Published on 9th of March 2018

A Tiny `ls` Clone Written in Rust

In my series of useless Unix tools rewritten in Rust, today I'm going to be covering one of my all-time favorites: ls.

First off, let me say that you probably don't want to use this code as a replacement for ls on your local machine (although you could!). As we will find out, ls is actually quite a powerful tool under the hood. I'm not going to come up with a full rewrite, but instead only cover the very basic output that you would expect from calling ls -l on your command line. What is this output? I'm glad you asked.

Expected output

> ls -l
drwxr-xr-x 2 mendler  staff    13468 Feb  4 11:19 Top Secret
-rwxr--r-- 1 mendler  staff  6323935 Mar  8 21:56 Never Gonna Give You Up - Rick Astley.mp3
-rw-r--r-- 1 mendler  staff        0 Feb 18 23:55 Thoughts on Chess Boxing.doc
-rw-r--r-- 1 mendler  staff   380434 Dec 24 16:00 nobel-prize-speech.txt

Your output may vary, but generally, there are a couple of notable things going on. From left to right, we've got the following fields:

For more in-depth information, I can recommend reading the manpage of ls from the GNU coreutils used in most Linux distributions and the one from Darwin (which powers MacOS).

Whew, that's a lot of information for such a tiny tool. But then again, it can't be so hard to port that to Rust, right? Let's get started!

A very basic ls in Rust

Here is the most bare-bones version of ls, which just prints all files in the current directory:

use std::fs;
use std::path::Path;
use std::error::Error;
use std::process;

fn main() {
    if let Err(ref e) = run(Path::new(".")) {
        println!("{}", e);

fn run(dir: &Path) -> Result<(), Box<Error>> {
    if dir.is_dir() {
        for entry in fs::read_dir(dir)? {
                let entry = entry?;
                let file_name = entry
                        .or_else(|f| Err(format!("Invalid entry: {:?}", f)))?;
                println!("{}", file_name);

We can copy that straight out of the documentation. When we run it, we get the expected output:

> cargo run

It prints the files and exits. Simple enough.

We should stop for a moment and celebrate our success, knowing that we just wrote our first little Unix utility from scratch. Pro Tip: You can install the binary with cargo install and call it like any other binary from now on.

But we have higher goals, so let's continue.

Adding a parameter to specify the directory

Usually, if we type ls mydir, we expect to get the file listing of no other directory than mydir. We should add the same functionality to our version.

To do this, we need to accept command line parameters. One Rust crate that I love to use in this case is structopt. It makes argument parsing very easy.

Add it to your Cargo.toml either manually or by using cargo-edit:

cargo add structopt

Now we can import it and use it in our project:

extern crate structopt;

// use std::...
use structopt::StructOpt;

#[derive(StructOpt, Debug)]
struct Opt {
    /// Output file
    #[structopt(default_value = ".", parse(from_os_str))]
    path: PathBuf,

fn main() {
    let opt = Opt::from_args();
    if let Err(ref e) = run(&opt.path) {
            println!("{}", e);

fn run(dir: &PathBuf) -> Result<(), Box<Error>> {
    // Same as before

By adding the Opt struct, we can define the command line flags, input parameters, and the help output super easily. There are tons of configuration options, so it's worth checking out the project homepage.

Also note, that we changed the type of the path variable from Path to PathBuf. The difference is, that PathBuf owns the inner path string, while Path simply provides a reference to it. The relationship is similar to String and &str.

Reading the modification time

Now let's deal with the metadata. First, we try to retrieve the modification time from the file. A quick look at the documentation shows us how to do it:

use std::fs;

let metadata = fs::metadata("foo.txt")?;

if let Ok(time) = metadata.modified() {
    println!("{:?}", time);

The output might not be what you expect: we receive a SystemTime object, which represents the measurement of the system clock. E.g. this code

println!("{:?}", SystemTime::now());
// Prints: SystemTime { tv_sec: 1520554933, tv_nsec: 610406401 }

But the format that we would like to have is something like this:

Mar  9 01:24

Thankfully, there is a library called chrono, which can read this format and convert it into any human readable output we like:

let current: DateTime<Local> = DateTime::from(SystemTime::now());
println!("{}", current.format("%_d %b %H:%M").to_string());

this prints

9 Mar 01:29

(Yeah, I know it's getting late.)

