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Scripting Graphical Commands with Tcl/Tk Mini-HOWTO

Salvador J. Peralta

<speralta [at] willamette [dot] edu>
Revision History                                                             
Revision 1.0 release            2003-08-19         Revised by: sjp           
Subtitle: Putting a graphical face on commandline utilities with Tcl and Tk. 

 One of the richest aspects of Linux is its abundance of commandline
utilities. The ability to rapidly provide a graphical frontend for those
utilities to make them available to non-technical users can be a handy skill
for a developer or administrator to possess. This article provides a
cookbook-style tutorial introduction to Tcl and Tk, a scripting language and
graphical toolkit that were designed to accomplish that very task.

Table of Contents
1. Copyright
2. Introduction to Tcl and Tk
3. Tcl and Tk Basics
4. Adding Features
5. Conclusions
6. Further Reading
7. About the Author

1. Copyright

 Copyright (c) 2003 Salvador Peralta

 Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under
the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later
version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant
Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts.

2. Introduction to Tcl and Tk

 The tool command language Tcl (pronounced tickle) is an interpreted,
action-oriented, string-based, command language. It was created by John
Ousterhaut in the late 1980's along with the Tk graphical toolkit. Tcl and
the Tk toolkit comprise one of the earliest scripted programming environments
for the X Window System. Though it is venerable by today's standards, Tcl/Tk
remains a handy tool for developers and administrators who want to rapidly
build graphical frontends for command line utilities.

 Tcl and Tk come bundled with most major Linux distributions and source-based
releases are available from If Tcl and Tk are not
installed on your system, the source releases are available from the
SourceForge Tcl project: Binary builds for most
Linux distributions are available from A binary release is also
available for Linux and other platforms from Active State at http://

3. Tcl and Tk Basics

 Tcl is built up from commands which act on data, and which accept a number
of options which specify how each command is executed. Each command consists
of the name of the command followed by one or more words separated by
whitespace. Because Tcl is interpreted, it can be run interactively through
its shell command, tclsh, or non-interactively as a script. When Tcl is run
interactively, the system responds to each command that is entered as
illustrated in the following example. You can experiment with tclsh by simply
opening a terminal and entering the command tclsh.
$ tclsh                                                                      
% set a 35                                                                   
% expr 35 * $a                                                               
% puts "35 * a is: [ expr 35 * $a ]"                                         
35 * a is: 1225                                                              
% exit                                                                       

 The previous example illustrates several aspects of the Tcl language. The
first line, set a 35 assigns 35 to the variable a using the set command. The
second line evaluates the result of 35 times the value of a using the expr
command. Note that Tcl, like Perl and Bash requires the use of the dollar
operator to get the value of a variable. The open brackets around the
expression [ expr 35 * $a ] instruct the interpreter to perform a command
substitution on the expression, adds it to the rest of the string and uses
the puts command to print the string to Tcl's default output channel,
standard output.

 Tcl's windowing shell, Wish, is an interpreter that reads commands from
standard input or from file, and interprets them using the Tcl language, and
builds graphical components from the Tk toolkit. Like the tclsh, it can be
run interactively.

 To invoke Wish interactively, start X on your system, open a terminal, and
type wish at the command prompt. If your environment is set up properly, this
will launch an empty root window and start the windowing shell in your
terminal. The following example is a two-line script that is one of the
simplest programs that can be created with wish:
$ wish                                                                       
% button .submit -text "Click Me" -command { puts "\nHello World" }          
% pack .submit                                                               

 Let's break down these two lines of code:

 button .submit -text "Click Me" -command { puts "\nHello World" }:

 The button command enables you to create and manipulate the Tk button
widget. As with all Tk widgets, the syntax is button .name [-option value] 
[-option value] .... The curly braces surrounding the puts command allow you
to nest the text string, "Hello World", inside of the command without
performing any variable substitutions. Other basic widgets include the
following: label, checkbutton, radiobutton, command, separator, entry, and
frame. Click the button a few times to verify that it works.

 pack .submit

 The pack command tells the Tk packer geometry manager to pack the window
name as a slave of the master window . which is always referred to by the
character .. As with the other Tk widget commands we will see, the syntax is 
pack .name [-option value] [-option value].

