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Jerry Ng
Jerry Ng

Posted on • Originally published at jerrynsh.com

A Brief Guide To Manage Dotfiles

There is a bazillion of tutorials and resources on how to manage dotfiles out there. If you haven’t heard of “dotfiles”, they are basically config files in Unix-like systems that start with a dot, e.g. .bashrc, .zshrc, .vimrc, .gitconfig just to name a few.

By default, dotfiles are hidden and they are typically used to customize your system.

Why bother? Well, having your personal dotfiles up on the cloud makes it incredibly easy for you to set up any new environment, like in the case of getting a new laptop, etc.

Prerequisites

  • A Git hosting service account, e.g. GitHub
  • Git and basic knowledge of how to use it
  • Basic Linux commands

Pain Points

The dotfiles community is huge.

As an average Linux user, my developer tool customization outside of VSCode is a total mess. I see gorgeous dotfiles being shared everywhere around the Internet. They are so fascinating, intriguing yet daunting at times.

After spending hours reading, looking around elegant dotfiles repositories, this article aims to get you started on managing your own dotfiles as painlessly as possible.

The Tradition

Generally, dotfiles are managed in a separate Git directory, usually called ~/.dotfiles. You will then have to create symlinks from there to the original location of the respective dotfile (usually your home directory).

Finally, the dotfiles are then committed and pushed to the Git hosting service of your choice, e.g. a public GitHub repository, just like this.

To gain more context, I’d highly recommend you to read this article to understand how dotfiles are typically managed.

Getting Started With Chezmoi

Today, we will look into abstracting most of that hassle of managing your dotfiles.

In my quest of looking for a straightforward solution to manage my dotfiles, I found chezmoi. With chezmoi, you can ignore the part where you manually create symlinks. If you need more convincing, do check out why use chezmoi.

What follows is the step-by-step guide on how to start using chezmoi to manage your dotfiles.

Flow Chart of Getting Started With Chezmoi

1. Creating a GitHub repository

Before we begin, you’ll need to create a new GitHub repository.

By convention, the repository name to manage dotfiles is often called .dotfiles or just dotfiles. Here, I’ll assume that you name your dotfile repository as dotfiles.

Don’t get me wrong, chezmoi can also be used with other Git hosting services like GitLab or BitBucket.

2. Installation

Installing chezmoi is easy, simply follow the installation steps here based on the package manager of your choice. A quick one-line installation would be:

sh -c "$(curl -fsLS chezmoi.io/get)"
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3. Init

Remember how dotfiles are managed in a Git directory? Simply run chezmoi init to create a new Git directory in ~/.local/share/chezmoi (source directory in the following) where chezmoi stores its source state.

Later on, you will have to perform Git commit and push any new changes that you make to the source state just like a normal project in any Git repository.

4. Adding your first dotfile

Before we start, do always keep in mind that the first rule of managing your dotfile is to never push any secrets (e.g. API keys, AWS credentials) to any public repository (not even to private repositories!) in plain text.

In this article, I will be using .zshrc as our example dotfile of choice. In practice, feel free to add multiple dotfiles at once. So, let’s start to manage your first dotfile by “adding” it!

To add your .zshrc file which is typically located at our home directory, run:

# This will copy ~/.zshrc to our source directory at ~/.local/share/chezmoi/dot_zshrc
chezmoi add  ~/.zshrc
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Remember this — chezmoi only modifies the files in the working copy, you will have to commit and push any changes yourself (though chezmoi can automate this).

To go to your source directory, simply run:

chezmoi cd # Same as running cd ~/.local/share/chezmoi/dot_zshrc
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Here, you will see your .zshrc file as dot_zshrc.

5. Committing and pushing to GitHub

Sounding like a broken record — please make sure that you do not commit any secrets or credentials as plain text.

From here on, it’s like committing and pushing any regular Git projects that you have:

git remote add origin git@github.com:your-awesome-username/dotfiles.git
git branch -M main

git add .
git commit -m "<Initial commit message>"
git push -u origin main
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Yay! Now you have your dotfile on your GitHub repository!

Maintaining Dotfiles

We will never be satisfied with what we have. There will always be more customizations. New files. Updates. Changes.

One important concept — to make any changes to your dotfile, always modify it at your source directory (e.g. ~/.local/share/chezmoi/dot_zshrc); NOT the original dotfile (e.g. ~/.zshrc).

You can imagine modifying anything inside your source directory to be the equivalent of updating the state that you want to store in your public repository.

