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First Glance at PowerShell

A couple days ago I had the surprisingly excellent opportunity to learn and use Windows PowerShell… What? Don’t look at me like that. I disapprove of Microsoft just as much as the next Linux fanboy, but seriously, this was cool. Just give me a chance to explain. I swear, I was forced into the situation - one of the projects I was working on required a simple script be written to rename files on a Windows server, but for various reasons, I couldn’t use Cygwin. After a brief panic attack caused by the realization that I would have to be separated from my beloved Bash, I looked into which scripting language would be best. After an exhaustive, comprehensive, and fully extensive 30-second Google search I found myself with a choice between Powershell and classic Batch… Naturally, I chose Powershell.

Most Windows 7 computers come with PowerShell and all the necessary dependencies already installed, so I never actually had to install it, but from what I’ve read the setup is fairly simple - you just sort of install it.  You also get a little IDE called Powershell ISE which is basically just your standard, 3-pane scripting IDE (with a command-line interpreter in one pane, the output in another, and a third pane for writing and saving scripts.)

I tried my standard approach of consulting forums and the MSDN library for a little while but it seemed most of the documentation I could find was either circular and self-referencing or written by some rabid Microsoft fanatic who was so hopelessly drunk on the M$ Kool-Aid that every other word they wrote was some special Microsoft technology or practice. After about a half hour of reading online documentation, all that I really learned was that commands in PowerShell are called “cmdlets.” It’s not clear what the distinction is between a cmdlet and your standard Bash command in Linux, but I guess I’ve seen more pathetic cries for attention in the Windows world than this.

Slightly dismayed at my lack of progress in learning much from my usual way, I considered the much suggested get-help cmdlet…

UGH Ok, I’m just going to stop right here, I can’t make it any further calling these things “cmdlets.” Call me stubborn, or close-minded, but this is just ridiculous. I’m calling them “commands.”

…Anyways, silly nomenclature aside, this get-help command is kind of like a “man” page to a Linux user, it displays the syntax, description, and examples for any command in PowerShell. The get-help command is in some ways even a little more clever than man pages. For instance, I needed to know how to create a new directory so first thing I tried was get-help mkdir. While mkdir is not a command in PowerShell, nor does it even have a directly analogous single-command counterpart in PowerShell, it recognized what I was asking for and brought me to the page for the New-Item command which has a -type directory flag you can use to make a new directory. With this command, I was able to learn anything I needed to learn to make my script happen.

There were, of course, a few more bumps in the road, but nothing too serious; string manipulation is distinctly different from most other languages, and there was some difficulty in getting the permissions (or execution-policy) just right so that I could actually run the script. All-in-all, it took me about four hours to get the environment set up, learn enough of the language to be productive, and finally write and test the script I needed. Despite the handicap that it is a Microsoft-specific product, Powershell sincerely surprised me by being a fairly easy-to-learn and useful scripting language. I really only got to use a very small part of the language, but nonetheless, I would recommend Powershell to anyone who needs to write a script in Windows but cannot use Cygwin.

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