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Taking advantage of foreground and background processes

As a developer I spend a lot of time in the terminal, mostly using tabs to multitask. But it turns out you can speed up your work flow using the native multitasking capabilities of unix-like systems. I may be late to the party here, but it’s awesome nonetheless.

Here’s an example: when I am working on a Rails project, I often have various processes running: a simple web server1 to quickly inspect my work, Spork for autoloading my Rails environment and speeding up my tests, Guard for watching for file changes and running related tests, a console for running Git and Rake commands and – of course – an instance of Vim.2

Switching between two processes

I often use multiple tabs using multiple sessions at the same time to run all this stuff, and switch tabs to switch between them, but this can be quite annoying. The first step is suspend active processes in a console session using ^Z. For example, when in Vim, hitting ^Z will bring you back to the console. You can mess around and then jump back to Vim using fg.

This works great when switching between two processes, but you can do better. You can start en suspend multiple processes, and using jobs you can list what’s running. You can jump back to processes by number using %1, %2 etc.

$ rails server
zsh: suspended  rails server
$ vim Gemfile
zsh: suspended vim Gemfile
$ jobs
[1]: - suspended vim Gemfile
[2]: - suspended rails server
$ %2
[2]  - continued rails server

Background processes

You will notice that when the rails server process is running, you can no longer use the console. In order to get back the command prompt, you would need to suspend or quit the process. But it turns out, you can move it to the background using bg:

[2]  - continued rails server
$ bg %2

Now the process is still running and when it generates output, you will still see it – but in the meantime you can continue working. We can even launch a process straight into the background by suffixing it with a &:

$ rails server &

Example uses

I especially find it useful to launch Spork in the background and Vim in the foreground. I then map a special keyboard shortcut to test the current file, like so: :map <leader>r :!bundle exec rspec %<cr>. Or, when I develop static sites with Nanoc, it is great to launch a server to the background with nanoc view & and then bind a key in Vim to recompile the site, like :map <leader>r :!bundle exec nanoc co<cr>. This kind of friction reduction is great when doing TDD, and you should give it a try


Of course, you don’t really want the output of all your processes clutter up your single terminal window, but for simple tasks this is an ideal way to keep things neat and tidy.

  1. I do often use Pow as my local server, eliminating the need to launch my own using rails server

  2. sometimes I use MacVim, sometimes plain old Vim in the terminal. 

  • unix
Arjan van der Gaag

Arjan van der Gaag

A thirtysomething software developer, historian and all-round geek. This is his blog about Ruby, Rails, Javascript, Git, CSS, software and the web. Back to all talks and articles?


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