Shell scripting adventures (Part 3, Terminal-based dialog boxes: Whiptail)

December 23, 2017 -
Tags: gui, shell_scripting, sysadmin

This is the Part 3 (of 3) of the shell scripting adventures.

The following subjects are described in this part:

Since Whiptail is simple to use, the objective of this post is rather to show some useful code snippets/patterns.

The examples are taken from my RPi VPN Router project installation script.

Previous chapters:

Introduction to Whiptail

Whiptail is a dialog boxes program, with some useful widgets, which makes shell scripting more user-friendly; it’s included in all the Debian-based distributions.

Widgets, with snippets

Message box

The message box shows a message, waiting for the user to hit the OK button:

Message box


$ message="Hello! This script will prepare an SDCard for using un a RPi3 as VPN router.
> Please note that device events (eg. automount) are disabled during the script execution."

$ whiptail --msgbox --title "Introduction" "$message" 20 78

The parameters are:

  • --title specifies the title;
  • then, the body message;
  • finally, the last two parameters specify height and width, in number of characters.

Yes/no box

The yes/no works like the message box, but has two buttons:

Message box


$ message=$'Disable on board wireless (WiFi/Bluetooth, on RPi3)?
> On RPi 3, it\'s advised to choose `Yes`, since the traffic will go through eth0; choosing `No` will yield a working VPN Router nonetheless.
> On other models, the choice won\'t have any effect.'

$ if (whiptail --yesno "$message" 20 78); then
>   v_disable_on_board_wireless=1
> fi

Whiptail will return 1/255 if the user, respectively, hits No or Esc, and 0 in case of Yes.

The if condition branch, in this format, will be executed in case of Yes.

The message variable is quoted using ANSI C Quoting, which is helpful when we don’t want string interpolation, but at the same time we want to avoid the awkward bash single quote quoting ('\'').


The gauge is a very interesting widget used for displaying a progress:


The widget reads from the stdin a numeric value from 0 to 100, which regulates the progress, and exits when the stream is closed.

While the principle is easy, it can be tricky to convert the output of a given program to the format required; this is a real-world example:

$ (dd status=progress if="$v_os_image_filename" of="$v_sdcard_device") 2>&1 | \
>   stdbuf -o0 awk -v RS='\r' "/copied/ { printf(\"%0.f\n\", \$1 / $os_image_size * 100) }" | \
>   whiptail --title "Image writing" --gauge "Burning the image on the SD card..." 20 78 0

The last parameter is 0, which is used for specifying the progress via stdin (otherwise, the passed percentage is displayed).

The functioning of this example is explained in detail in a section of the previous post.

Radio list

The radio list provides a list of entries, for choosing one:

Radio list

An interesting way of implementing this functionality is to use a Bash associative array:

$ declare -A v_usb_storage_devices

$ v_usb_storage_devices[/dev/sdb]="My USB Key"
$ v_usb_storage_devices[/dev/sdc]="My external HDD"

$ entries_option=""
$ entries_count=0
$ message=$'Choose an external device. THE DEVICE WILL BE COMPLETELY ERASED.\n\nAvailable (USB) devices:\n\n'

$ for dev in "${!v_usb_storage_devices[@]}"; do
>   entries_option+=" $dev "
>   entries_option+=$(printf "%q" ${v_usb_storage_devices[$dev]})
>   entries_option+=" OFF"
>   let entries_count+=1
> done

$ v_sdcard_device=$(whiptail --radiolist --title "Device choice" "$message" 20 78 $entries_count $entries_option 3>&1 1>&2 2>&3);

The general format of this widget parameters is:

whiptail --radiolist [--title mytitle] <body_message_header> <width> <height> <entries_count> <entry_1_key> <entry_1_description> <entry_1_state> [<other entry params>...]

Note how we add 3>&1 1>&2 2>&3 at the end; they swap stdout and stderr, since whiptail’s output goes to stderr, while we want it to go to stdout, so that we can capture it in the variable (see a detailed Stackoverflow explanation).

Setting up the list definition parameters (key, description, state) is a bit convoluted, that’s where using an associative array comes to help:

  • we cycle the array (for dev in "${!v_usb_storage_devices[@]}")
  • for each cycle:
    • we append to $entries_option the key (device path), the description, and the default state (OFF for all, in this case)
    • we increment the counter ($entries_count)

This way, we can neatly prepare $entries_count and $entries_option.

There are two subtleties:

  1. we don’t quote $entries_option, since each individual token (each key/description/state) is an individual whiptail parameter;
  2. because of that, we need to escape each individual entry option (in particular, the descriptions), otherwise each word would be interpreted as an individual whiptail parameter; for this purpose, we use $(printf "%q" variable_to_escape).

Both are explained in the part 1 of the series.

The result is:

whiptail --radiolist --title Device choice Choose an external device. THE DEVICE WILL BE COMPLETELY ERASED.

Available (USB) devices:

 20 78 2 /dev/sdb My\ USB\ Key OFF /dev/sdc My\ external\ HDD OFF

In one of the next posts of the series, I will show how to use udev to find the external USB devices.

Other widgets

This is a brief list of other widgets with their description; the examples can be found in the Whiptail chapter of the Bash shell scripting Wikibook.

Input box

A way to get free-form input from the user is via an input box. This displays a dialog with two buttons labeled Ok and Cancel.

Text box

A text box with contents of the given file inside. Add –scrolltext if the file is longer than the window.

Password box

A way to get a hidden password from the user is via an password box. This displays a dialog with two buttons labeled Ok and Cancel.

A menu should be used when you want the user to select one option from a list, such as for navigating a program.

Check list

A check list allows a user to select one or more options from a list.

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