Ben Fiedler

Solving graph problems in bash

Many interesting problems in computer science are expressible as problems on graphs: Finding the shortest path between two vertices, calculating a spanning tree, finding a large independent set, etc. Often in Theoretical Computer Science we only look for a theoretical solution - once we know how to model a specific problem as graph we give an algorithm in pseudocode and leave it at that. We will try an unconventional method practically solving these problems using bash.

At ETH, Computer Science Master students learn how to efficiently (and practically) solve graph problems in the Algorithms Lab, using C++ and BGL1. In this course it is not enough to come up with a theoretical algorithm. One also have to implement and pass testcases as part of his solution. The BGL offers many sophisticated graph algorithms, each one cleverly optimized in order to make the generated code as fast as possible. It does its job well: It makes it (relatively) easy to use sophisticated graph theoretic algorithms in practice. But it is huge and complicated. Is there maybe an easier way to solve graph problems on a computer, without having to implement most of the boring algorithms and without installing a bazillion dependencies?

It turns out that we can (ab)use just about any Linux system for this, and we do not even need a C++ compiler, or any other compiler for that matter. All we need is any run-of-the-mill shell (bash will do just fine), and some standard system utilities such as find(1), tr(1), paste(1), cut(1), etc.2, which (for GNU/Linux systems) are packaged in the so-called GNU coreutils. Most other systems provide similar, if not the same, commands - they may be packaged differently however.

We will start with a simple problem: Given an undirected, acyclic and connected graph, commonly known as tree, find the unique path between two vertices i and j of said tree.

The first problem we have to solve is representing our graph. Recall from that there are may possible ways to represent graphs: Adjacency lists, (for each vertex list all its neighbors), Adjacency matrices (entry (i, j) is 1 iff edge (i, j) exists), and many more. The most obvious solution would be to put all of that information in a text file and then operate on that, but then we would be no further than C++, since we would still have to implement most of the algorithms by hand. So let us go up a step in the hierarchy: If files are bad, can we maybe use directories instead?

It turns out that this works nicely, but only when our graph is a rooted tree. In a rooted tree we choose an arbitrary vertex as root and then list all vertices ordered by their distance from the root: First comes the root itself, then the root’s neighbors, then the root’s neighbors’ neighbors, etc.

A tree with 7 vertices, rooted at vertex 0

A tree with 7 vertices, rooted at vertex 0

We can easily translate this tree into a directory structure:

mkdir -p 0/1/3/{4,5}
mkdir -p 0/2/6

How do we display our tree? The best utility I know for this task is aptly named tree(1). Sadly, it is not part of the GNU coreutils and you most likely have to install it with your favorite package manager. Running tree then shows us the tree we constructed:

% tree
└── 0
    ├── 1
    │   └── 3
    │       ├── 4
    │       └── 5
    └── 2
        └── 6

Now we can answer questions such as “How can I get from 0 to i?”, where i is an arbitrary vertex other3 of our tree using the find(1) command. The find command traverses all files in a given directory, and can optionally search for specific criteria, for example directory names. If we wanted to know how to get from vertex 0 to vertex 3 we can run the following command:

% find 0 -name 3

which tells us that we can go from 0 to 3 via vertex 1. In fact, we can generalize this to arbitrary vertices i and j: First we check how to get from 0 to i, and then from 0 to j, and finally we have to find the common ancestor of both paths. Then we reverse the path from 0 to i (now it is a path from i to 0), walk along it until we hit the common ancestor of i and j, and then walk down the path from the common ancestor to j.

The most difficult part of this procedure is finding the common ancestor. Lucky for us the package diffutils provides the cmp(1) command, which can tell us the first byte at which two files differ. The output of cmp is a bit verbose, but using cut(1) and tr(1) from the coreutils we can extract the relevant information:

% cmp <(echo "testa") <(echo "testb")
/proc/self/fd/11 /proc/self/fd/12 differ: byte 5, line 1
% cmp <(echo "testa") <(echo "testb") | cut -d " " -f 5 | tr -cd "[:digit:]"

How does this work? The program cut takes a delimiter (-d) and some position number (-f) and returns the string at the given position (1-indexed) when splitting on the delimiter specified by -d. We use tr to delete (-d) all non-digits (-c stands for the complement of the character set) to ensure that we get 5 as result, and not 5,. So far so good, let us look where we are now:

# In Bash arguments are passed implicitly and referenced
# using $1, $2, etc. We use $1 as i and $2 as j
path_between() {
    path_to_i=$(find -name $1)
    path_to_j=$(find -name $2)

    first_diff_byte=$(cmp <(echo $path_to_i) <(echo $path_to_j) \
            | cut -d " " -f 5 \
            | tr -c -d '[:digit:]')

