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searching for a good grep

grep has gained a few competitors over the years. ack and grin both aim to fill in the gaps in grep's functionality, and provide a style of interaction that is focused on searching large code repositories. By default, they search recursively, colorize their output, and ignore certain "obvious" files that no one generally wants to search through. The latter both cuts noise out of search results, and allows them to run faster.

I've used all three over the years; mostly grep and grin. I've encountered surprising issues with ack and grin, both in terms of performance and behavior:

  • ack quickly scared me away with its default behavior of only searching files that match a hard-coded whitelist of file suffixes. This appeared to be addressed with the addition of the -a option, but it turns out: not really.
  • With grin, I recently realized that the performance of 1.1 was shockingly bad, but that horror was short-lived after realizing that grin 1.2 was out, and fixed the problem.

The discovery and resolution of these issues has caused me to switch back and forth a few times, and finally I decided to do a performance test of all three, just to make sure I wasn't missing out on something.

An attempt at a speed comparison

Considering that the files/directories that you ignore from your search will play a big role in determining how fast your search executes, I wanted to equalize the set of files/directories that the three tools ignore, to give a fair comparison. This turned out to be problematic. It resulted in the following commands:
grep --color=auto -sPIr \
--exclude-from=excludes \
--exclude-dir='.*' \
--exclude-dir='~.dep' \
--exclude-dir='~.dot' \
--exclude-dir='~.nib' \
--exclude-dir='~.plst' \
--exclude-dir=blib \
--exclude-dir=CVS \
--exclude-dir=RCS \
--exclude-dir=SCCS \
--exclude-dir=_darcs \
--exclude-dir=_sgbak \
--exclude-dir=autom4te.cache \
--exclude-dir=cover_db \
--exclude-dir=_build \
--exclude-dir=build \
'aflksdjfk?falk\d+sdfj' `pwd`

ack -a \
--ignore-dir=build \
--ignore-dir=dist \
--type-set='junk=.pyc,.pyo,.so,.o,.a,.tgz,.tar.gz,.rar,.zip,~,#,.bak,.png,.jpg,.gif,.bmp,.tif,.tiff,.pyd,.dll,.exe,.obj,.lib' \
--type=nojunk \

grin \
-d 'CVS,RCS,.svn,.hg,.bzr,build,dist,.git,~.dep,~.dot,~.nib,~.plst,blib,SCCS,_darcs,_sgbak,autom4te.cache,cover_db,_build' \

For the full picture, here is the contents of the excludes file referenced by the grep command:


I ran this on my personal code projects directory, which has all kinds of random stuff that's built up over the years. Code, images, executables, archive files, SQLite databases, and so on. Here are the results:


There were a few exceptions with grin; it can't ignore file patterns other than literal suffixes, so ack's default ignoring of #.+#\$, [._].*\\.swp\$, and core\\.\\d+\$ could not be applied to grin. Thankfully, all of those filenames are pretty rare, so it shouldn't matter much.

ack's file suffix ignoring mechanism, which is a bit circuitous, turns out to be completely disabled when using -a. It is impossible to ignore any files when using -a; only literal directory names (no globs). In other words, you can modify ack's whitelist of file suffixes, but if you want to forego the whitelist and use a blacklist approach instead, tough luck. You either use the whitelist or you search everything.

If you are okay with the whitelist approach, ack is pretty close in performance to the other two. It performed the same search as above in in 13.988 seconds. This number can't be compared strictly to the others, but it's as close as I can get.

So in short, performance is fairly uniform, with grep being the fastest by a fairly small margin (around 10-20%).

Filtering files and general usability


grep did not have the --exclude-dir option until version 2.5.3. That was released in 2007 or 2008 (it's surprisingly hard to track down the date), but Ubuntu 10.04 is still using grep 2.5.1. In light of this, and to be fair to grep with regard to any recent performance enhancements, I installed the newest (2.6.3) package from Launchpad.

Now that I had the --exclude-dir option available to me, I had a lot of trouble with it. If you tell it to ignore .* (any "dot directories"), and you then pass . as the directory to search, it will immediately exit without having done anything. It might seem obvious why when I state it that way, but I was truly baffled for a little while. One solution is to pass `pwd` instead of .; But now, all of the filenames in your search results will have their full, absolute path shown, and that's usually quite long and ridiculous to sift through. Another solution is to never ignore .*, but rather ignore specific names like .git and .svn. You can even ignore almost every dot-dir you'll encounter in the real world by using --exclude-dir='.[a-zA-Z0-9]*'. This will fail if a dot-dir starts with anything other than an ascii alphanumeric character, but it should be good for the vast majority of cases. By the way, .?* and .??* mysteriously do not work. For me, they prevent grep from recursing. I don't understand that at all. It may be some weird artifact of the options grep is passing to fnmatch().

grep also fails to exclude a directory glob that looks/like/this*. I'm not sure why this happens either.

