How should one structure their CLI programs? I've seen this question a few times, and over the years I've come up with some patterns that I really like. This post explores the variations of these patterns and trade-offs between them.

Series Contents


I recently came across this question (and associated answer) on the clap repository. The answer given is a good one. But I wanted to expand with my own findings and practices, which spurred the motivation for this post.

Type of CLI

First things first. We need to know which type of CLI you're building. For these purposes there are two broad categories:

  • Subcommand based
  • Single Command Argument based

An example of "subcommand based" would be cargo; each function is represented by a distinct "command" that is a child (or grand-child, or great-grand-child, etc.) of the top level command cargo. i.e:

$ cargo build
$ cargo clean
$ cargo new

Whereas an example of a single command based CLI would be ripgrep, where the tool has a single command, in this case rg that is controlled solely by arguments.

Most often, although not always, subcommand based CLIs each command is a distinct function, and at some level they could have perhaps been distinct tools. For example cargo build builds the Rust program, whereas cargo clean cleans all build artifacts. These could probably have been implemented as cargo-build and cargo-clean respectively. But because those two commands are closely related in purpose (handling Rust projects) it makes far more sense to combine them into a single cargo command which has the added benefit of being able to easily share code, cohesion in things like error messages and arguments, and not cluttering the file system with cargo-* commands, etc.

Similarly, single command based CLIs often, but not always, have a single function. In Ripgrep's case, that is searching through files. This function can be altered in ways via arguments, but ultimately it's still just searching through files.

NOTE Ripgrep is actually a good example of the "but not always" saying. Technically, Ripgrep can also manage and assist the user with "type definitions" that allow searching exclusively through specific file types. This function is controlled through the --type-* arguments, which when used add, remove, or list various "type definitions" and thus don't actually do the "sole functionality" of searching through files. These could have been made subcommands, such as rg type [OPTIONS] however, this set of functionality is minor enough (and the only other functionality beyond searching files) that making it a subcommand could have detracted away from the primary purpose of searching needlessly. Subcommands can, and do, complicate matters.

Ok, so now we know what kind of CLI we're building, we can start to decide on what pattern to use.

This post will focus almost exclusively on subcommand based, because it's the most interesting and complicated.

NOTE I plan to write a "BONUS POST" that discusses a single-command based pattern for completeness sake if that's the route you're taking.

The CLI - bad rustup...bustup

So we're making a subcommand based CLI. The example we'll use is a toy example to keep this already long post manageable since the actual tool itself isn't important here. This tool will mimic a tiny tiny subset of rustup extremely poorly...i.e. we're just going to print some messages.

We'll call this bustup.

NOTE Why rustup? Because it implements a pattern that will be useful to explore, and that's using several nested layers deep of subcommands. For example cargo (and other tools like git) typically only go one layer deep (i.e. git clone, cargo update, etc.) whereas rustup can go several more layers deep, such as rustup toolchain add .... This will be important as the pattern we'll use has additional considerations when nesting more than a layer or two deep.

Parsing Library

We also need to decide on a parsing library. I'm biased towards clap so that's what we'll be using. However, this pattern should more or less be applicable to any command line argument parsing library.

clap like several other parsing libraries supports two different modes of building a CLI. The so-called "Builder Pattern" and the "derive based" method.

We'll cover both methods because the pattern used is different in interesting ways for each.

But this also means we'll have to re-implement bustup twice using the different methods. Another reason to keep bustup minimally simple.

bustup Command Structure

Here's what we'll implement:

  • bustup update [toolchain] [--force]
  • bustup target add [--toolchain=<TOOLCHAIN>]
  • bustup target remove [--toolchain=<TOOLCHAIN>]
  • bustup target list [--toolchain=<TOOLCHAIN>] [--installed]

Context Structs

Something all (or at the very least most) CLI applications deal with the idea of a "runtime context."

When doing an actual action in code, there is normally some defined "context" informing the runtime code on what actions to take and how to take them. For example our bustup update will need some contextual knowledge about which toolchain the user wishes to update.

There are many different ways to store and pass around runtime context. The most common ways are via:

  • The CLI value structs themselves
  • Context Structs
  • Globals

I will omit globals, as it's typically an anti-pattern and frowned upon especially in Rust as these context objects are typically mutable and having global mutable state precludes many multi-threading possibilities and negates many of Rust's safety features.

That leaves us with the CLI value structs, and context structs.

As the heading may suggest, Context Structs are what this post will focus on. But before doing so I will mention below in the appropriate sections about CLI value structs; as the types of value structs and how they're used is different depending on the mode of clap one is using.