Armed with that knowledge, we can now read our file modification time.

cargo add chrono
use chrono::{DateTime, Local};

fn run(dir: &PathBuf) -> Result<(), Box<Error>> {
    if dir.is_dir() {
        for entry in fs::read_dir(dir)? {
            let entry = entry?;
            let file_name = ...

            let metadata = entry.metadata()?;
            let size = metadata.len();
            let modified: DateTime<Local> = DateTime::from(metadata.modified()?);

                "{:>5} {} {}",
                modified.format("%_d %b %H:%M").to_string(),

This {:>5} might look weird. It's a formatting directive provided by std::fmt. It means "right align this field with a space padding of 5" - just like our bigger brother ls -l is doing it.

Similarly, we retrieved the size in bytes with metadata.len().

Unix file permissions are a zoo

Reading the file permissions is a bit more tricky. While the rwx notation is very common in Unix derivatives such as *BSD or GNU/Linux, many other operating systems ship their own permission management. There are even differences between the Unix derivatives.

Wikipedia lists a few extensions to the file permissions that you might encounter:

That just goes to show, that there are a lot of important details to be considered when implementing this in real life.

Implementing very basic file mode

For now, we just stick to the basics and assume we are on a platform that supports the rwx file mode.

Behind the r, the w and the x are in reality octal numbers. That's easier for computers to work with and many hardcore users even prefer to type the numbers over the symbols. The ruleset behind those octals is as follows. I took that from the chmod manpage.

    Modes may be absolute or symbolic. 
    An absolute mode is an octal number constructed 
    from the sum of one or more of the following values

     0400    Allow read by owner.
     0200    Allow write by owner.
     0100    For files, allow execution by owner.
     0040    Allow read by group members.
     0020    Allow write by group members.
     0010    For files, allow execution by group members.
     0004    Allow read by others.
     0002    Allow write by others.
     0001    For files, allow execution by others.

For example, to set the permissions for a file so that the owner can read, write and execute it and nobody else can do anything would be 700 (400 + 200 +100).

Granted, those numbers are the same since the 70s and are not going to change soon, but it's still a bad idea to compare our file permissions directly with the values; if not for compatibility reasons, then for readability and to avoid magic numbers in our code.

Therefore, we use the libc crate, which provides constants for those magic numbers. As mentioned above, these file permissions are Unix specific, so we need to import a Unix-only library named std::os::unix::fs::PermissionsExt; for that.

extern crate libc;

// Examples:
// * `S_IRGRP` stands for "read permission for group",
// * `S_IXUSR` stands for "execution permission for user"
use std::os::unix::fs::PermissionsExt;

We can now get the file permissions like so:

let metadata = entry.metadata()?;
let mode = metadata.permissions().mode();
parse_permissions(mode as u16);

parse_permissions() is a little helper function defined as follows:

fn parse_permissions(mode: u16) -> String {
    let user = triplet(mode, S_IRUSR, S_IWUSR, S_IXUSR);
    let group = triplet(mode, S_IRGRP, S_IWGRP, S_IXGRP);
    let other = triplet(mode, S_IROTH, S_IWOTH, S_IXOTH);
    [user, group, other].join("")

It takes the file mode as a u16 (simply because the libc constants are u16) and calls triplet on it. For each flag read, write, and execute, it runs a binary & operation on mode. The output is matched exhaustively against all possible permission patterns.

fn triplet(mode: u16, read: u16, write: u16, execute: u16) -> String {
    match (mode & read, mode & write, mode & execute) {
        (0, 0, 0) => "---",
        (_, 0, 0) => "r--",
        (0, _, 0) => "-w-",
        (0, 0, _) => "--x",
        (_, 0, _) => "r-x",
        (_, _, 0) => "rw-",
        (0, _, _) => "-wx",
        (_, _, _) => "rwx",

Wrapping up

The final output looks like this. Close enough.

> cargo run
rw-r--r--     7  6 Mar 23:10 .gitignore
rw-r--r-- 15618  8 Mar 00:41 Cargo.lock
rw-r--r--   185  8 Mar 00:41 Cargo.toml
rwxr-xr-x   102  5 Mar 21:31 src
rwxr-xr-x   136  6 Mar 23:07 target

That's it! You can find the final version of our toy ls on Github. We are still far away from a full-fledged ls replacement, but at least we learned a thing or two about its internals.

If you're looking for a proper ls replacement written in Rust, go check out exa. If, instead, you want to read another blog post from the same series, check out A Little Story About the yes Unix Command.