Auto-updating software: Diving into oh-my-zsh

Published: October 12, 2016


Recently I’ve been working on a little side project called pngarbage. It’s a command line tool for scanning webpages and identifying image bloat. The tool is written in Go which allows me to distribute a single binary with no dependencies. I’m just in the infancy of the project and plan on (ok…hope to be) adding a bunch of new features. With that in mind, one thing I’ve been thinking about recently is auto-updating strategies.

I spent some time thinking about tools I use daily that implement auto-updating. The first one that came to mind is oh-my-zsh, one of the most starred repos on Github. If you’ve used it before you’re probably pretty familiar with this screen…

oh-my-zsh auto-update prompt

I spent a bit of time reviewing how oh-my-zsh goes about auto-updating and thought it would be worthwhile to do a short write up of my findings.

How It Works

oh-my-zsh works by source-ing ~/.oh-my-zsh/ in ~/.zshrc.

export ZSH=$HOME/.oh-my-zsh
source $ZSH/

If you look at that file you’ll see that the first thing it does is run ~/.oh-my-zsh/tools/ (unless you’ve disabled auto updating).

# Check for updates on initial load...
if [ "$DISABLE_AUTO_UPDATE" != "true" ]; then
fi checks for the presence of a file called ~/.zsh-update. If it is not there (e.g. the first time you launch a shell after installing oh-my-zsh) it executes _update_zsh_update.

if [ -f ~/.zsh-update ]
  # Code to execute if ~/.zsh-update is present
  # create the zsh file

_update_zsh_update simply writes the current date (represented as the number of days since the epoch to the ~/.zsh-update file.

function _update_zsh_update() {
  echo "LAST_EPOCH=$(_current_epoch)" >! ~/.zsh-update

If ~/.zsh-update does exist it will be sourced which will set LAST_EPOCH as an environment variable.

if [ -f ~/.zsh-update ]
  . ~/.zsh-update
  # Rest of the code to execute
  # Code to execute if ~/.zsh-update isn't present

It then gets the current epoch and checks if the difference in days between the last epoch is greater than $epoch_target.

epoch_diff=$(($(_current_epoch) - $LAST_EPOCH))
if [ $epoch_diff -gt $epoch_target ]
  # Oh boy, updating time

$epoch_target either comes from the UPDATE_ZSH_DAYS environment variable (intended to be set in ~/.zshrc) or defaults to 13.

if [[ -z "$epoch_target" ]]; then
  # Default to old behavior

If it’s time for an update the next condition it checks is whether or not it should prompt you. This is, again, done by checking an environment variable (DISABLE_UPDATE_PROMPT).

if [ "$DISABLE_UPDATE_PROMPT" = "true" ]
  # No need to prompt
  # Need to prompt

If the prompt is disabled or you answer the prompt with “Y” it goes ahead and auto-updates which ultimately executes a git pull in ~/.oh-my-zsh/tools/

$ git pull --rebase --stat origin master

It then updates ~/.zsh-update to note the latest date the update happened.

If the update prompt shows up and you dismiss it with “n” it does not execute the auto-update, but still updates ~/.zsh-update with the current date, which will defer the prompt until $epoch_target has elapsed again.

if [ "$DISABLE_UPDATE_PROMPT" = "true" ]
  echo "[Oh My Zsh] Would you like to check for updates? [Y/n]: \c"
  read line
  if [[ "$line" == Y* ]] || [[ "$line" == y* ]] || [ -z "$line" ]; then

Default Behavior

By default, oh-my-zsh behaves like this…

  • DISABLE_AUTO_UPDATE is not set to true, meaning auto-updating will happen
  • UPDATE_ZSH_DAYS is not set in the default ~/.zshrc it creates, so it defaults to 13, meaning oh-my-zsh will try to update every 13 days.
  • DISABLE_UPDATE_PROMPT is not set to true in the default ~/.zshrc it creates, meaning you will be prompted to confirm the update.

My Thoughts

I chose to investigate oh-my-zsh because I feel like they got auto-updating right. Here’s what I like about it…

  • 13 days is a good default for UPDATE_ZSH_DAYS. If it happened more than that the prompt might start to feel annoying. However, one thing to consider here is how often the user interacts with the tool. Developers are likely to launch terminal everyday, so asking about upgrade every 13 days seems infrequent enough. However, for tools that are used less often this interval may need tweaking, especially if the upgrade process is time consuming (oh-my-zsh upgrades are also quick).
  • Prompting is better than just doing the upgrade without the users consent
  • If I want to change either of these things, or opt out of auto-updating entirely, I can do so with by setting environment variables in my ~/.zshrc file.

I’m looking to implement a similar auto-update strategy for pngarbage.


If you have any comments on auto-updating, feel free to drop a note comments below. Of course, as always, you can reach me on Twitter as well.

Max Chadwick Hi, I'm Max!

I'm a software developer who mainly works in PHP, but loves dabbling in other languages like Go and Ruby. Technical topics that interest me are monitoring, security and performance. I'm also a stickler for good documentation and clear technical writing.

During the day I lead a team of developers and solve challenging technical problems at Something Digital where I mainly work with the Magento platform. I've also spoken at a number of events.

In my spare time I blog about tech, work on open source and participate in bug bounty programs.

If you'd like to get in contact, you can find me on Twitter and LinkedIn.