rcm man page

rcm — dotfile management




The rcm suite of tools is for managing dotfiles directories. This is a directory containing all the .*rc files in your home directory (.zshrc, .vimrc, and so on). These files have gone by many names in history, such as “rc files” because they typically end in rc or “dotfiles” because they begin with a period.

This suite is useful for committing your rc files to a central repository to share, but it also scales to a more complex situation such as multiple source directories shared between computers with some host-specific or task-specific files.

This guide serves as a tutorial motivating the suite. For a list of quick reference documentation see the See Also section below.

Quick Start for Existing Dotfiles Directories

This section is for those who already have an existing dotfiles directory; this directory is ~/.dotfiles; the directory only contains rc files; and these rc filenames do not begin with a period. See the caveats below if this is not you.

  1. Dry run with lsrc(1). Look for anything unexpected in here, such as ~/.install or ~/.Makefile, or an empty list of dotfiles.


  2. Update any symlinks with rcup(1). This is likely to do nothing, since your dotfiles already exist.

    rcup -v

  3. When necessary, add new rc files to the dotfiles directory with mkrc(1).

    mkrc ~/.tigrc

    In the other direction, you can use rcup(1) to create the symlinks from ~/.dotfiles to your home directory.

    rcup tigrc

Common Problem: Existing Install Scripts

Many existing dotfile directories have scripts named install or Makefile in the directory. This will cause a ~/.install or ~/.Makefile symlink to be created in your home directory. Use an exclusion pattern to ignore these.

rcup -x install -x Rakefile -x Makefile -x install.sh

Common Problem: Dotted Filenames in Dotfiles Directory

A less common situation is for all the filenames in your dotfiles directory to be prefixed with a period. These files are skipped by the rcm suite, and thus would result in nothing happening. The only option in this case is to rename all the files, for example by using a shell command like the following.

find ~/.dotfiles -name '.*' -exec echo mv {} `echo {} | sed 's/.//'` ;

Note that this will break any existing symlinks. Those can be safely removed using the rcdn(1) command.

rcdn -v


This all assumes that your dotfiles directory is ~/.dotfiles. If it is elsewhere and you do not want to move it you can use the -d DIR option to rcup(1) or modify DOTFILES_DIRS in rcrc(5).

rcup -d configs -v

Common Problem: Configuration Files/Directories Without Dots

By default, the rcm suite will prefix every file and directory it manages with a dot. If that is not desired, for example in the case of ~/bin or ~/texmf, you can add that file or directory to UNDOTTED in rcrc(5) or use the -U option. For example:

mkrc -U bin

Quick Start for Empty Dotfiles Directories

This section is for those who do not have an existing dotfiles directory and whose dotfiles are standard.

  1. Add your rc files to a dotfiles directory with mkrc(1).

    mkrc .zshrc .gitconfig .tigrc

  2. Synchronize your home directory with rcup(1)

    rcup -v

This will give you a directory named ~/.dotfiles with your dotfiles in it. Your original dotfiles will be symlinks into this directory. For example, ~/.zshrc will be a symlink to ~/.dotfiles/zshrc.

Tagged Dotfiles

This suite becomes more powerful if you share your dotfiles directory between computers, either because multiple people share the same directory or because you have multiple computers.

If you share the dotfiles directory between people, you may end up with some irrelevant or even incorrect rc files. For example, you may have a .zshrc while your other contributor has a .bashrc. This situation can be handled with tags.

  1. A tag is a directory under the dotfiles directory that starts with the letters tag-. We can handle the competing shell example by making a tag-zsh directory and moving the .zshrc file into it using mkrc(1) and passing the -t option.

    mkrc -t zsh .zshrc

  2. When updating with rcup(1) you can pass the -t option to include the tags you want. This can also be set in the rcrc(5) configuration file with the TAGS variable.

    rcup -t zsh

Multiple Dotfile Directories

Another common situation is combining multiple dotfiles directories that people have shared with you. For this we have the -d flag or the DOTFILES_DIRS option in .rcrc.

The following rcup invocation will go in sequence through the three dotfiles directories, updating any symlinks as needed. Any overlapping rc files will use the first result, not the last; that is, .dotfiles/vimrc will take precedence over marriage-dotfiles/vimrc.

rcup -d .dotfiles -d marriage-dotfiles -d thoughtbot-dotfiles

An exclusion pattern can be tied to a specific dotfiles directory.

rcup -d .dotfiles -d work-dotfiles -x 'work-dotfiles:powrc'

Host-Specific Dotfiles

You can also mark host-specific files. This will go by the hostname. The rcrc(5) configuration file is a popular candidate for a host-specific file, since the tags and dotfile directories listed in there are often specific to a single machine.

mkrc -o .rcrc

If your hostname is difficult to compute, or you otherwise want to use a different hostname, you can use the -B flag.

mkrc -B eggplant .rcrc

macOS users should see the Bugs section for more details.

