Temporary files

With judicious use of tricks like pipes, redirects, and process substitution in modern shells, it’s very often possible to avoid using temporary files, doing everything inline and keeping them quite neat. However when manipulating a lot of data into various formats you do find yourself occasionally needing a temporary file, just to hold data temporarily.

A common way to deal with this is to create a temporary file in your home directory, with some arbitrary name, something like test or working:

$ ps -ef >~/test

If you want to save the information indefinitely for later use, this makes sense, although it would be better to give it a slightly more instructive name than just test.

If you really only needed the data temporarily, however, you’re much better to use the temporary files directory. This is usually /tmp, but for good practice’s sake it’s better to check the value of TMPDIR first, and only use /tmp as a default:

$ ps -ef >"${TMPDIR:-/tmp}"/test

This is getting better, but there is still a significant problem: there’s no built-in check that the test file doesn’t already exist, perhaps being used by some other user or program, particularly another running instance of the same script.

To that end, we have the mktemp program, which creates an empty temporary file in the appropriate directory for you without overwriting anything, and prints the filename it created. This allows you to use the file inline in both shell scripts and one-liners, and is much safer than specifying hardcoded paths:

$ mktemp
$ procsfile=$(mktemp)
$ printf '%s\n' "$procsfile"
$ ps -ef >"$procsfile"

If you’re going to create several such files for related purposes, you could also create a directory in which to put them using the -d option:

$ procsdir=$(mktemp -d)
$ printf '%s\n' "$procsdir"

On GNU/Linux systems, files of a sufficient age in TMPDIR are cleared on boot (controlled in /etc/default/rcS on Debian-derived systems, /etc/cron.daily/tmpwatch on Red Hat ones), making /tmp useful as a general scratchpad as well as for a kind of relatively reliable inter-process communication without cluttering up users’ home directories.

In some cases, there may be additional advantages in using /tmp for its designed purpose as some administrators choose to mount it as a tmpfs filesystem, so it operates in RAM and works very quickly. It’s also common practice to set the noexec flag on the mount to prevent malicious users from executing any code they manage to find or save in the directory.