It remains to find the common ancestor of i and j. Since we know where the paths differ, we know up to which character they are identical. Using bash variable expansion we can identify the common prefix, and using cut extract the vertex they have in common. The rev command from the util-linux package reverses a string of characters:

    common_prefix=${path_to_i:0:(( $first_diff_byte - 1 ))}
    common_ancestor=$(echo -n $common_prefix | rev | cut -d / -f 2 | rev)

The part in the double parenthesis is subject to the expr(1) command4, which and evaluates the expression as arithmetic expression. Now all we have left to do is to stick all of it together:

    # if we omit local here we set $PATH...
    local path=$(echo ${path_to_i#"$common_prefix"} \
        | tr '/' $'\n' \
        | tac \
        | paste -s -d '/')

    echo $path

Using the tr, tac and paste commands (all part of coreutils) we can reverse the path from i to the common ancestor of i and j. We do this by changing the slashes which delimit our vertices to newlines and using tac5 to reverse the order of our vertices. Finally we can use paste to put the reversed vertices back together in a single string and then append the path from the common ancestor to j.

Testing it on our input graph gives the following output:

% path_between 4 5
% path_between 5 4
% path_between 0 5
% path_between 3 4

It seems like it fails when the common ancestor is either i or j. We can remedy this by handling these cases separately: If i is the common ancestor, we can simply take the path from i to j minus the path from 0 to the ancestor of i. Else if j is the common ancestor then we have to first reverse the path from j to i (so we get the path from i to j) and the remove the path to j’s ancestor.

if [[ $common_prefix == $path_to_i ]]; then
    local path=$1${path_to_j#"$common_prefix"}
elif [[ $common_prefix == $path_to_j ]]; then
    local path=$(echo ${path_to_i#"$common_prefix"} \
        | tr '/' $'\n' \
        | tac \
        | paste -s -d /)
    # Do what we did before

Now it gives correct results for any query:

% path_between 3 4
% path_between 4 3
% path_between 6 4
% path_between 0 1
% path_between 1 0

That’s it. In 20 lines of bash we wrote a pathfinding algorithm for trees. Not only that, but we did it without needing to compile any code, only using tools available on most Linux systems! I find that quite impressive.

Pathfinding in general graphs

Restricting ourselves to rooted trees sounds pretty limiting doesn’t it? Can we generalize our model to arbitrary graphs? At first it seems like we cannot, since then our file system (which is where we store our graph) does not support cycles. After all, no directory can be a (grand-)parent of itself. But it turns out that using symbolic links we can “point” to other directories, which can in turn point to other directories, which can point to other directories, etc. We can create symlinks using the ln command (incidentally also found in coreutils), by writing ln -s <directory point to> <name of the link>. For each vertex we want to create a directory and in that directory create symbolic links to all of its neighbors. If you recall the different forms of graph representation before this corresponds to adjacency lists. Let us try this with a simple example.

A triangle with a three-armed star, connected via one arm

A triangle with a three-armed star, connected via one arm

We can create this graph as follows:

% mkdir `seq 0 5`
% ln -s ../0 1
% ln -s ../1 0
% ln -s ../2 0
% ln -s ../0 2
% <continue for each edge>
% tree
├── 0
│   ├── 1 -> ../1
│   └── 2 -> ../2
├── 1
│   ├── 0 -> ../0
│   └── 2 -> ../2
├── 2
│   ├── 0 -> ../0
│   ├── 1 -> ../1
│   └── 4 -> ../4
├── 3
│   └── 4 -> ../4
├── 4
│   ├── 2 -> ../2
│   ├── 3 -> ../3
│   └── 5 -> ../5
└── 5   
    └── 4 -> ../4

Now let us look at the same problem as before: We want to specify two vertices i and j, and want to find a path between them (if it exists). Last time we used the find(1) utility to find these. This time we will explicitly tell find in which vertex i we would like to start by specifying it as the root of our search:

% find 0/ -name 1
% find 0/ -name 3

Hmm, it seems as if find does not follow the symbolic links. Looking at find’s manual page (man find) we see the following

OPTIONS The  -H, -L and -P options control the treatment of symbolic links.


-P     Never  follow  symbolic  links.  This is the default behaviour.  When
       find examines or prints information a file, and the file  is  a  sym‐
       bolic  link,  the information used shall be taken from the properties
       of the symbolic link itself.

-L     Follow symbolic links.  When  find  examines  or  prints  information
       about  files, the information used shall be taken from the properties
       of the file to which the link points, not from the link  itself  (un‐
       less  it  is  a broken symbolic link or find is unable to examine the
       file to which the link points).  Use of this option implies  -noleaf.
       If  you later use the -P option, -noleaf will still be in effect.  If
       -L is in effect and find discovers a symbolic link to a  subdirectory
       during  its  search, the subdirectory pointed to by the symbolic link
       will be searched.