Beyond those issues, grep, unlike ack and grin, has a pretty complete set of options for excluding files and directories.

There are some other issues with grep. You probably know about these. They all mostly have solutions now.

  • Regex syntax is limited. Solution: use -E or -P.
  • No coloring. Solution: use --color=auto.
  • Annoying error messages on broken symlinks and other filesystem oddities. Solution: use -s.


I've had a couple issues with grin over time. The first is a lack of a -w (word) option. You can simulate it by doing \bpattern\b, but that's pretty tedious. The author did not seem very interested in implementing this feature when I asked. ack and grep have it.

My other issue with grin is well known by the author:

[...] setuptools installs scripts indirectly; the scripts installed to $prefix/bin or Python2xScripts use setuptools' pkg_resources module to load the exact version of grin egg that installed the script, then runs the script's main() function. This [...] can add substantial startup overhead [...]. If you want the response of grin to be snappier, I recommend installing custom scripts that just import the grin module and run the appropriate main() function. -- From the grin PyPI page

Not only does the default script start up a bit slower than it could, but if you hit control-C soon after grin starts up, you might get an ugly Python traceback, because grin hasn't gotten to its KeyboardInterrupt try/catch statement yet.

This is more a Python packaging limitation than a problem with grin per se. Nonetheless, it's another annoyance to deal with as a user, and fair or not, it makes it less appealing.

grin only supports excluding literal directory names, and filename suffixes.


Its default whitelisting behavior is a really poor choice in my opinion. If it isn't familiar with a given file extension, it will simply ignore it. Since you have no idea it's ignoring it, you won't know that you missed something until there is some unfortunate side effect. That can be downright dangerous when refactoring big, old, ugly code that has stuff in all kinds of unpredictable filenames. A coworker and I have both sadly run into this problem while working on a messy legacy PHP project where some PHP files had names ending with ".inc". I can picture this whitelist behavior biting a lot of people in the ass when they don't realize that's how ack works.

The default whitelisting approach might be forgivable if it were possible to turn it off and go with a blacklisting approach, but that, according to the author, is simply not supported.

A summary of the file exclusion madness

These are all of the variations of file/directory exclusions I could dream up, and their support across these three tools:

Excluding Files
  grepgrin ack
fixed name (foo) OK suffixes only -
glob (fo*) OK - -
fixed name w/path (path/to/foo)OK - -
glob w/path (path/to/fo*) - - -
Excluding Directories
  grepgrin ack
fixed name (foo) OK OK OK
glob (fo*) OK - -
fixed name w/path (path/to/foo)OK - -
glob w/path (path/to/fo*) OK - -

The ultimate grep setup

I'm going with this for now:

export GREP_OPTIONS='-rIPs --exclude-dir=.[a-zA-Z0-9]* --exclude=.* --exclude=*~ --color=auto'
alias cgrep='grep --color=always'

This brings grep 95% of the way towards doing what I appreciate about grin and ack. You do still have to pass the directory name to search, whereas ack and grin will default to the current directory if you don't tell them otherwise. However, I can live with typing another space and period.

The cgrep alias will force colors on, which you can pipe through less -R if you want to page the output.

And dreams for the future

What I think would work amazingly would be a hierarchical set of exclusion rule files. Let's give them the filename .grepignore. You could have a .grepignore in your home directory which would list files/dirs you always want to ignore. Then in each project's directory (which are children of your home directory) you could have another .grepignore file that would ignore the specific files that you want to ignore in that project. $GREP would then ignore the superset of all the .grepignore files from / down to the directory you're in. This seems like it would be elegant, simple, and effective.

I looked into implementing something like this in grin, but it turns out there may be a good reason for grin not being able to ignore multi/level/paths/with/glob*s -- Python's fnmatch function is (re-)implemented in pure Python and does not use the system fnmatch. Thus, it's impossible to use the FNM_PATHNAME flag, which enables sane multi-level globbing. Python's fnmatch thinks that the glob foo*bar matches foo/x/y/z/bar, which is strange and contrary to most other tools.

Implementing hierarchical exclusion rule files in grep would certainly be more laborious, since it's written in C instead of Python. I may try doing it with some kind of wrapper script instead. Anyone wanna beat me to it?

Nick Welch <nick@incise.org> · github