For now, suffice it to say that Context Structs are nearly always a better approach, even though they may seem redundant in some circumstances.

Meeting Ctx

A Context Struct (usually abbreviated Ctx) is just a local struct containing normalized values from all configuration sources (whereas CLI value structs typically only get their values from the CLI or perhaps from the environment depending on argument parsing library features).

In our bustup update example, using the toolchain as the context we may have a struct similar to:

struct Ctx {
    toolchain: String

NOTE It's common to prefer borrowing of values in some context structs, especially if the value is only temporary. For instance:

struct Ctx<'a> {
    toolchain: &'a str,

But for brevity and simplicity I'm leaving out any such concerns in order to focus on the topic of this post.

An important distinction about context structs is that they contain the normalized configuration values.

Single Source of Truth

The primary benefit of using Context Structs is to provide A Single Source of Truth to runtime code.

Although our toy bustup doesn't use overriding flags, if we pretend it does for the sake of argument real quick let's see what could happen.

Imagine something like our bustup update taking a --confirm flag that says to ask the user for confirmation before downloading and installing any updates, and also a --no-confirm flag that says not to ask the use first.

NOTE Naively it may seem silly to provide both --confirm and --no-confirm, especially if one of those values is the default behavior of the program (for instance if either flag is provided it acts as if --confirm was used). However, it's actually a super useful pattern to provide because it allows users to set up custom aliases. For example a user normally does not want to be asked for confirmation, so they set up alias bustup-up='bustup update --no-confirm'. Now one day, they are on a metered network connection and decide they'd like to confirm before downloading a massive update, so run:

$ bustup-up --confirm

... this expands to ...

$ bustup update --no-confirm --confirm

As it stands, we'd probably start by only passing in the CLI values directly to the run_update function. This would mean it's the function's responsibility for knowing about and deconflicting both --confirm and --no-confirm which is something it should not have to care about. Additionally, if we had other subcommands with similar flags, they too would have to know about and handle these cases.

This typically leads to people passing in duplicate context. e.g. they'd pass in the CLI values raw and a boolean flag of some kind:

fn run_update(cli_values: &Args, confirm: bool) { /* .. */ }

To properly write run_update now one needs to know the difference between the two locations which contain values for whether or not we should prompt the user for confirmation.

And that's not all!

Technically, the CLI values are only a single layer in a delicious cake that is program configuration and on their own make for bad context....

Initializing Ctx

Although it's out of scope for this post to fully explore this topic; for completeness sake let's take an ultra-brief look at what it's like to initialize a Ctx struct.

Let's pretend we had a program that could use pretty colors for terminal output. So we have a Context Struct that looks like:

struct Ctx {
    // If `true` pain the terminal
    color: bool

Let's further assume our program supports system-wide, user-level, and project-level configuration files, as well as CLI flags and environment variables for controlling settings.

For something as simple as turning color on or off, the ways to control such a setting could be:

  • A default value of Auto meaning to check if STDOUT is a TTY or not
  • A system-wide config file setting
  • A user-level config file setting
  • A project level config file setting
  • A set of environment variables
    • E.g. could be any of TERM, NO_COLOR, or perhaps PROGRAM_COLOR
  • A set of CLI flags
    • E.g. --color=... or --no-color

This seems like madness! Yet its exactly how a well behaved CLI program should function!

So a full initialization sequence probably looks something like this:

  • At program startup do something like Ctx::default()
  • Load system-wide configuration files, if any (e.g. /etc/...) perhaps in a Config<System> struct
    • Normalize values if needed
    • Update the Ctx with something like a Config::update_ctx(&mut ctx)
  • Load user-level configuration files, if any (e.g. ~/.config/...) perhaps in a Config<User> struct
    • Normalize values if needed
    • Update the Ctx with something like a Config::update_ctx(&mut ctx)
  • Load environment variable values, if any
    • This step may be done, or partially done by your CLI parsing library, however things like TERM or NO_COLOR which are only loosely related to your --color and --no-color flags will probably be handled manually via something like a Ctx::update_from_env method
  • Parse CLI values
    • Normalize values if needed
    • Update the Ctx with something like a Config::update_ctx(&mut ctx)
  • You now have a fully initialized Ctx

The benefit being any actual functionality in your program no longer needs to worry about all of that and can just get passed an instance of &Ctx as an argument check a quick ctx.color field and trust whatever is written there!

Next Time!

In the next post we'll actually dive in using the clap Builder based method to see what using this pattern looks like in practice.