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1.8 When to Use awk

Now that you've seen some of what awk can do, you might wonder how awk could be useful for you. By using utility programs, advanced patterns, field separators, arithmetic statements, and other selection criteria, you can produce much more complex output. The awk language is very useful for producing reports from large amounts of raw data, such as summarizing information from the output of other utility programs like ls. (See More Complex.)

Programs written with awk are usually much smaller than they would be in other languages. This makes awk programs easy to compose and use. Often, awk programs can be quickly composed at your keyboard, used once, and thrown away. Because awk programs are interpreted, you can avoid the (usually lengthy) compilation part of the typical edit-compile-test-debug cycle of software development.

Complex programs have been written in awk, including a complete retargetable assembler for eight-bit microprocessors (see Glossary, for more information), and a microcode assembler for a special-purpose Prolog computer. While the original awk's capabilities were strained by tasks of such complexity, modern versions are more capable. Even Brian Kernighan's version of awk has fewer predefined limits, and those that it has are much larger than they used to be.

If you find yourself writing awk scripts of more than, say, a few hundred lines, you might consider using a different programming language. Emacs Lisp is a good choice if you need sophisticated string or pattern matching capabilities. The shell is also good at string and pattern matching; in addition, it allows powerful use of the system utilities. More conventional languages, such as C, C++, and Java, offer better facilities for system programming and for managing the complexity of large programs. Programs in these languages may require more lines of source code than the equivalent awk programs, but they are easier to maintain and usually run more efficiently.