Flow Chart of Managing Dotfiles

1. Where to make changes

To modify the source state, you can either:

  • Update the source state dotfile directly at ~/.local/share/chezmoi/dot_zshrc OR
  • A quick way to do so is to use the chezmoi edit ~/.zshrc command

2. How to edit your dotfiles

Once you’re satisfied with your changes, save your dotfile and run:

# To view the diff between ~/.local/share/chezmoi/dot_zshrc & ~/.zshrc
chezmoi diff

# To apply the changes to your original ~/.zshrc
chezmoi -v apply
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The apply command above will make changes to your original dotfile at your home directory, i.e. ~/.zshrc in this case.

3. Committing and pushing to GitHub (again)

Finally, to update your changes on your dotfile repository, simply run:

git add .
git commit -m "<Your update commit message>"
git push -u origin main
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Great! You have just successfully updated your dotfile on your GitHub repository!

Adding New File

Adding new dotfiles is easy. Unlike “Maintaining Dotfiles” where you have to do chezmoi diff and apply, you simply follow the steps below:

  1. chezmoi add ~/.newdotfile
  2. chezmoi cd
  3. git add .
  4. git commit -m "<New dotfile commit message>"
  5. git push -u origin main
  6. Done!

Using Your Dotfiles

Now that we have our dotfiles hosted on our GitHub repository, we shall look into how to use them on another machine.

On a separate machine, initialize chezmoi with your dotfiles repository by simply running:

sh -c "$(curl -fsLS chezmoi.io/get)" -- init --apply your-awesome-username
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Remember — before you apply any changes to your local dotfiles at this machine, run chezmoi diff to view diff between the dotfiles at ~/.local/share/chezmoi/ and their original location.

If the diff is what you expect to see, run chezmoi apply -v to override your local dotfiles.

At any time — to pull and apply the latest changes from your dotfiles repository, run:

chezmoi update -v
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Closing Thoughts

Managing your dotfile helps to carry your customization with you everywhere you go. To be frank, there is no “best way” to manage your dotfiles. Using chezmoi appeared to be the simplest solution for my laziness, and it just works.

Honestly, I am barely scratching the surface of what chezmoi is capable of. In case you want to dive deeper, I’d highly recommend you to check out chezmoi’s user guide.

That’s all I have for today and thanks for reading!


This article was originally published on jerrynsh.com

Discussion (6)

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pauljlucas profile image
Paul J. Lucas

This solution seems unnecessarily heavyweight. Or perhaps I'm just not getting it. What problem does this solve that can't be more trivially solved using GNU Make? For example, my own environment files include not only dot files, but common scripts in bin, as well as other files.

To add a file, just add it in the correct directory using normal git commands. To install it, just run make that will create the symlinks.

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cyberjack profile image
CyberJack

It can do more than described in this post.

For me, one of the biggest wins is personalisation. You can use the same configuration across multiple machines, while still being able to control machine-specific details. Chezmoi can use templates (using the go text/template syntax), which allows you to personalise dotfiles based on the operating system, architecture, and hostname. So, for example, you can use the same global .gitconfig file privately and at work and use a different username and email address on each machine, while still using a single dotfile repository.

It also supports secrets, which can be retrieved from one of the many password managers it supports, and it also supports full-file encryption using GPG, age or any other tool you prefer.

On top of that, it supports dry-runs, so you can see the differences before overwriting any existing configuration.

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jerrynsh profile image
Jerry Ng Author

TL;DR: as a noob, I think chezmoi is super easy to use & learn & it comes with very good documentation

I feel like can't do the creators & developers enough justice here without putting this here. I think they are doing a pretty good job at explaining the why's.

As for me:
I don't find it unnecessarily heavyweight.
I had no prior experience in managing dotfiles, yet what chezmoi provides is the ability to abstract all these "magics" with ease of use (super important for me).
Why? As an average Linux user, I find it harder to do things "correctly" as what you have done. While it will benefit me in the long run to learn the nitty-gritty details, I think the time taken for me to do so isn't as rewarding.

I'd rather use a tool that has gotten most use cases "figured out" and I'll just be a happy user (rather than having to figure out how to do things correctly myself.)

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mccurcio profile image
Matt Curcio

Hey Jerry,
Thanks for the tip. I'll check it.
How goes it?
M

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jerrynsh profile image
Jerry Ng Author

Hey Matt, happy to hear from you again! thanks for dropping by!
I can't complain haha
How bout you? What are you up to these days?