When writing shell scripts, it’s almost always better to call a function directly rather than using a subshell to call the function. The usual convention that I’ve seen is to echo the return value of the function and capture that output using a subshell. For example:

function get_path() {
    echo "/path/to/something"

This works fine, but there is a significant speed overhead to using a subshell and there is a much faster alternative. Instead, you can just have a convention wherein a particular variable is always the return value of the function (I use retval). This has the added benefit of also allowing you to return arrays from your functions.

If you don’t know what a subshell is, for the purposes of this blog post a subshell is another bash shell which is spawned whenever you use $() or ` ` and is used to execute the code you put inside.

I did some simple testing to allow you to observe the overhead. For two functionally equivalent scripts:

This one uses a subshell:

function a() {
    echo hello
for (( i = 0; i < 10000; i++ )); do
    echo "$(a)"

This one uses a variable:

function a() {
for (( i = 0; i < 10000; i++ )); do
    echo "$retval"

The speed difference between these two is noticeable and significant.

$ for i in variable subshell; do
> echo -e "\n$i"; time ./$i > /dev/null
> done


real 0m0.367s
user 0m0.346s
sys 0m0.015s


real 0m11.937s
user 0m3.121s
sys 0m0.359s

As you can see, when using variable, execution takes 0.367 seconds. subshell however takes a full 11.937 seconds!

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