Dotfiles were a mistake

Unix has a clever trick for hiding a file from being displayed by the ls command or other file browsers: just prefix the file name with a period character. Many applications use this fact in order to place hidden files or directories in the user's home directory, usually containing settings, cached files, persistent data and whatever else developers might come up with. This practice has always struck me as just plain wrong, and I am glad that my sentiment was confirmed by Rob Pike years ago.

The original post was on Google+, so here is an archived link instead. Here is the post replicated, with formatting added by me:

A lesson in shortcuts.

Long ago, as the design of the Unix file system was being worked out, the entries . and .. appeared, to make navigation easier. I'm not sure but I believe .. went in during the Version 2 rewrite, when the file system became hierarchical (it had a very different structure early on). When one typed ls, however, these files appeared, so either Ken or Dennis added a simple test to the program. It was in assembler then, but the code in question was equivalent to something like this:

   if (name[0] == '.') continue;

This statement was a little shorter than what it should have been, which is

   if (strcmp(name, ".") == 0 || strcmp(name, "..") == 0) continue;

but hey, it was easy.

Two things resulted.

First, a bad precedent was set. A lot of other lazy programmers introduced bugs by making the same simplification. Actual files beginning with periods are often skipped when they should be counted.

Second, and much worse, the idea of a "hidden" or "dot" file was created. As a consequence, more lazy programmers started dropping files into everyone's home directory. I don't have all that much stuff installed on the machine I'm using to type this, but my home directory has about a hundred dot files and I don't even know what most of them are or whether they're still needed. Every file name evaluation that goes through my home directory is slowed down by this accumulated sludge.

I'm pretty sure the concept of a hidden file was an unintended consequence. It was certainly a mistake.

How many bugs and wasted CPU cycles and instances of human frustration (not to mention bad design) have resulted from that one small shortcut about 40 years ago?

Keep that in mind next time you want to cut a corner in your code.

(For those who object that dot files serve a purpose, I don't dispute that but counter that it's the files that serve the purpose, not the convention for their names. They could just as easily be in $HOME/cfg or $HOME/lib, which is what we did in Plan 9, which had no dot files. Lessons can be learned.)

Dotfiles are bad

There are two major issues with dotfiles:

  • They clutter the user's home directory with junk most users don't even know where it comes from. Yes, I can guess that .ssh comes from SSH, but can you guess where .tooling is from? Apparently Gradle though that was a really good name.

  • They mix very different kinds of files all into one directory. I would like to version control my configuration files while at the same time being able to wipe cache files. Or maybe I have several sets of configurations which I want to switch out. When all the files are mushed into one directory it becomes hard at best, and impossible at worst to sort them out.

Dotfiles were never meant to be an actual thing. They are a bug which just got silently promoted to a feature.

A solution to dotfile madness

Rob Pike had the right idea about how to solve the dotfiles problem. The issue is not that persistent files get created, the issue is that there is no rhyme or reason to them. He had the right idea of splitting up the concerns into separate directories, but his idea did not go far enough.

This is where the XDG Base Directory specification comes into play. The idea is simple: designate a small number of (hidden) directories in the user's home directory for different tasks. Each directory can be controlled through an environment variable, and if the variable is not defined, a fixed default value is used.

For example, configuration files for Neovim are stored in $XDG_CONFIG_HOME/nvim, where $XDG_CONFIG_HOME defaults to ~/.config. Persistent files, such as swap files are stored in $XDG_DATA_HOME/nvim, where $XDG_DATA_HOME defaults to ~/.local/share. Contrast this with Vim, where all files are stored under ~/.vim:

  • When I want to delete all persistent files in Vim I have to be extra careful not to also destroy my configuration. In Neovim I can just do rm -rf ~/.local/share/nvim and be done with it.

  • In order to version-control my configuration I have to meticulously add individual directories to the .gitignore file. In Neovim almost everything in $XDG_CONFIG_HOME/nvim can be version controlled. The only exceptions are leftovers from Vim, such as doc/tags.

  • Swapping out a configuration in Vim is near impossible. You can specify which vimrc file to load, and use that file to adjust the runtime paths, or you can change the $HOME environment variable, but both ways are very hacky and fragile. Neovim gets this feature for free: just adjust any one of the environment variables you want to change.

You might be wondering why anyone would want all that, especially the last part about swapping out configurations? You could for example have one configuration for your personal hobbies, and one for work. As remote work is going to become more prevalent, having a set of “work config” and “at home config” is going to be just as normal as having “work clothes” and “at home" clothes.

The spec is very short and easy to read. Here are a few of the most important directories to give you a taste:

  • XDG_CONFIG_HOME (default ~/.config/): configuration files, usually maintained and edited manually. You will want to version-control these.

  • XDG_DATA_HOME (default ~/.local/share/): data files, can be machine-generated. You will want to included these in your backups.

  • XDG_CACHE_HOME (default ~/.cache/): cache files. You usually don't want to back these up.

Aside from these *_HOME directories there is also a number of search directories, but those are usually less interesting to end users.

Some applications need to be dragged kicking and screaming into the future

Over time more and more applications will adopt the new specification, but there will always be those that need to be nudged into the right direction. The ArchWiki page has a very extensive list of applications which support the new spec, which can be made to support and spec, and those which are a lost cause.

The how-to depends on the particular application or library. We can for example tell GNU Readline which file to use by setting an environment variable:

# Put this somewhere in your ~/.profile
export INPUTRC

For other applications you might have to define a shell alias which passes an extra parameters. Consult the manual page when in doubt.

For the one weirdo who actually likes dotfiles

If for whatever reason you actually enjoy the mess that is dotfiles, just add the following variable definitions:



Be aware though that these directories are meant to be distinct! If there is a file $XDG_DATA_HOME/foo/bar and a file $XDG_CONFIG_HOME/foo/bar, then one will overwrite the other.

Seriously, do yourself a favour and just move on. Dotfiles were never good in the first place.