12 Terminal Commands Every Web Developer Should Know About

The terminal is one of the most important productivity tools in a developer's arsenal. Mastering it can have a very positive effect on your workflow, as many everyday tasks get reduced to writing a simple command and hitting Enter.

In this article we've prepared for you a collection of Unix commands that will help you get the most out of your terminal. Some of them are built in, others are free tools that are time-tested and can be installed in less than a minute.


Curl

Curl is a command line tool for making requests over HTTP(s), FTP and dozens of other protocols you may have not heard about. It can download files, check response headers, and freely access remote data.

In web development curl is often used for testing connections and working with RESTful APIs.

# Fetch the headers of a URL.
curl -I http://google.com
HTTP/1.1 302 Found
Cache-Control: private
Content-Type: text/html; charset=UTF-8
Referrer-Policy: no-referrer
Location: http://www.google.com/?gfe_rd=cr&ei=0fCKWe6HCZTd8AfCoIWYBQ
Content-Length: 258
Date: Wed, 09 Aug 2017 11:24:01 GMT

# Make a GET request to a remote API.
curl http://numbersapi.com/random/trivia
29 is the number of days it takes Saturn to orbit the Sun.

Curl commands can get much more complicated than this. There are tons of options for controlling headers, cookies, authentication, and more. You can read more about curl in the excellent free book Everything curl.


Tree

Tree is a tiny command line utility that shows you a visual representation of the files in a directory. It works recursively, going over each level of nesting and drawing a formated tree of all the contents. This way you can quickly glance over and find the files you are looking for.

tree
.
├── css
│   ├── bootstrap.css
│   ├── bootstrap.min.css
├── fonts
│   ├── glyphicons-halflings-regular.eot
│   ├── glyphicons-halflings-regular.svg
│   ├── glyphicons-halflings-regular.ttf
│   ├── glyphicons-halflings-regular.woff
│   └── glyphicons-halflings-regular.woff2
└── js
    ├── bootstrap.js
    └── bootstrap.min.js

There is also the option to filter the results using a simple regEx-like pattern:

tree -P '*.min.*'
.
├── css
│   ├── bootstrap.min.css
├── fonts
└── js
    └── bootstrap.min.js

Tmux

According to its Wiki, Tmux is a terminal multiplexer, which translated in human language would mean that it's a tool for connecting multiple terminals to a single terminal session.

tmux.jpg
A Tmux Terminal With 3 Split Screens

It lets you switch between programs in one terminal, add split screen panes, and attach multiple terminals to the same session, keeping them in sync. Tmux is especially useful when working on a remote server, as it lets you create new tabs without having to log in again.


Disk usage - du

The du command generates reports on the space usage of files and directories. It is very easy to use and can work recursively, going through each subdirectory and returning the individual size of every file.

A common use case for du is when one of your drives is running out of space and you don't know why. Using this command you can quickly see how much storage each folder is taking, thus finding the biggest memory hoarder.

# Running this will show the space usage of each folder in the current directory.
# The -h option makes the report easier to read.
# -s prevents recursiveness and shows the total size of a folder.
# The star wildcard (*) will run du on each file/folder in current directory.

du -sh *

1.2G    Desktop
4.0K    Documents
40G     Downloads
4.0K    Music
4.9M    Pictures
844K    Public
4.0K    Templates
6.9M    Videos

There is also a similar command called df (Disk Free) which returns various information about the available disk space (the opposite of du).


Git

Git is by far the most popular version control system right now. It is one of the defining tools of modern web dev and we just couldn't leave it out of our list.

There are plenty of third-party apps and tools available but most people prefer to access git natively though the terminal. The git CLI is really powerful and can handle even the most tangled project history.

If you want to learn more about git, we recommend checking out our tutorial Learn Git in 30 Minutes.


Tar

Tar is the default Unix tool for working with file archives. It allows you to quickly bundle multiple files into one package, making it easier to store and move them later on.

tar -cf archive.tar file1 file2 file3

Using the -x option it can also extract existing .tar archives.

tar -xf archive.tar

Note that most other formats such as .zip and .rar cannot be opened by tar and require other command utilities such as unzip.

Many modern Unix systems run an expanded version of tar (GNU tar) that can also perform file size compression:

# Create compressed gzip archive.
tar -czf file.tar.gz inputfile1 inputfile2

# Extract .gz archive.
tar -xzf file.tar.gz

If your OS doesn't have that version of tar, you can use gzip, zcat or compress to reduce the size of file archives.


md5sum

Unix has several built in hashing commands including md5sum, sha1sum and others. These command line tools have various applications in programming, but most importantly they can be used for checking the integrity of files.

