Note: Before 2018-09-10 07:30, the included with the skeleton had a bug where some tests that only specified partial expected output (particular to stderr) would sometimes pass if there was only one line of output to compare to.

Later on we fixed some other issues with the shell testing script (see above changelog).

You can update just to get the latest verison of the testing script.

Your Task

  1. Download the skeleton code last updated 2018-09-11 20:47 (see note above), which contains:
    • a starter Makefile which has a target to build a binary called msh
    • a source file which implements a prompt that prints a “Not implemented” error on any command but “exit”.
  2. Modify msh to be a Unix-like shell that supports running commands as described below, that includes:
    • running simple commands (e.g. /bin/cat foo.txt bar.txt)
    • input redirection (e.g. commands like /usr/bin/gcc -E - < somefile.txt)
    • output redirection (e.g. commands like /usr/bin/gcc -E > somefile.txt)
    • supports the builtin command exit In addition, your shell must
    • not search for executables on PATH; all commands will include the absolute path to the executable or a relative path from the current directory
    • prompt for commands using >
    • print out error messages (to stderr):
      • including the text “Invalid command” if a command is malformed according to the language specification below;
      • including either the text “Command not found” or “No such file or directory” if the executable does not exist;
      • including some error message (we do not care which one) for errors when fork, pipe, exec, or opening a file for redirection fails.
    • implement pipelines (e.g. commands like /bin/cat foo.txt | /bin/grep bar | /bin/grep baz)
    • output to stdout the exit status(es) of every command using lines containing “exit status: “ followed by the numerical exit status of each command (if the command terminates normally; if the command exits from a signal, we do not care what is output). For a pipeline that includes multiple commands, output exit statuses for the parts of the pipeline in the order they appear in the command.
    • not leave any extra file descriptors open (ones other than stdin, stdout, stderr) just before it calls executes a command.

    We strongly recommend creating partially working versions as described below. A full solution will be around 200 lines of code.

    You may use additional source files, rename source files, switch from C++ to C, etc. so long as you modify the Makefile appropriately and still produce an executable called msh.

  3. We have supplied a program, which you can run by running make test. This will often produce a lot of output (especially when you haven’t implemented all shell features yet), so you might try redirecting its output to a file like with make test >test-output.txt.

    Note that we may use additional and/or different tests when we grade your submission.

    We intend to test the shell you submit on a Linux enviornment similar to the course VM. Please make sure your submitted shell will build and work in this environment.

  4. Prepare a .tar.gz file like the one built using make archive in the given Makefile. This should have all your source files and a Makefile which can produce an msh binary. It should not contain any object files or a pre-built msh executable.

  5. Submit the .tar.gz file on Collab.


Shell language

Shell commands are lines which consist of a sequence of whitespace-seperated tokens. Whitespace characters are space (' ' in C or C++), form feed ('\f'), newline ('\n'), carriage return ('\r'), horizontal tab ('\t'), vertical tab ('\v').

Each line has a maximum length of 100 characters. We do not care what your shell does with longer input lines.

Each token is either

Each line of inputs is a pipeline, which consists of a series of a commands (possibly just one) seperated by | tokens.

Each command consists of a series of:

Running commands

If a command contains excess input or output redirection operations, or operators followed immediately by other operator, that is an error.

To run a pipeline, the shell runs each command in the pipeline, then waits for all the commands to terminate. You may decide what to do if one of the commands in the pipeline cannot be executed as long as your shell does not crash or otherwise stop accepting new commands.

To run a command, the shell:

Built-in command

Your shell should support the built-in command exit. When this command is run your shell should terminate normally (with exit status 0). You should not run a program called exit, even if one exists.

Handling errors

Your shell should print out error messages to stderr (file descriptor 2).

You must use the following error messages:

You must also print out an error message if:

If multiple commands in a pipeline fail, you must print out error messages, but it may be the case that commands in the pipeline are executed even though error messages are printed out (e.g. it’s okay if something_that_does_not_exist | something_real prints an error about something_that_does_not_exist after starting something_real.)


