Managing dotfiles

Because there is no place like $HOME

In this post, we will see how we can easily manage our personal configuration files - a.k.a. dotfiles. Yeah dotfiles, named after there common ~/.my_config form, you know, all of those small configuration files lying across our $HOME.

Because there is no place like $HOME

Because we are spending so much time on our machine, be it for work or for fun (both at the same time if you are lucky), we love to tweak our environment to our taste and needs. Change the UX, create some aliases, use some dark theme and what not, most if not all of these are saved in some configuration files somewhere. And since we spent so much time making a home for ourselves, wouldn’t it be great if we could quickly set it up again on a different computer? Change the house but keep the furniture and decorations? This is precisely what we are going to set up here.

Picking a dotfiles manager

Looking on the web for a dotfiles manager, you may find many of them - see a whole list of them here. Most of them work off the same principles, being a small set of utils to help manage our dotfiles. Management includes most importantly versioning, often through git and the installation of the files to their correct location as they are more than often expected to be found at a given path. You may want to give a look at the aforementioned list of managers and pick one that best answers your needs and expectations. Note that many are interchangeable.

In this post we settled using homeshick. There are two main reasons for this choice. Firstly, it is entirely written in bash, making it usable virtually anywhere. Secondly, it ‘installs’ dotfiles on our system using symlinks rather than hard copies. The files thus exist in a single place. Some other nice features includes, being git-based, being cli-based, supporting multi dotfiles repos. It has to be noted tho that the project is not in a really active development and not very feature rich compared to other solutions. It is a thin-layer that does the job.

Alright so how do we get started?

Building our castle

homeshick relies around the concept of castles which are nothing more than git repositories. A castle contains all of our dotfiles which are organized with the same layout as our home directory. But before building our castle, we need to install the appropriate tool. To install homeshick, nothing easier, we simply clone its repository in our home:

git clone $HOME/.homesick/repos/homeshick

And we are done. Now to use it, we only have to source it, e.g. directly in our .bashrc,

echo "source ~/.homesick/repos/homeshick/" >> ~/.bashrc

We can also source its tab completion tool to ease our life,

echo "source ~/.homesick/repos/homeshick/completions/homeshick-completion.bash" >> ~/.bashrc

Alright, we are done with the installation, let us start creating the said castle.

First we create a new local git repo through homeshick cli tool,

$ homeshick generate dotfiles

This creates an empty castle named ‘dotfiles’ in ~/.homesick/repos/dotfiles/. To populate our castle with a dotfile, we make use of the ’track’ command:

homeshick track {castle} {dotfile}

To track our first file, say e.g. .bashrc, we simply issue,

homeshick track dotfiles ~/.bashrc

The command copies the file in our castle at ~/.homesick/repos/dotfiles/home/.bashrc and replaces the original file with a symlink to the copy.

Now all we have to do is to commit our change and save our castle online,

To move to our local repository, we enter,

$ homeshick cd dotfiles

and we can now use the usual git commands,

git add .
git commit -m 'add .bashrc'

Let us save our castle online, e.g. on GitHub,

git remote add origin
git push -u origin master

We may now repeat this operation for each and every configuration file we would like to save. With our castle safely backed up online, we will now see how we can quickly set up our environment on a new machine.

Quickly setting up a new machine

Whether you bought a new computer or nuked your old hardware with a fresh new distro, you will now witness the true power of homeshick.

To install our cosy environment on a fresh distro, all we have to do is,

  1. Install homeshick

    git clone $HOME/.homesick/repos/homeshick
    source ~/.homesick/repos/homeshick/
  2. Import our castle

    homeshick clone
  3. Let homeshick works its magic

    homeshick link dotfiles

Voila! Home sweet home.

Of course this post is only a quick overview of a given dotfiles manager. I won’t detail here all of its options and features and let you discover them for yourself in its wiki. As mentioned previously many dotfiles managers rely on a git repository and the same layout as homeshick so you can get started with it and later move to another one which better fits your needs.

At this point you may be wondering if this is really worth it given that you probably install a fresh distro every 2 years or so and completely change hardware even less frequently. Well, fellow developer, aren’t you using containers? If not, you definitely should consider it and check this other post where I detail a development workflow for ROS in LXD.

Disposable tiny home

If you are like me, trying your best to keep a tidy laptop while messing around with plenty of different software toys, then you may have had one of these days during which you spawn several containers. Containers in which we don’t have our sweet bash aliases; on our very own machine! But thanks to homeshick we can now start up a fresh container and have it mimic $HOME in a matter of seconds! Let me demonstrate it for you with a LXD container,

lxc launch ubuntu:20.04 tmp-20-04
lxc profile add castle tmp-20-04
lxc ubuntu tmp-20-04

Ahhh, what a cozy tiny disposable home!

That seemed too easy to you? Alright I confess, I used some of my own aliases here. But isn’t it what this whole post is about? Note that the above 3 lines really boils down to,

$ lxc launch ubuntu:20.04 tmp-20-04
$ lxc exec tmp-20-04 -- sudo --login --user ubuntu
$ git clone $HOME/.homesick/repos/homeshick
$ source ~/.homesick/repos/homeshick/
$ homeshick clone
$ homeshick link dotfiles

With this example, I hope that I managed to offer you a glimpse at the power of homeshick (and more generally of dotfiles managers), especially when coupled to a containerized workflow.

Before closing this post, let me give you one last tip. Because we made our containerized workflow rather seamless with our host, it can be easy to lose track of which shell is in a container and which is not. To differentiate them, add the following to your .bashrc:

function prompt_lxc_header()
  if [ -e /dev/lxd/sock ]; then
    echo "[LXC] ";


When used in a container, a shell prompt in the said container will now look something like:

[LXC] ubuntu@tmp-20-04:~$

No more confusion 👍

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