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Ask HN: Dotfiles Management Tools?
35 points by mthwsjc_ on April 19, 2021 | hide | past | favorite | 19 comments
My customized shell script isn't as robust as it should be and I don't want to reinvent an inferior version of what must surely already exist.

What tools would you recommend for managing dotfiles that are robust, doesn't have external dependencies, uses git and are idempotent?

I'd like something that manages directories of files (e.g. ~/.vim/ftplugin/) in sub-directories, as well as in $HOME. If the tool can deal with multiple systems (MacOS, CentOS, debian) then even better!


Arch wiki has a nice list: https://wiki.archlinux.org/index.php/Dotfiles#Tools

I made a dotfile management tool: https://github.com/knoebber/dotfile , but it's not based on git or designed for directories of files.

I think Chezmoi would fit your usecase well: https://www.chezmoi.io/

Here's a guide using a git bare repository: https://www.atlassian.com/git/tutorials/dotfiles

I try to use Drew DeVault's method [1], which is similar, but it seems much more straightforward. It uses a regular git repository in $HOME, a .gitignore file that is just a `*` so that it ignores all files and you have to force add the files that you want.

As a disclaimer I have to say I have never migrated my system to another one or even shared my config, so unforeseen problems may appear.

[1] https://drewdevault.com/2019/12/30/dotfiles.html

I use this method as well, but instead of force adding files, I use an inverted .gitinore.

This lets me quickly quickly detect changes in my working dir while still explicitly adding each tracked file.

The one issue I've had with this is that ripgrep will use the gitignore so without an extra option most any search in any folder under $HOME will turn up empty

I've been using this (lightly) for a couple years, and I've been happy with it.

Me too. It's good enough.

I’m biased, but would recommend trying yadm.


I specifically have a design goal of very little external dependency. It only requires Git and Bash be present, so it is quite portable. Many people even use it on some network equipment. You can simply download the script if it isn’t packaged somewhere.

It can easily handle directories of files, but also submodules. Many people add vim plugin Git repos directly as submodules.

If you are familiar with Git, you’ll find yadm extremely easy to use. When you need them, more features are there to solve specific problems, like bootstrapping operations, encrypting private data, templating, or system dependent alternate files.

On a new system you can quickly bootstrap your existing dotfiles repo using https://bootstrap.yadm.io, without yadm installed yet. This is mostly useful if you’ve included yadm directly in you dotfiles (directly, or as a submodule, or as some installation during bootstrap).

https://github.com/nix-community/home-manager is much more than that, but it can be easily used as a basic dotfiles manager the way you described it

Gnu Stow is something I've often heard referenced. Disclaimer: I have no experience using it.

+1 For stow ("a symlink farm manager")

Simple usecase:

  cd ~
  mkdir -p dotfiles && cd dotfiles
  mkdir -p bash && cd bash
  touch .bashrc
  cd ~
  stow bash  # Deploys ~/.bashrc symlinked from ~/dotfiles/bash/
  # More packages, version control:
  cd ~/dotfiles
  git init && git commit -am "Initial commit"
  mkdir -p ~/dotfiles/git/
  touch ~/dotfiles/git/.gitconfig
  # deploy git package
  cd ~ && stow git
  # revert bash "package deployment"
  stow -D bash
I've gone a bit overboard myself (many packages, litterate programming declaration of emacs config, Vagrant VM with Ansible deployment etc), see https://github.com/OverkillGuy/jibyconf

I've been using GNU Stow (with Git) for the past month to sync some of my dotfiles between two laptops (Mac and Linux). It took 10 minutes to get comfortable with it and it works well for me.

I use GNU Stow with a dotfiles git repo placed in $HOME. Works well.

I use yadm (https://yadm.io/), and like it for dealing with multiple systems because of it's alternates system (https://yadm.io/docs/alternates#). It's git based, and works on various systems (your list is covered).

edit: Note if you're on Debian stable, the current package is 1.x. At this point testing has moved on to 3.x. It's probably worth going straight to 3.x to avoid reworking alternates and dealing with other changes. The testing/unstable package is easy to backport (look up simple sid backport).

Although I just use git (with symlinks from ~/.dotfiles to wherever the software is actually expecting the config), most people I know use https://yadm.io instead.

chezmoi [1] looks like a tool for power-users. I'll give it a try and see how it goes. It seems to be more capable (and more complex) than dotbot [2]

[1] https://github.com/twpayne/chezmoi

[2] https://github.com/anishathalye/dotbot#plugins

I’ve been using Chezmoi for a while now, I rather like it.

Hardmode: INI canonicalization + some sort of per-section/key .gitignore for 'noisy' or machine-specific data.

Can't get much simpler than git and stow

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