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Busybox sh (actually ash derivative dash): checking exit codes

Posted by jpluimers on 2021/04/20

Even if you include a double quotes "sh" in a Google search to force only sh (in the early days this was the Thompson shell, but nowadays usually a Bourne shell or derivative) results, almost all unix like scripting examples you find are based on bash (the Bourne again shell), so I was glad I dug a bit deeper into what the actual Busybox shell is.

I wanted to know which shell Busybox uses and what capabilities it has, as ESXi ships with this very slimmed down set of tools (called applets in Busybox speak).

It does not even include ssh: that gap is often filled by [Wayback] Dropbear SSH, which was used by ESXi and named dbclient (I think with ESXi 6.0 it was replaced with a more regular ssh implementation): [Wayback] How to compile a statically linked rsync binary for ESXi.

Busybox shell source code is at [Wayback] ash.c\shell – busybox – BusyBox: The Swiss Army Knife of Embedded Linux and indicates the shell is the ash (the Almquist shell) derivative dash (yes, you guessed it right: the Debian Almquist shell), ported from NetBSD and debianized:

 * Copyright (c) 1997-2005 Herbert Xu <>
 * was re-ported from NetBSD and debianized.
//config:   The most complete and most pedantically correct shell included with
//config:   busybox. This shell is actually a derivative of the Debian 'dash'
//config:   shell (by Herbert Xu), which was created by porting the 'ash' shell
//config:   (written by Kenneth Almquist) from NetBSD.

nx like systems have a shell hell similar to Windows DLL hell: there are too many, and their differences and be both subtle and frustrating. To get a feel, browse through Source: Comparison of command shells – Wikipedia (yes, some shells from other operating environments like DOS, OS/2, VMS and Windows, but the majority is nx).

Since ash is sufficiently different from bash (for example [Wayback] ash – exit code for a piped process), I always want to know what shell code (which often comes from bash as it is so ubiquitous) will work.

There is hardly any shell documentation at the Busybox site. There is [Wayback] BusyBox – The Swiss Army Knife of Embedded Linux, the source code at [Wayback] ash.c\shell – busybox – BusyBox: The Swiss Army Knife of Embedded Linux does not offer much either,

A manual page of it is at [] ash(1) [minix man page]. There you see the age: back then, “exit status” is used where nowadays many people would use “exit code”. It does not explain how to check for specific exit codes.

Because ash is derived from the Bourne shell, this page was of great help for me to grasp exit code handing: [Wayback] Exit Codes – Shell Scripting Tutorial

A Bourne Shell Programming / Scripting Tutorial for learning about using the Unix shell.

Here two examples from that page to get me going:

# Second attempt at checking return codes
grep "^${1}:" /etc/passwd > /dev/null 2>&1
if [ "$?" -ne "0" ]; then
  echo "Sorry, cannot find user ${1} in /etc/passwd"
  exit 1
USERNAME=`grep "^${1}:" /etc/passwd|cut -d":" -f1`
NAME=`grep "^${1}:" /etc/passwd|cut -d":" -f5`
HOMEDIR=`grep "^${1}:" /etc/passwd|cut -d":" -f6`

echo "NAME: $NAME"


# A Tidier approach

  # Function. Parameter 1 is the return code
  # Para. 2 is text to display on failure.
  if [ "${1}" -ne "0" ]; then
    echo "ERROR # ${1} : ${2}"
    # as a bonus, make our script exit with the right error code.
    exit ${1}

### main script starts here ###

grep "^${1}:" /etc/passwd > /dev/null 2>&1
check_errs $? "User ${1} not found in /etc/passwd"
USERNAME=`grep "^${1}:" /etc/passwd|cut -d":" -f1`
check_errs $? "Cut returned an error"
check_errs $? "echo returned an error - very strange!"