Standalone Installation Script

The rcup(1) tool can be used to generate a portable shell script. Instead of running a command such as ln(1) or rm(1), it will print the command to stdout. This is controlled with the -g flag. Note that this will generate a script to create an exact replica of the synchronization, including tags, host-specific files, and dotfiles directories.

env RCRC=/dev/null rcup -B 0 -g > install.sh

Using the above command, you can now run install.sh to install (or re-install) your rc files. The install.sh script can be stored in your dotfiles directory, copied between computers, and so on.


The rcm suite was built as an abstraction over the shell, Ruby, Python, and make scripts people were writing and sharing. It is intended to run on any unix system and support the range from simple to complex dotfile directories.

As such, this suite is useful as a common base. Through this we can share tools and develop this further as a first-class entity. It is also our hope that a common set of tools will encourage others to share their dotfiles, too.


~/.dotfiles ~/.rcrc

See Also

lsrc(1), mkrc(1), rcdn(1), rcup(1), rcrc(5)


rcm is maintained by Mike Burns <mburns@thoughtbot.com> and thoughtbot


For macOS systems, we strongly encourage the use of the HOSTNAME variable in your rcrc(5). We use the hostname(1) program to determine the unique identifier for the host. This program is not specified by POSIX and can vary by system. On macOS, the hostname is unpredictable, and can even change as part of the DHCP handshake.


Alan Yee <alyee@ucsd.edu>
Andrei Dziahel <develop7@develop7.info>
Anton Ilin <anton@ilin.dn.ua>
Ben Stephens <BKStephens@outlook.com>
Ben Turrubiates <ben@turrubiat.es>
Blake Williams <blake@blakewilliams.me>
Caleb Land <caleb@land.fm>
Carl van Tonder <carl@supervacuo.com>
Casey Rodarmor <casey@rodarmor.com>
Christian Höltje <docwhat@gerf.org>
Christian Höltje <docwhat@gerf.org>
Christopher Koch <ckoch@cs.nmt.edu>
Dan Croak <dan@thoughtbot.com>
Daniel Watson <dwatson@thig.com>
David Alexander <davidpaulalexander@gmail.com>
Devraj Mehta <devm33@gmail.com>
Eric Collins <eric@tabfugni.cc>
Florian Tham <fgtham@gmail.com>
George Brocklehurst <george@thoughtbot.com>
Graham Bennett <graham@simulcra.org>
Jarkko Kniivilä <jkniiv@gmail.com>
Jason Daniel Augustine Gilliland <jdagilliland@gmail.com>
Javier López <linux.kitten@gmail.com>
Joe Ferris <jferris@thoughtbot.com>
John Axel Eriksson <john@insane.se>
Jordan Eldredge <jordaneldredge@gmail.com>
Leonardo Brondani Schenkel <leonardo@schenkel.net>
Martin Frost <frost@ceri.se>
Matthew Horan <matt@matthoran.com>
Melissa Xie <melissa@thoughtbot.com>
Michael Reed <supertron421@gmail.com>
Mike Burns <mburns@thoughtbot.com>
Mike Burns and Eric Collins <mburns@thoughtbot.com>
Nick Novitski <github@nicknovitski.com>
Pablo Olmos de Aguilera Corradini <pablo@glatelier.org>
Patrick Brisbin <pat@thoughtbot.com>
Rafael Santos <formigarafa@gmail.com>
Rebecca Meritz <rebecca@meritz.com>
Roberto Pedroso <roberto@rpedroso.com>
Scott Stevenson <scott@stevenson.io>
Teo Ljungberg <teo@teoljungberg.com>
Tyson Gach <tyson@tysongach.com>
Vlad GURDIGA <gurdiga@gmail.com>
Yota Toyama <raviqqe@gmail.com>
Zach Latta <zach@zachlatta.com>
kajisha <kajisha@gmail.com>
maxice8 <thinkabit.ukim@gmail.com>
wplatter-cb <39812934+wplatter-cb@users.noreply.github.com>

Referenced By

lsrc(1), mkrc(1), rcdn(1), rcrc(5), rcup(1).

July 28, 2013