 While the previous example was very simple, more advanced examples are
nearly as easy to build. Have a look at the following script which creates a
simple graphical front end for apachectl ( please note, this example is
intended to be run as a script rather than interactively from the shell. You
will need to set the permissions of the script as executable and run this
script as a user with privileges to start and stop apache ):
set apachectl "/usr/local/apache/bin/apachectl"                              
global apachectl                                                             
proc start {} {                                                              
  global apachectl                                                           
  exec $apachectl start &                                                    
proc stop {} {                                                               
  global apachectl                                                           
  exec $apachectl stop &                                                     
proc restart {} {                                                            
  global apachectl                                                           
  exec $apachectl restart &                                                  
proc screen {} {                                                             
  frame .top -borderwidth 10                                                 
  pack .top -fill x                                                          
  button .top.start -text "Start" -command start                             
  button t.op.stop -text "Stop" -command stop                                
  button .top.restart -text "Restart" -command restart                       
  pack .top.start .top.stop .top.restart -side left -padx 0p -pady 0         

 This script introduces a few new concepts. Let's look at some of them line
by line:
set apachectl "/usr/local/apache/bin/apachectl"                              
global apachectl                                                             

 As we saw earlier, the set command is used to assign a value to a variable.
As with the previous examples, the syntax is simple: set variable_name value.
In order to make the variable available to the Tcl procedures that we are
creating in this program, we need to import the apachectl variable into each
procedure. This is accomplished using the global command which adds a named
variable to the local namespace of a given procedure. The global command
accepts one or more variables as arguments and assigns the named variables to
each procedure used in the program. Global is also used to export variables
that are declared within a procedure's local namespace.
proc start {} {                                                              
  global apachectl                                                           
          exec $apachectl start &                                            

 Procedures in Tcl are created with the proc command. The proc command takes
the following form: proc name {args} {body} where name is the name of the
procedure. Args are the formal arguments accepted by the procedure, and body
is the main code of the procedure. Procedures are executed the same way that
any other command is executed in Tcl.

 The script we are currently working with consists of 4 procedures. The first
3 ( start, stop, restart ), simply import the apachectl variable into the
local namespace and execute the basic apachectl commands as background
processes while the 4th procedure, "screen", uses the packer to build the
basic screen and call each of the functions.

 Let's have a closer look at the screen procedure:
proc screen {} {                                                             
  frame .top -borderwidth 10                                                 
  pack .top -fill x                                                          
  button .top.start -text "Start" -command start                             
  button .top.stop -text "Stop" -command stop                                
  button .top.restart -text "Restart" -command restart                       
  pack .top.start .top.stop .top.restart -side left -padx 0p -pady 0         

 The screen procedure begins by using the frame command to construct the
basic frame that will contain the buttons specified further down in the
procedure. As this example illustrates, slave widgets are specified by
prepending them with the name of their master followed by a ".". The master
must already be packed before the slave can use them, so we pack the frame
.top before specifying the button command and tell it to fill along the x

 Last, we use the button command to create 3 buttons as slaves to .top,
passing in the appropriate procedure to execute when the button is pressed,
and adding a text label using the -command and -text arguments, respectively.

4. Adding Features

 Providing multiple buttons to control a single application is, perhaps, a
bit of overkill, as is calling separate procedures for each action. A third
problem is that apachectl prints a message to standard output to indicate how
the command has been acted upon. The application could be improved by
including a text widget to display the output of apachectl.

 In the following script, we will redesign the application to use a
radiobutton chooser and a single button by modifying the screen procedure ,
and build a text widget in a new frame. We also remove the start, stop, and
restart procedures and create 2 new procedures. The first, init, will handle
the conditionals created by the radio button selection, the second, put_text,
will launch Apache and print the apachectl output to a text widget:
set apachectl "/usr/local/apache_new/bin/apachectl"                                        
proc screen {} {                                                                           
  frame .top -borderwidth 10                                                               
  pack .top -fill x                                                                        
  radiobutton .top.start -text "start" -variable mode -value start                         
  radiobutton .top.stop  -text "stop" -variable mode -value stop                           
  radiobutton .top.restart -text "restart" -variable mode -value restart                   
  button .top.submit -text execute -command init                                           
  pack .top.start .top.stop .top.restart .top.submit -side left -padx 0p -pady 0 -anchor n 
  frame .bottom                                                                            
  pack .bottom -fill x                                                                     
  text .bottom.main -relief sunken -bd 2 -yscrollcommand ".bottom.scroll set"              
  scrollbar .bottom.scroll -command ".bottom.main yview"                                   
  pack .bottom.main -side left -fill y                                                     
  pack .bottom.scroll -side right -fill y                                                  
proc init { } {                                                                            
 global mode action                                                                        
 switch $mode {                                                                            
    stop     {set action "stop"}                                                           
    restart  {set action "restart"}                                                        
    default  {set action "start"}                                                          
proc put_text {} {                                                                         
  global action apachectl                                                                  
  set f [ open "| $apachectl $action" r]                                                   
  while {[gets $f x] >= 0} {                                                               
    .bottom.main insert 1.0 "$x\n"                                                         
  catch {close $f}                                                                         

 First, let's have a look at the screen procedure. The radiobutton command
works just like html radiobuttons. The -variable parameter accepts the name
of the variable as an argument. The -value parameter accepts the variable's
value as an argument. The button, .top.submit uses the -command parameter to
to call the init procedure defined later in the script. These buttons are
then packed into the top frame and a second frame called bottom is created.

