the SHELL-FORMAT argument.

First, the env command provides a list of variables and their values in pairs. Then, we cut each pair and extract the variable’s name.

Finally, printf puts this name into curly braces and adds a leading dollar sign.

7. Listing the Content of SHELL-FORMAT

Let’s use a -v or –variables switch to print all variables present in the SHELL-FORMAT argument. With this option, no actual substitution takes place.

So, let’s print names of all environment variables in a rather fancy way (with the help of xargs and column):

$ envsubst "$(printf '${%s} ' $(env | cut -d'=' -f1))" --variables | xargs -L4 | column -t
XDG_VTNR               LC_PAPER                  LC_ADDRESS           XDG_SESSION_ID

8. Conclusion

In this article, we looked through some of the details of the envsubst command. Furthermore, we studied examples of its use.

Finally, we showed how to use envsubst to replace all referenced environment variables in a text file with their corresponding values from the shell environment.

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