The modern CLI stack

This post is about the awesome Rust-based cross-platform CLI ecosystem which I’ve discovered recently.

Meet the main characters:

shell: nushell
prompt: starship
terminal multiplexer: zellij

versus my old stack:

shell: zsh
plugin manager: oh-my-zsh / antigen
prompt: powerlevel10k
terminal multiplexer: tmux

which is a basic and very common CLI stack to be found at /r/unixporn subreddit (at this point I’ve been using it for ricing my Linux setup for more than 2 years).

So, the Rust stack doesn’t even have a shell plugin manager? Yes! Seems like no shell plugins are needed. All the mentioned tools already implement everything one can need. Even more, they rarely need any configuration at all! Of course, they are very configurable, but unlike many old tools they don’t use obscure config files with a tool-specific syntax. Instead of that, normal yaml or toml files are used.

After trying them out I immediately decided there was no going back.

In this post I will not describe the installation or configuration of these tools (you can always read the docs), but rather highlight the key features and explain the benefits over the traditional tools.

Nushell

Nushell, or nu, is a modern data-oriented shell written in Rust. It needs almost zero configuration to start working with it, even tho a lot can be configured, has syntax highlighting, auto-completion and other useful features enabled by default. It implements all shell commands (like ls, cat, etc) in a way that is aware of the contents of the input/output of these commands. Lets take a look at this example:

As we can see, nu stores the data representation (in this case the ls command output) as a table, while bash/zsh ls outputs simple text. In fact, the way these tables are rendered can seem familiar to some of you… yes, nu is using polars.DataFrame internally!

The same can be applied to any file:

This is extremely useful when working with yaml , toml , json , csv and other structured files. No need to use grep or enter vim !

Another positive side of nu is it's error handling.

The shell is clearly pointing us at the error source.

Nu DataFrames: a bonus for a Data Scientist

Because nu is using polars internally, it is possible to perform DataFrame operations from the nu shell directly! It’s also performing way better than pandas, of course. Here is an example from the documentation:

nu scripting for DataFrame manipulations

This is just mind-blowing. A lot of complex operations on data can be performed without opening Jupyter at all.

By the way, nushell is officially supported by Poetry since 1.2.0.

Starship

Starship is a terminal prompt written in .. yes, in Rust. It makes in very fast (actually, this is not an improvement over powerlevel10k since it’s written in C++). Starship has very rich configuration options in a simple yaml file. But, just like nushell , it doesn't need any configuration initially - all the defaults are already set! It also provides nice ready-to-use config presets.

Starship automatically integrates with multiple other tools & technologies. It can display package versions (for example, when in a Poetry project), show AWS region, kubernetes context & namespace.. in short, it works with everything. Take a look at the full list of integrations here.

Of course, it also looks good. Here is the default prompt with no configuration:

Starship in action

Zellij

Zellij is a terminal multiplexer written in Python. Kidding, it’s actually written in R…. Rust. It’s very similar to tmux, and even supports tmux commands, but has some user-friendly advantages:

  1. Operation modes: pane, tab, resize, etc…
  2. The panes are mouse-scrollable and mouse-clickable
  3. Layouts can be saved to simple yaml files. For example, a layout can be saved for every project you are working on.
Zellij

For every operational mode there are very limited possible actions. Thanks to that, a help bar is displayed showing the current available commands.

normal mode hints
pane mode hints
tab mode hints

The modes can be easily switched with: ctrl+p = pane, ctrl+t = tab, etc. It’s really a blessing for a newcomer. You don’t need to read tutorials or search how to do “this thing I really need right now” in zellij. The bar in the bottom will make sure you are never lost. After you learn zellij, the bar can be hidden.

Thanks to the limited available actions per mode, the navigation through zellij is greatly simplified.

Again, you don’t need to configure anything at all to achieve this! In contrary,tmux needs a dozen of plugins. Of course, zellij supports plugins too.

Bonus: other awesome Rust CLI tools

Wezterm

Wezterm is a terminal emulator written in Rust. I’m currently exploring it in favor of Alacritty because the latter doesn’t support ligatures. It can also act as terminal multiplexer and supports tabs for ssh-sessions.

bat

bat is cat with syntax highlighting:

yaml
Python

sheldon

sheldon is a shell plugin manager that currently works with bashand zsh. It has a nice CLI interface and stores the config in a readable .toml file.

btop

btopis a resources monitoring tool like htop , but with a more intuitive UI and controls. Sadly, it’s not written in rust, but I decided to included it here anyway.

You can find more awesome Rust CLI tools in this Reddit post.

I’m currently working on updating my old dotfiles repos (1, 2) to include these tools & their configs.

I would love to hear about other useful CLI tools in the comments! Also, make sure to correct me if I’m wrong anywhere. Finally, subscribe to my Telegram channel for more dev & ML content.

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Daniel Gafni

Sr. ML Engineer at Toptal and Linux enthusiast. I like neural networks, ML Ops, Python and Rust.