On dotfiles management

This will be yet another description of dotfiles management by some random person on the Internet. I will try to explain what my setup is like and why it is that way.

If you're not yet using version control software for your configuration files I strongly encourage you to start doing so, whichever way you like. These pages are good places to start:

My chosen approach

After several attempts that have spanned across many years I've understood that neither tracking home directory directly with Git nor symlinking all of the dotfiles from a single directory tree is working for me. Both ways lead to a mess in the repository and made the whole endeavor of tracking changes cognitively expensive, so I inevitably started slacking off.

I've looked at the existing tools that are meant to automate some of the process and did not find one that would suit all my needs. I've ended up writing a small shell script that takes care of dotfiles installation but the main value for me is in the repo layout, not the script itself.

All configuration files are grouped into directories by topic. These directories are somewhat similar to packages in GNU stow. Topic directories recreate the directory structure for the target location, by default $HOME. Files that are meant to be installed into target location have to contain an appropriate suffix at the end of filename (any other files are ignored):

  • .copy - for files to be copied over to new location
  • .link - for files to be linked to from new location
  • .append - for files to be appended to the target file

Default behavior may be altered by a dotfiles.meta file placed into the topic directory. It is essentially a shell script that is being sourced during topic installation. Its main purpose is to provide alternative values for PREFIX and SCOPE variables:

  • PREFIX value determines target directory where the dotfiles will be placed. Also if PREFIX is set the dotfiles will not get an extra dot in front of their filename (which is the default behavior otherwise).
  • SCOPE variable may be used to indicate that a topic requires root privileges to be installed (SCOPE=system).

Multiple topics may be installed at once either by providing all of their names as command line arguments or by listing them all in a text file and providing path to that file as an argument to the installation script.

Examples

  • topic-foo/vimrc.link will be symlinked from ~/.vimrc
  • topic-bar/bashrc.copy will be copied over to ~/.bashrc
  • topic-baz/default/keyboard.copy with PREFIX=/etc will be copied to /etc/default/keyboard
  • topic-baz/file/without/valid/suffix will be ignored

More examples may be found in my dotfiles repo.

Comparison with existing tools

Strengths

  • Very small number of dependencies makes this script usable across all my Linux and Windows machines. It requires only the core GNU userland: bash, coreutils, find and grep.
  • Multiple install actions are supported (copy, link, append) unlike stow that only makes symlinks. More than that, my script detects if it's being executed on Windows machine and copies over any file that was meant to be symlinked - because symlinks on Windows are so tricky they're might as well be not supported at all.
  • Destination directory may be specified for each topic individually which makes it possible to install topics targeting different directories in one run.
  • Simple partial deployment. If machine requires only a subset of topics tracked in the repository it is easy to list them all in a plain text file or to provide them as command line arguments to the bootstrap script. yadm, for example does not provide such ability.
  • Dotfiles are not hidden in the repo by default. It makes no sense to have ~/.bashrc point to repo/bash/.bashrc instead of repo/bash/bashrc, so dots are added automatically for topics with default target PREFIX.
  • All operations are reversible because all overwritten files are backed up beforehand.

Weaknesses

  • Single pass execution. It means some topics may be left partially configured in case of errors. stow is a good example of cautious approach. This is an implementation detail and may be fixed in later versions of bootstrap script.
  • No support for tree folding/unfolding. I consider that an overkill for simple configuration management.
  • No automated reverse operation. In case you want to undo the changes made by this script you'll have to restore backups manually from $DOTFILES_BACKUP