This basically means that status code handling is the same as in bash, so constructs can be used like [Wayback] bash – How to check the exit status using an if statement – Stack Overflow:

$? is a parameter like any other. You can save its value to use before ultimately calling exit.

if [ $exit_status -eq 1 ]; then
    echo "blah blah blah"
exit $exit_status

Busybox applets

Before I forget, from [Wayback] BusyBox – The Swiss Army Knife of Embedded Linux:

Currently available applets include:

        [, [[, acpid, addgroup, adduser, adjtimex, ar, arp, arping, ash,
        awk, basename, beep, blkid, brctl, bunzip2, bzcat, bzip2, cal, cat,
        catv, chat, chattr, chgrp, chmod, chown, chpasswd, chpst, chroot,
        chrt, chvt, cksum, clear, cmp, comm, cp, cpio, crond, crontab,
        cryptpw, cut, date, dc, dd, deallocvt, delgroup, deluser, depmod,
        devmem, df, dhcprelay, diff, dirname, dmesg, dnsd, dnsdomainname,
        dos2unix, dpkg, du, dumpkmap, dumpleases, echo, ed, egrep, eject,
        env, envdir, envuidgid, expand, expr, fakeidentd, false, fbset,
        fbsplash, fdflush, fdformat, fdisk, fgrep, find, findfs, flash_lock,
        flash_unlock, fold, free, freeramdisk, fsck, fsck.minix, fsync,
        ftpd, ftpget, ftpput, fuser, getopt, getty, grep, gunzip, gzip, hd,
        hdparm, head, hexdump, hostid, hostname, httpd, hush, hwclock, id,
        ifconfig, ifdown, ifenslave, ifplugd, ifup, inetd, init, inotifyd,
        insmod, install, ionice, ip, ipaddr, ipcalc, ipcrm, ipcs, iplink,
        iproute, iprule, iptunnel, kbd_mode, kill, killall, killall5, klogd,
        last, length, less, linux32, linux64, linuxrc, ln, loadfont,
        loadkmap, logger, login, logname, logread, losetup, lpd, lpq, lpr,
        ls, lsattr, lsmod, lzmacat, lzop, lzopcat, makemime, man, md5sum,
        mdev, mesg, microcom, mkdir, mkdosfs, mkfifo, mkfs.minix, mkfs.vfat,
        mknod, mkpasswd, mkswap, mktemp, modprobe, more, mount, mountpoint,
        mt, mv, nameif, nc, netstat, nice, nmeter, nohup, nslookup, od,
        openvt, passwd, patch, pgrep, pidof, ping, ping6, pipe_progress,
        pivot_root, pkill, popmaildir, printenv, printf, ps, pscan, pwd,
        raidautorun, rdate, rdev, readlink, readprofile, realpath,
        reformime, renice, reset, resize, rm, rmdir, rmmod, route, rpm,
        rpm2cpio, rtcwake, run-parts, runlevel, runsv, runsvdir, rx, script,
        scriptreplay, sed, sendmail, seq, setarch, setconsole, setfont,
        setkeycodes, setlogcons, setsid, setuidgid, sh, sha1sum, sha256sum,
        sha512sum, showkey, slattach, sleep, softlimit, sort, split,
        start-stop-daemon, stat, strings, stty, su, sulogin, sum, sv,
        svlogd, swapoff, swapon, switch_root, sync, sysctl, syslogd, tac,
        tail, tar, taskset, tcpsvd, tee, telnet, telnetd, test, tftp, tftpd,
        time, timeout, top, touch, tr, traceroute, true, tty, ttysize,
        udhcpc, udhcpd, udpsvd, umount, uname, uncompress, unexpand, uniq,
        unix2dos, unlzma, unlzop, unzip, uptime, usleep, uudecode, uuencode,
        vconfig, vi, vlock, volname, watch, watchdog, wc, wget, which, who,
        whoami, xargs, yes, zcat, zcip


One Response to “Busybox sh (actually ash derivative dash): checking exit codes”

  1. […] Busybox sh (actually ash derivative dash): checking exit codes […]

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