For example, if you have downloaded an .iso file from an untrusted source, there is some chance that the file contains harmful scripts. To make sure the .iso is safe, you can generate an md5 or other hash from it.

md5sum ubuntu-16.04.3-desktop-amd64.iso 

0d9fe8e1ea408a5895cbbe3431989295  ubuntu-16.04.3-desktop-amd64.iso

You can then compare the generated string to the one provided from the original author (e.g. UbuntuHashes).


Htop

Htop is a more powerful alternative to the built-in top task manager. It provides an advanced interface with many options for monitoring and controlling system processes.

htop-1.jpg
The htop task manager in action.

Although it runs in the terminal, htop has very good support for mouse controls. This makes it much easier to navigate the menus, select processes, and organize the tasks thought sorting and filtering.


Ln

Links in Unix are similar to shortcuts in Windows, allowing you to get quick access to certain files. Links are created via the ln command and can be two types: hard or symbolic. Each kind has different properties and is used for different things (read more).

Here is an example of one of the many ways you can use links. Let's say we have a directory on our desktop called Scripts. It contains neatly organized bash scripts that we commonly use. Each time we want to call one of our scripts we would have to do this:

~/Desktop/Scripts/git-scripts/git-cleanup

Obviously, this is isn't very convinient as we have to write the absolute path every time. Instead we can create a symlink from our Scripts folder to /usr/local/bin, which will make the scripts executable from all directories.

sudo ln -s ~/Desktop/Scripts/git-scripts/git-cleanup /usr/local/bin/

With the created symlink we can now call our script by simply writing its name in any opened terminal.

git-cleanup

SSH

With the ssh command users can quickly connect to a remote host and log into its Unix shell. This makes it possible to conveniently issue commands on the server directly from your local machine's terminal.

To establish a connection you simply need to specify the correct ip address or url. The first time you connect to a new server there will be some form of authentication.

ssh [email protected]_host

If you want to quickly execute a command on the server without logging in, you can simply add a command after the url. The command will run on the server and the result from it will be returned.

ssh [email protected]_host ls /var/www

some-website.com
some-other-website.com

There is a lot you can do with SSH like creating proxies and tunnels, securing your connection with private keys, transferring files and more. You can read more in this guide.


Grep

Grep is the standard Unix utility for finding strings inside text. It takes an input in the form of a file or direct stream, runs its content through a regular expression, and returns all the matching lines.

This command comes in handy when working with large files that need to be filtered. Below we use grep in combination with the date command to search through a large log file and generate a new file containing only errors from today.

// Search for today's date (in format yyyy-mm-dd) and write the results to a new file. 
grep "$(date +"%Y-%m-%d")" all-errors-ever.log > today-errors.log

Another great command for working with strings is sed. It is more powerful (and more complicated) than grep and can perform almost any string-related task including adding, removing or replacing strings.


Alias

Many Unix commands, including some featured in this article, tend to get pretty long after you add all the options to them. To make them easier to remember, you can create short aliases with the alias bash built-in command:

# Create an alias for starting a local web server.
alias server="python -m SimpleHTTPServer 9000"

# Instead of typing the whole command simply use the alias.
server 

Serving HTTP on 0.0.0.0 port 9000 ...

The alias will be available as long as you keep that terminal open. To make it permanent you can add the alias command to your .bashrc file.

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Comments 10

  • Sooo... You must be using Unix to be a web developer?

    "12 Terminal Commands Every Web Developer Should Know About"

    "A list of essential Unix commands that will greatly improve your web development workflow."

  • Must be? No.

    Should be familiar with? Absolutely YES.

    If you are not fluent, you GREATLY limit yourself and your flexibility as a web developer.

    Even Microsoft is putting the Unix shell in Windows. A poor copy has been there from the days of MS-DOS.

  • Good article, misleading title still.
    "Absolutely YES"?
    We are a 40+ members team building websites and ERP software for 16 years, running on many cloud servers at the moment, with not a single person knowing a single bit about Unix.
    Don't get me wrong, I'm not a MS fan, and Unix is an awesome system though not being the only way.
    If we (our team) knew Unix it would improve our business life for sure. But we are more focused on upper levels of programming.

  • Better title: 12 Terminal Commands Every Web Developer MUST Know About.

    Very useful information! Love this website!