Recommended order of operations

  1. Implement and test parsing commands into whitespace-separated tokens. Collect the tokens into an array or vector to make future steps easier.

  2. Implement and test running commands without pipelines or redirection. In this case the list of tokens you have will be exactly the arguments to pass to the command.

  3. Add support for redirection.

  4. Add support for pipelines.


  1. In C++, you can read a full line of input with std::getline. In C, you can read a full line of input with ``fgets`.

  2. In C++, one way to divide a line of input into tokens is by using std::istringstream like

    std::istringstream s(the_string);
    while (s >> token) {
  3. In C, one way to divide a line of input into tokens is by using strsep like

    char *p = the_string;
    char *token;
    while ((token = strsep(&p, " \t\v\f\r\n")) != NULL) {

    Note that strsep changes the string passed to it.

  4. My reference implementation creates a class to represent each command in a pipeline (|-seperated list of things to run), and a class to represent the pipeline as a whole. I first collect each command line into a vector of tokens, then iterate through that vector to create and update command objects.

Running commands

  1. Pseudocode for running comands is as follows:

    for each command in the line {
        pid = fork();
        if (pid == 0) {
            do redirection stuff
            execv ( command, args );
            oops, print out a message about exec failing and exit
        } else {
            store pid somewhere
    for each command in the line {
        waitpid(stored pid, &status);
        check return code placed in status;
  2. To implement redirection, probably the most useful function is dup2, which can replace stdin (file descriptor 0) or stdout (file descriptor 1) with another file you have opened. When redirecting to a file, you will most commonly use open() to open the file, call dup2 to replace stdin or stdout with a copy of the newly opened file descriptor, then close() the original file descriptor. This occurs typically would be done just before the call to execve as in the pseudocode above.

  3. To implement pipelines, the typical technique is to call pipe to obtain a connected pair of file descriptors, use dup2 to assign these to stdout or stdin, and close the original file descriptor just before calling execve.

  4. To convert from a const char** or array of const char*s to the type expected by execv, you can use a cast like (char**) pointer_to_first_element.

Printing Error Messages

  1. In C++, one way to print to stderr is using cerr, which works like cout:

    #include <iostream>
    std::cerr << "Some message.\n";
  2. In C or C++, one way to print to stderr is using fprintf:

    #include <stdio.h>
    fprintf(stderr, "Some message.\n");

Common problems

My shell hangs

  1. If pipelines hang, then a likely cause is neglecting to close the ends of the pipes the parent process.

    (reads on the pipe will not indicate end-of-file until all of the write ends of the pipe are closed.)

My shell stops working after I run too many commands

  1. A likely cause is running out of file descriptors by failing to close all file descriptors.

General sources for documentation

  1. All the Unix functions have “manpages” (short for manual pages) retrieved with the man command. For example, to get documentation on the pipe() function, you can run, from within a Linux enviornment, run

    man pipe

    The man command retrieves documentation both for commands and C functions. If both a command and a function exist with the same name, man by default shows information about the command. For example, there is a command called write and a function called write. Running

    man write

    gives only the documentation about command. There are two ways to get the documentation about the function. One is to run

    man -a write

    which shows the documentation for all things named “write” — it will show the documentation for the command and then for the function. Alternately, the documentation retrieved by man is divided into “sections”. You can get a list of all the entries for a word like “write” along with their sections by running

    man -k write

    On my system this shows

    write (1)            - send a message to another user
    write (2)            - write to a file descriptor
    write (1posix)       - write to another user
    write (3posix)       - write on a file

    The text in parenthesis are the section numbers/names. For example, you can access the write entry in section 2 using

    man 2 write

    Generally, Linux divides its documentation into sections as follows:

    *  section 1: commands intended for normal users
    *  section 1posix: commands, but shows the POSIX standard's description (things that should be the same on all Unix-like OSs) rather than Linux-specific information about a command
    *  section 2: "low-level" functions that usually wrap a specific system call
    *  section 3: other functions
    *  section 3posix: functions, but shows the POSIX standard's description (things that should be the same on all Unix-like OSs) rather than Linux-specific information about a function
    *  section 8: commands intended for system adminstrators