 The bottom frame is composed of a text widget and a scrollbar. Text widgets
are created with the text command which takes a variety of options. In this
case, we have used the -relief option which specifies the 3D effect for the
field (other values for -relief include raised, flat, ridge, solid, groove); 
-bd option, which specifies borderwidth; and the yscrollcommand which
specifies the name of a scrollbar that will be engaged by the textfield. Our
scrollbar widget takes one option, -command which specifies how to behave
when text scrolls beyond the screen of the text widget that it is interacting

 The init procedure loads the mode variable into its local namespace using
the global command and uses a switch statement to set the value of the global
variable, action.

 In this example, the switch command tests whether "$mode" matches the first
word on each line in the list, and performs the action specified on the
second word of each line. The default value is specified at the bottom of the
list and defines the action performed if no match is found. Switch accepts 4
options: -exact, which requires a case-sensitive match, -glob, which uses a
glob-style pattern match, -regexp, which uses regular-expression style
matching, and --, which indicates the end of options, and is typically used
if the pattern being matched has a "-" as a prefix.

 Note: We could have used an if-elseif-else conditional chain rather than the
switch statement:
if { $mode == "stop" } {                                                     
  set action "stop"                                                          
} elseif { $mode == "restart" } {                                            
  set action "restart"                                                       
} else {                                                                     
  set action "start"                                                         

 The final thing that the init procedure does is call the put_text procedure.

 The put_text procedure reads in the value of action that was set in the init
procedure, executes apachectl with the appropriate argument as specified by
action, and prints apache's output to the .bottom.main text widget.
proc put_text {} {                                                           
        global action apachectl                                              
        set f [ open "| $apachectl $action" r]                               
        while {[gets $f x] >= 0} {                                           
                .bottom.main insert 1.0 "$x\n"                               

 The put_text procedure introduces 3 new commands:

 First, it sets the value of a variable, f, to the output of the open
command. Open can be used to open a file, pipe stream or serial port and
returns an identifier which can be used for reading, writing, or closing a
stream. Since the first character following the open is a pipe "|", 
$apachectl $action is treated as a command, and is executed as though the 
exec had been given. The r specifies that the stream is read-only. Other
parameters are as follows:
r read only                                                                  
r+  read and write if file exists                                            
w write only                                                                 
w+  read and write if file exists                                            
a write only.  Create new file if none exists.                               
a+  read and write. Create new file if none exists.                          

 The second new command is while. While is a typical while loop which
executes a body of arguments so long as the specified condition is met. In
this case, while will read a line of input and save it to the variable x
until there is nothing left to read. The insert command inserts each line of
input to the zero'th character of line 1 (1.0) of the .bottom.main text

5. Conclusions

 This was a fairly quick and dirty introduction by example to creating
graphical user interfaces for command line applications with Tcl and Tk. In
addition to the language's basic syntax, we learned about procedures, several
of the basic widget sets, progam control flow, some of Tcl's logical
operators, and the basics of how to insert text into a text widget.

 The simplicty of Tcl's syntax makes it a very easy language to learn and to
build in. Our final example was built with less than 40 lines of code. If you
want to go beyond the basics described here, the gridded window provides a
more advanced mechanism for building window geometries than the packer that
we used for this tutorial. Also, Tcl can be used for more than simply
scripting graphical interfaces. For example, Don Libes' expect programming
language, which provides facilities for constructing a programmed dialogue
with interactive programs, was written in Tcl and C. The next section
discusses where to go next for more resources on Tcl and Tk.

6. Further Reading

Readers interested in learning more about Tcl and Tk are encouraged to
followup this article with some of the resources listed below:

 1.   Tcl comes with an excellent online manual system. Tcl and the Tcl
    shell, tclsh, are described with "man Tcl" and "man tclsh" respectively.
    All commands that are part of the Tcl base environment are described in
    the "n" section of the manual. Readers interested in learning more about
    optional parameters to Tcl commands are encouraged to make use of the
    "options" man page.
 2.   John Ousterhaut's "Tcl and the Tk Toolkit" is in its 14th printing, and
    remains a classic programming text. In addition to providing the basics
    of Tcl and Tk scripting, "Tcl and the Tk Toolkit" also provides a great
    deal of information about how to extend Tcl and Tk in the C programming
 3.   Brent Welch's "Practical Programming in Tcl and Tk" is now in its
    fourth edition and is a very supplementary good reference to the
    Ousterhaut book.
 4.   comp.os.lang.tcl is the primary newsgroup for people using Tcl and Tk.
 5. is the primary online resource for the Tcl/Tk developer
 6.   Cameron Laird maintains an excellent online resource of Tcl and Tk
    tutorials at []

7. About the Author

 Salvador Peralta is the Systems Administrator for the Mark O. Hatfield
Library at Willamette University. He is a regular contributor to the Linux
Documentation project and lives in Oregon with his wife and two dogs.
Salvador welcomes comments and questions via email to speralta [at]
willamette [dot] edu.

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