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Run a script on file changes with inotify

Simon Sapin,

The workflow for writing software typically goes like this:

For me the second step means hitting ALT-Tab to switch from my text editor to a terminal window, then the up arrow and Enter to re-run the last command. After that, ALT-Tab again to go back to the text editor.

This is way too much repetitive work. It can, and thus should be automated. What we want is a script that will watch source files, and run another script when they change. We could poll the modification time of each file, but that is a bit inefficient.

On Linux, inotify can have the kernel, well, notify you whenever a file changes. There are a number of projects doing fancy things with inotify, but it can be much more simple.

I have the following in an inotifyrun script:

FORMAT=$(echo -e "\033[1;33m%w%f\033[0m written")
while inotifywait -qre close_write --format "$FORMAT" .

When I run it with inotifyrun attest the script first runs my test suite once with Attest, then block until a file is written in the current directory or a sub-directory. When that happens, it runs the test suite again and repeats the loop. I used Attest as an example but it can be any command, optionally with arguments.

Your kernel probably has inotify already, but you may need to install a inotify-tools package to get the command-line tools.

Web development

When building stuff for the web, you often test in a web browser rather than in a terminal. Refresh a web page instead of running a script.

So, how can this script help? We need to instruct the browser to refresh a page. As usual, Unix has a tool for that. xdotool does X11 magic to simulate mouse and keyboard actions. It can also search among open windows. Let’s combine these with inotify:

inotifyrun xdotool search --name 'Chromium' key F5

Ta-da! Your browser reloads the current page as soon as you hit Save in your text editor. Unfortunately though, Firefox doesn’t seem to respond to xdotool.

Update 2012-07-19: one day the command above just stopped working for me. It turns out it only sends F5 to the first window that matches the search. Sometimes that happens to be one the reloads on F5, sometimes not. The new command below fixes this: --window %@ sends the key to all matching windows.

xdotool search --name Chromium key --window %@ F5

How it works

inotifywait watch all files in ., the current directory, recursively with the -r option. -q suppresses a warning saying that the setup may be long if you have many files, but that’s not a problem in practice. The echo -e trick is required to have the color codes interpreted. %w%f in the format string is replaced by the filename that was just written to.

inotify can tell us about many events (any kind of operation on files) but with -e close_write we say we’re only interested by files being closed after they were written to. This is better than any write event because it means you editor has finished writing the file.

Please let me know if you think this can be improved!