Aha, we have to specify find -L if we want to follow symlinks. But our symlinks induce cycles in the file system, what happens if find encounters a cycle? Again the manpage has the answer for us:

The POSIX standard requires that find detects loops:

       The find utility shall detect infinite loops;  that  is,  entering  a
       previously visited directory that is an ancestor of the last file en‐
       countered.  When it detects an infinite loop, find shall write a  di‐
       agnostic message to standard error and shall either recover its posi‐
       tion in the hierarchy or terminate.

So we are good to go!

% find -L 0/ -name 3
find: File system loop detected; ‘0/2/4/5/4’ is part of the same file system loop as ‘0/2/4’.
find: File system loop detected; ‘0/2/4/3/4’ is part of the same file system loop as ‘0/2/4’.
find: File system loop detected; ‘0/2/4/2’ is part of the same file system loop as ‘0/2’.
find: File system loop detected; ‘0/2/1/2’ is part of the same file system loop as ‘0/2’.
find: File system loop detected; ‘0/2/1/0’ is part of the same file system loop as ‘0/’.
find: File system loop detected; ‘0/2/0’ is part of the same file system loop as ‘0/’.
find: File system loop detected; ‘0/1/2/4/5/4’ is part of the same file system loop as ‘0/1/2/4’.
find: File system loop detected; ‘0/1/2/4/3/4’ is part of the same file system loop as ‘0/1/2/4’.
find: File system loop detected; ‘0/1/2/4/2’ is part of the same file system loop as ‘0/1/2’.
find: File system loop detected; ‘0/1/2/1’ is part of the same file system loop as ‘0/1’.
find: File system loop detected; ‘0/1/2/0’ is part of the same file system loop as ‘0/’.
find: File system loop detected; ‘0/1/0’ is part of the same file system loop as ‘0/’.

We get two paths and a whole lot of errors that find detected a loop. We can just ignore these:

% find 0/ -name 3 2>/dev/null

Perfect! Now the find command returns all the paths between 0 and 3 in the graph. And it is much simpler than our previous solution: find does all the work for us.

This approach can easily be extended to directed graphs by only symlinking in the direction the edge goes, which means that we can find all paths between vertices i and j in any graph in a single line of bash. That’s pretty amazing, don’t you think? We can even improve the solution a bit: What if we only want a path, and not all paths? The manual page of find once again has the answer:

-quit  Exit immediately.  No child processes will be left  running,  but  no
       more  paths specified on the command line will be processed.  For ex‐
       ample, find /tmp/foo /tmp/bar -print -quit will print only  /tmp/foo.
       Any  command  lines  which  have been built up with -execdir ... {} +
       will be invoked before find exits.  The exit status may or may not be
       zero, depending on whether an error has already occurred.
-print True; print the full file name on the standard output, followed by  a

If we specify -print and -quit the find command will immediately exit when it finds the first path:

% find -L 0/ -name 3 -print -quit 2>/dev/null

This works on any graph, directed or undirected, and will print a path if it finds one. Since find will never continue running if it found a loop this is successful even if no paths exist between the given vertices:

% find -L 0/ -name 6 -print -quit 2>/dev/null

Note that find operates by depth first search, and thus might not find the shortest path between two vertices. The last thing we will show is how to (ab)use the mindepth and maxdepth options in order to force find to do a breadth first search, which always finds the shortest path in unweighted graphs:

find_shortest() {
    local i=0
    local p=""
    while [[ -z $p ]]; do
        p=$(find -L $1 -mindepth $i -maxdepth $i -name $2 -print -quit 2>/dev/null)
        i=$(( i+1 ))
    echo $p

# Output
% find_shortest 0 3

While we have not found a path, we tell find to extend its search radius by one, and once we found our desired path we output it. This approach is guaranteed to always return the shortest path, although it is computationally more expensive since we often traverse the same parts, and it also won’t detect if no path exists between these vertices. We could extend this program to add termination detection, however then it would lose its elegance, which is what I wanted to show in this post.

Closing remarks

Interestingly enough, somebody actually implemented bfs(1), which behaves like find and internally uses breadth-first search, but it is not (and probably will never) be part of coreutils.

I did use this algorithm in one of my courses to solve small pathfinding problems6. Implementing this was quite fun and not as much pain as I’d feared. Sometimes these `clever’ solutions have their merit - although for more sophicated problems I’d rather stick to C++ and BGL.

  1. short for Boost Graph Library ↩︎

  2. The numbers in parenthesis correspond to the man page section of the programs. Most programs have their manpage in section 1, which is for user commands, If you are interested in more details or the other sections man man gives great insight. ↩︎

  3. Actually the case where we input the same number twice is tedious since our solution depends on the paths being different, as you will see later. ↩︎

  4. Also a part of the coreutils package ↩︎

  5. Like cat but reverses the order of the lines ↩︎

  6. and so far I haven’t been kicked out ↩︎

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