Like many people I have an automated scheme for setting up a new machine. My students have bugged me to write it up.

I want to be able to work on any machine: if a computer dies (as my MBP did when I filled it with iced tea) I need to be able to set up a replacement in minutes and get productive again. I also need to be able to do this across different operating systems.1

There are three components to making this work:

  1. Making sure I don’t rely on any data on a particular machine. If an SSD dies, I need to be able to continue working on another computer with minimal data loss.

  2. Having the tools I need (editors, languages, etc) installed.

  3. Having all the configuration for these tools sharable between machines, regardless of the environment on which they run.

Location Independent Data

I make a habit of keeping all work products in version control, and pushing them offsite when I reach the point where I’d feel annoyed if I accidentally lost the local copy.

Right now, it’s all in git, and it’s stored on GitHub. I have a cheap monthly plan that gives me plenty of storage for my hundreds of private repos. Thank you GitHub.

There’s one exception to this rule. I tried storing the video assets for my screencasts and courses on Github. It works, and the large file support at GitHub handles them. But they are big: my Elixir course has about 80Gb of assets, and life’s too short to be cloning that much data. Instead, I have a separate headless Git repos on two external SSDs, and I check the assets into them. One SSD gets stored offsite, and the other is in our fireproof box.

I’d welcome suggestions on better ways of managing these.

Tools and Configuration

In the past I treated these two areas separately. I’d have a script that installed things I needed (typically using Homebrew and apt-get) and a sparse repo containing dotfiles.

But this was never particularly convenient. I’d forget to update stuff, on only update the Linux version and let the Mac version languish. So something needed to be done.

There are roughly a billion dotfile management systems out there.2 I spent a while evaluating the different approaches, and couldn’t find one that worked for me. So (and you knew this was coming) I wrote my own. But it’s trivial.

I have a single Git repo (called dotfiles) which manages all the stuff I need to install and configure. Inside this theres a separate directory for each tool or set of tools I need to install and configure. For example, my current dotfiles looks like this:

├── dotfiles.rb
├── elixir
├── emacs
├── fish
├── fonts
├── git
 :  :
├── ssh
├── tmux
├── ubuntu-setup
└── vscode

Inside each directory there’s a script named install.rb. This is responsible for

  • installing the appropriate software
  • customizing the configuration for the current environment
  • creating a symlink from the place where the app expects to find the configuration to the customized configuration insid dotfiles.

These install.rb files use the library dotfiles.rb (the first file in the previous directory listing), so they’re pretty high-level. The source of dotfiles.rb is at the end of this post.

Example: tmux installation and configuration

TMUX doesn’t require much magic: we just install the binary, and then setup links in our home directory to the config (~/.tmux.conf) and a directory containing our plugins (so they’ll be avaiable on all my boxes).

Here’s the tmux/install.rb

require_relative "../dotfiles"


[ "tmux.conf", "tmux" ].each do |name|
    link_file(name, "~/.#{name}")

The maybe_install line checks to see if tmux is already installed. If not, it uses either apt-get or Homebrew to fetch it. We then create symlinks for the config and the plugin directory.

Run this on a Linux box for the first time, and you see this:

$ ruby install.rb
sudo apt-get install tmux
[sudo] password for dave:
Reading package lists... Done
Building dependency tree
Reading state information... Done
Starting pkgProblemResolver with broken count: 0
 . .
Processing triggers for libc-bin (2.27-3ubuntu1) ...
Setting up tmux (2.6-3) ...
Processing triggers for man-db (2.8.3-2) ...
ln -s /home/dave/dotfiles/tmux/tmux.conf /home/dave/.tmux.conf
ln -s /home/dave/dotfiles/tmux/tmux /home/dave/.tmux

Run it a second time, and nothing happens:

$ ruby install.rb

Example: git

The git installation is slightly more complex.

dotfiles/git contains three files:

├── gitconfig.erb
└── install.rb

The git/install.rb looks like this:

require_relative "../dotfiles"

maybe_install({ linux: 'meld', osx: 'opendiff' })

expand_and_link_file  "gitconfig.erb", "~/.gitconfig"

bin = File.expand_path("~/bin")

mkdir(bin) unless
expand_and_link_file "", "#{bin}/"

The two maybe_install lines install git and the tool I use for diffs (on Linux it’smeld, on OS X I use opendiff).

