For someone spending most of his time in front of a Linux terminal, history is very important. But traditional bash history has a number of limitations, especially when multiple terminals are involved (I sometimes have dozens open). Also it's not very good at preserving just the history you're interested in across reboots.

There are many approaches to improve the situation; here I want to discuss one I've been using very successfully in the past few months - a simple "persistent history" that keeps track of history across terminal instances, saving it into a dot-file in my home directory (~/.persistent_history). All commands, from all terminal instances, are saved there, forever. I found this tremendously useful in my work - it saves me time almost every day.

Why does it go into a separate history and not the main one which is accessible by all the existing history manipulation tools? Because IMHO the latter is still worthwhile to be kept separate for the simple need of bringing up recent commands in a single terminal, without mixing up commands from other terminals. While the terminal is open, I want the press "Up" and get the previous command, even if I've executed a 1000 other commands in other terminal instances in the meantime.

Persistent history is very easy to set up. Here's the relevant portion of my ~/.bashrc:

log_bash_persistent_history()
{
  [[
    $(history 1) =~ ^\ *[0-9]+\ +([^\ ]+\ [^\ ]+)\ +(.*)$
  ]]
  local date_part="${BASH_REMATCH[1]}"
  local command_part="${BASH_REMATCH[2]}"
  if [ "$command_part" != "$PERSISTENT_HISTORY_LAST" ]
  then
    echo $date_part "|" "$command_part" >> ~/.persistent_history
    export PERSISTENT_HISTORY_LAST="$command_part"
  fi
}

# Stuff to do on PROMPT_COMMAND
run_on_prompt_command()
{
    log_bash_persistent_history
}

PROMPT_COMMAND="run_on_prompt_command"

The format of the history file created by this is:

2013-06-09 17:48:11 | cat ~/.persistent_history
2013-06-09 17:49:17 | vi /home/eliben/.bashrc
2013-06-09 17:49:23 | ls

Note that an environment variable is used to avoid useless duplication (i.e. if I run ls twenty times in a row, it will only be recorded once).

OK, so we have ~/.persistent_history, how do we use it? First, I should say that it's not used very often, which kind of connects to the point I made earlier about separating it from the much higher-use regular command history. Sometimes I just look into the file with vi or tail, but mostly this alias does the trick for me:

alias phgrep='cat ~/.persistent_history|grep --color'

The alias name mirrors another alias I've been using for ages:

alias hgrep='history|grep --color'

Another tool for managing persistent history is a trimmer. I said earlier this file keeps the history "forever", which is a scary word - what if it grows too large? Well, first of all - worry not. At work my history file grew to about 2 MB after 3 months of heavy usage, and 2 MB is pretty small these days. Appending to the end of a file is very, very quick (I'm pretty sure it's a constant-time operation) so the size doesn't matter much. But trimming is easy:

tail -20000 ~/.persistent_history | tee ~/.persistent_history

Trims to the last 20000 lines. This should be sufficient for at least a couple of months of history, and your workflow should not really rely on more than that :-)

Finally, what's the use of having a tool like this without employing it to collect some useless statistics. Here's a histogram of the 15 most common commands I've used on my home machine's terminal over the past 3 months:

ls        : 865
vi        : 863
hg        : 741
cd        : 512
ll        : 289
pss       : 245
hst       : 200
python    : 168
make      : 167
git       : 148
time      : 94
python3   : 88
./python  : 88
hpu       : 82
cat       : 80

Some explanation: hst is an alias for hg st. hpu is an alias for hg pull -u. pss is my awesome pss tool, and is the reason why you don't see any calls to grep and find in the list. The proportion of Mercurial vs. git commands is likely to change in the very near future due to this.


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