Identifying awk as a programming language scares some people away from it. If you are one of them, consider awk a different approach to problem solving, one in which you have a lot more control over what you want the computer to do.
Sed is easily seen as the flip side of interactive editing. A sed procedure corresponds closely enough to how you would apply the editing commands manually. Sed limits you to the methods you use in a text editor. Awk offers a more general computational model for processing a file.
A typical example of an awk program is one that transforms data into a formatted report. The data might be a log file generated by a UNIX program such as uucp, and the report might summarize the data in a format useful to a system administrator. Another example is a data processing application consisting of separate data entry and data retrieval programs. Data entry is the process of recording data in a structured way. Data retrieval is the process of extracting data from a file and generating a report.
The key to all of these operations is that the data has some kind of structure. Let us illustrate this with the analogy of a bureau. A bureau consists of multiple drawers, and each drawer has a certain set of contents: socks in one drawer, underwear in another, and sweaters in a third drawer. Sometimes drawers have compartments allowing different kinds of things to be stored together. These are all structures that determine where things go - when you are sorting the laundry - and where things can be found - when you are getting dressed. Awk allows you to use the structure of a text file in writing the procedures for putting things in and taking things out.
Thus, the benefits of awk are best realized when the data has some kind of structure. A text file can be loosely or tightly structured. A chapter containing major and minor sections has some structure. We'll look at a script that extracts section headings and numbers them to produce an outline. A table consisting of tab-separated items in columns might be considered very structured. You could use an awk script to reorder columns of data, or even change columns into rows and rows into columns.
Like sed scripts, awk scripts are typically invoked by means of a shell wrapper. This is a shell script that usually contains the command line that invokes awk as well as the script that awk interprets. Simple one-line awk scripts can be entered from the command line.
Some of the things awk allows you to do are:
View a text file as a textual database made up of records and fields.
Use variables to manipulate the database.
Use arithmetic and string operators.
Use common programming constructs such as loops and conditionals.
Generate formatted reports.
Execute UNIX commands from a script.
Process the result of UNIX commands.
Process command-line arguments more gracefully.
Work more easily with multiple input streams.
Because of these features, awk has the power and range that users might rely upon to do the kinds of tasks performed by shell scripts. In this book, you'll see examples of a menu-based command generator, an interactive spelling checker, and an index processing program, all of which use the features outlined above.
The capabilities of awk extend the idea of text editing into computation, making it possible to perform a variety of data processing tasks, including analysis, extraction, and reporting of data. These are, indeed, the most common uses of awk but there are also many unusual applications: awk has been used to write a Lisp interpreter and even a compiler!