I then expand two supporting files (gitconfig and a shell script to run the diff) and link them to the appropriate places.

The raw gitconfig.eex looks like this:

      default = simple

      name = pragdave
      email = [email protected]

[filter "lfs"]
      smudge = git-lfs smudge -- %f
      required = true
      clean = git-lfs clean -- %f

      mr = !sh -c 'git fetch origin merge-requests/$1/head:mr-$1 && git checkout mr-$1' -

      external = <%= File.expand_path("~") %>/bin/

  . . .

Notice that in the [diff] section I have an ERb substitution, creating an absolute path to a script in ~/bin. Back in the install.rb script, you’ll notice that this is where I linked the diff script.

The diff script also uses ERb to configure the parameters it uses depending on the OS:

<%= OS == :linux ? "meld" : "opendiff" %> "$2" "$5"  <%= unless OS == :linux then '-merge "$1"' end %>

Overly Simple, I Agree

I didn’t set out to create a world-beating environment management tool: I just needed something to help me migrate back and forth between boxes.

So far, this system has worked well for me. One way I can tell: a couple of weeks back I wanted to change the distro of Linux I use. I read all about how to install X under Y, but it just seemed complex.

This system to the rescue. I simple made sure I’d done git commit/push everywhere, and the reformatted the SSD. Once I had the new distro installed, I was back working on my current project in abut 30 minutes.


The only problem I run into is with the .erb files. With all the other config files, the one the application uses is a direct symbolic link to the one in dotfiles. This means if I make changes, both versions are updated, and as long as I do a commit in dotfiles at some point, that change then becomes enshrined on all boxes.

However, with .erb files, the application uses the result of expanding the original version in dotfiles. If I change the application version of the file (for example by editing ~/.gitconfig and not .../dotfiles/git/gitconfig.erb), then those changes will be local only.

I’m thinking I should change my installer to make the installed config file read-only if it’s the result of an ERb expansion.


Here’s the trivial library that the install scripts use:

require 'erb'
require 'fileutils'
include FileUtils::Verbose

OS =  case RbConfig::CONFIG['target_os']
      when /linux/i
      when /mac|darwin/i
        fail "Unknown target OS: #{RbConfig::CONFIG['target_os']}"

case OS
when :linux
  INSTALL_BIN = "/usr/bin"
  INSTALL_CMD = "sudo apt-get install"
when :osx
  INSTALL_BIN = "/usr/local/bin"
  INSTALL_CMD = "brew install"

def binary_exist?(name)
  File.file?(File.join(INSTALL_BIN, local_name(name)))

def install(package)
  cmd = "#{INSTALL_CMD} #{local_name(package)}"
  puts cmd

def maybe_install(package)
  package = local_name(package)
  install(package) unless binary_exist?(package)

def local_name(package)
  if package.kind_of?(Hash)
    package = package[OS]

def link_file(original, dest)
  do_link(original, dest) do |full_original, full_dest|
    ln_s(full_original, full_dest) unless File.symlink?(full_dest)

def expand_and_link_file(original, dest)
  do_link(original, dest) do |full_original, full_dest|
    expanded = expand_file(full_original)
    chmod File.stat(full_original).mode, expanded
    ln_s(expanded, full_dest, verbose: true) unless File.symlink?(full_dest)

def do_link(original, dest)
  original = File.expand_path(original)
  dest     = File.expand_path(dest)

  if ok_to_link?(original, dest)
    yield(original, dest)

def ok_to_link?(original, dest)
  return(true) unless File.exist?(dest)
  return(true) if File.symlink?(dest) && File.readlink(dest) == original

  puts "\nFile #{dest} already exists."
  print "Shall I replace it [yn]: "
  response = gets.strip
  unless response =~ /^y$/i
    puts "No changes made"
    exit 1

  backup = "#{dest}.orig"
  mv dest, backup
  puts "Original file saved in #{backup}"

def expand_file(original)
  unless original.end_with?(".erb")
    raise "#{original} is not an erb file, so I can't expand it"
  target = original.sub(/\.erb$/, '')

  renderer =, "w") do |f|
  1. Right now I mostly use Linux, but many of my presentations are in Keynote, so I still bring out the Macbook Air for those. 

  2. I saw that on the internet, so it must be true. 

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