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Bash Initalization Behaviour

A Bash process may be:

State Invocation
Login (L) argv[0][0] == '-', --login
Interactive (I) -i, stdin is tty
Remote (R) stdin is "network connection" (see below)
  • '•' = set; blank = not set; '-' = not checked or don't care.
  • inh: Inherits environment from a parent (other than init); i.e., it's not a "fresh login" and the parent may expect that the environment be kept intact.
  • p: sources /etc/profile then first of ~/.bash_profile, ~/.bash_login, ~/.profile
  • rc: sources /etc/bash.bashrc then ~/.bashrc
L I R inh p rc Example
- ssh (sshd sets argv[0]="-bash")
- ssh </dev/null (sshd sets argv[0]="-bash")
bash -i, bash on tty
bash, bash -c echo foo,
ssh 'echo $-' (ssh runs bash -c 'echo $-)

Note that whether or not the shell is a "login shell" (by the [Bash manpage definition][Invocation] is not the same as whether the shell is a "fresh login" in the sense that the profile has ever been run. The shell process from ssh host command is not considered a "login shell" but has never had any of the profile files run.

Calling ssh with no command starts a login shell on the remote, regardless of whether stdin is a tty or not. Calling ssh with a command runs bash -c ... which is non-login and non-interactive, but Bash detects it's "connected to a network connection" (the exact details of how it decides this are not clear) and sources .bashrc anyway.

.bashrc Notes

.bashrc is not sourced by an interactive login shell. However, the default /etc/profile and ~/.profile installed by most distros will, if run under Bash, explicitly source their respective /etc/bash.bashrc and .bashrc files. If you're not using these, you almost certainly want to do this too. This will cause .bashrc to be executed in some non-interactive situations (e.g., echo ls | ssh somehost, since that's a login shell because it was given no remote command) but you have to handle that anyway as we see below.

Whether or not the profile is sourced, .bashrc is executed in some non-interactive situations: in particular, when you ssh somehost acommand (see table above). The assumption here appears to be that if you give a command to be executed by the shell you'll want all your functions and aliases available, and if the command runs a script or something else that would generate a subprocess, the subprocess would not inherit the functions/aliases (nor source .bashrc) and thus not have its environment polluted by that.

Thus, your .bashrc should never assume that it's being run in an interactive environment and do "interactive" things only after checking to see if the -i flag is set (see below). In particular, you should never generate output if you're not interactive as this breaks non-interactive programs such as scp or ssh remotehost tar cf - somedir > somedir.tar.

Setting BASH_ENV=~/.bashrc may be tempting but should not be done; this will pollute the environment of shell scripts and bash -c invocations. Typical problems include:

  • Changes made to $PATH or other environment variables disrupting the environment set up by the parent process.
  • Shell functions or aliases shadowing commands executed by a child shell script.

Instead, scripts and invocations that need your functions and/or aliases should explicitly source ~/.bashrc and handle having that entire environment, presumably designed for interactive use, brought in and potentially overriding the environment set up by the caller.

Testing State

Test for interactive by checking if $- includes i (this does not work in old Bourne shell; unknown if it works in POSIX shell):

case $- in
    *i*)    echo interactive;;
    *)      echo or not;;

You can also check with if [ "$PS1" ] ..., but this may not be as reliable depending on what the user has previously run in his setup.

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