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4.6.1 Processing Fixed-Width Data

An example of fixed-width data would be the input for old Fortran programs where numbers are run together, or the output of programs that did not anticipate the use of their output as input for other programs.

An example of the latter is a table where all the columns are lined up by the use of a variable number of spaces and empty fields are just spaces. Clearly, awk’s normal field splitting based on FS does not work well in this case. Although a portable awk program can use a series of substr() calls on $0 (see String Functions), this is awkward and inefficient for a large number of fields.

The splitting of an input record into fixed-width fields is specified by assigning a string containing space-separated numbers to the built-in variable FIELDWIDTHS. Each number specifies the width of the field, including columns between fields. If you want to ignore the columns between fields, you can specify the width as a separate field that is subsequently ignored. It is a fatal error to supply a field width that has a negative value.

The following data is the output of the Unix w utility. It is useful to illustrate the use of FIELDWIDTHS:

 10:06pm  up 21 days, 14:04,  23 users
User     tty       login  idle   JCPU   PCPU  what
hzuo     ttyV0     8:58pm            9      5  vi p24.tex
hzang    ttyV3     6:37pm    50                -csh
eklye    ttyV5     9:53pm            7      1  em thes.tex
dportein ttyV6     8:17pm  1:47                -csh
gierd    ttyD3    10:00pm     1                elm
dave     ttyD4     9:47pm            4      4  w
brent    ttyp0    26Jun91  4:46  26:46   4:41  bash
dave     ttyq4    26Jun9115days     46     46  wnewmail

The following program takes this input, converts the idle time to number of seconds, and prints out the first two fields and the calculated idle time:

BEGIN  { FIELDWIDTHS = "9 6 10 6 7 7 35" }
NR > 2 {
    idle = $4
    sub(/^ +/, "", idle)   # strip leading spaces
    if (idle == "")
        idle = 0
    if (idle ~ /:/) {      # hh:mm
        split(idle, t, ":")
        idle = t[1] * 60 + t[2]
    }
    if (idle ~ /days/)
        idle *= 24 * 60 * 60

    print $1, $2, idle
}

NOTE: The preceding program uses a number of awk features that haven’t been introduced yet.

Running the program on the data produces the following results:

hzuo      ttyV0  0
hzang     ttyV3  50
eklye     ttyV5  0
dportein  ttyV6  107
gierd     ttyD3  1
dave      ttyD4  0
brent     ttyp0  286
dave      ttyq4  1296000

Another (possibly more practical) example of fixed-width input data is the input from a deck of balloting cards. In some parts of the United States, voters mark their choices by punching holes in computer cards. These cards are then processed to count the votes for any particular candidate or on any particular issue. Because a voter may choose not to vote on some issue, any column on the card may be empty. An awk program for processing such data could use the FIELDWIDTHS feature to simplify reading the data. (Of course, getting gawk to run on a system with card readers is another story!)


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