Tom Vincent

Essays on hacking, travel and self-improvement

prowler an inotify based home directory cleaner

prowler is a shell script that automatically deletes files and directories from a home directory as soon as they’re created. Read on to learn why this might be useful and for more information on the design decisions.

The problem

Almost all applications use some form of configuration, cache or temporary file to run. In the Linux world, most of these are written somewhere within a user’s home directory. There lies the inherent problem. Without an agreed standard, applications are freely allowed to write anywhere they choose. Not only does this produce clutter and disorganisation, it distracts users and, from an HCI perspective, leaves the user feeling he has decreased control over the system. That’s already two usability heuristics broken.


Fortunately, there are a few solutions to the problem. Firstly, developers can follow the XDG base directory specification for a consistent location to put application files. Sadly, its use is not widespread, indeed, even big players like Mozilla aren’t following it (yet), whereas the Chromium developers have got it right.

You could also go about modifying individual applications themselves. For instance, in the case of dmenu, a cache file is usually created within $HOME/.dmenu_cache. By changing the $CACHE variable in dmenu_run, you can specify a more sane default, such as:


Of course, this is time consuming since every offending application will have to be customised.

Browsing through GitHub for other methods, I found rmshit. This perl script uses inotify (more on that later) to delete the unwanted files. While it works as expected, I rarely use perl and I felt it was over complicating things. Taking influence from rmshit, I decided to write my own solution.


inotify is a component of the kernel that monitors the filesystem for certain events. Events, such as a file being modified, are then reported to applications. This provides an elegent solution in situations when polling might overwise be used.

Here we’re going to make use of inotify to delete some of those rogue files and directories. inotify-tools provides a interface to inotify in the form of library applications that we can use in scripts, namely inotifywait.

inotifywait does all the heavy-lifting for us. All it requires is a few options to be set and a wrapper to define what should happen when an event occurs… introducing prowler:


# prowler: delete unwanted files that otherwise pollute $HOME
# Author:   Tom Vincent
# Created:  2010-07-05

WATCH_FILES="${XDG_CONFIG_HOME:-"$HOME/.config"}/${0##*/}/badfiles" # Bash-ism

inotifywait -qm --format '%f' -e create "$HOME" | while read file; do
    if $(grep -Fq "$file" "$WATCH_FILES"); then
        rm -rf "$HOME/$file"
        echo "$(date +"%F %R") :: Deleted $HOME/$file" >> $LOG

prowler simply receives a file/directory name when an inotify create event is triggered, checks to see if it’s one we’re interested in using greplet me know if it can be done without it — and if so, deletes it and logs it.

prowler is a simple solution in under eight lines of code that requires minimal setup:

Setting up prowler

After downloading the latest version of prowler from my GitHub repository, firstly make sure inotifywait is installed. If your running Arch Linux, this means installing the inotify-tools package. Next, list which files you want to track within a file designated by WATCH_FILES. Mine looks like this:


Then, make sure those files and directories are already deleted (before running prowler for the fist time):

rm -rf ~/`cat ~/.config/prowler/badfiles`

Note, you could avoid this step by configuring inotifywait to listen for more than just the create events. I chose this approach since I would assume listening for more events requires more resources. Again, let me know if I’m wrong on that.

Now prowler is ready to be run. Perhaps a little overkill, I do this by launching it as a daemon when X starts up. Make sure prowler is in $PATH and then add prowler & to your .xinitrc:

# .xinitrc
prowler &
exec xmonad

Restart X and there you have it; an simple automatic home directory cleaner. You could even save yourself a few lines of code by removing the logging feature, though sometimes it’s interesting to see what’s happening:

$ watch -n1 cat ~/.cache/prowler.log
2010-07-15 10:25 :: Deleted /home/tom/Desktop
2010-07-15 11:55 :: Deleted /home/tom/.adobe
2010-07-15 11:55 :: Deleted /home/tom/.macromedia
2010-07-15 11:55 :: Deleted /home/tom/.adobe
2010-07-15 11:55 :: Deleted /home/tom/.macromedia
2010-07-15 11:55 :: Deleted /home/tom/.adobe
2010-07-15 11:55 :: Deleted /home/tom/.macromedia

Flash tries to create six directories in under a second even though it runs fine without them!

So until more developers make use of the XDG base directory standards, prowler keeps your $HOME directory clean and in turn offers a sense of control.