Creating command line tools with Node.js

March 15th, 2016    by sigman    13077
  Tips   nodejs, javascript, linux, programming

I needed to create an utility that when installed as a global module, it would be both available as a command line tool in bash and as a Node module that could be imported with require function from any Node script. As the command line tool, i wanted it to take input in two ways: take parameters and read input from a file or take piped streams. This tip explains how this can be achieved.


Creating command line tools with Node was the initial reason that hooked me in when my journey as Node.JS developer started almost 4 years ago. I recently needed to create a module for converting/parsing tests written in plain text format to JSON, so that they could be imported to the database easily.

The module is available here on NPM:
or on github:

I wanted this module to have the following features:

1. Import as a Node module

When installed with:

npm install tests2json

I should be able to import it in a standard way with the require:

var t2j = require('tests2json')

2. Use as command line tool

When installed globally

npm install tests2json -g

I should be able to run it from command line interface (CLI) as any other program available from bash.

3. Accept parameters in CLI

When run from CLI it should take both short:

$ tests2json -h

and long parameters:

$ tests2json --help

and display verbose help to the user. Two key parameters would be the input to specify a path where the text file with tests should be read from and the output for a path which the json output should be saved to.

4. Accept piped streams

When run from CLI accept output of other programs as input and output tests as JSON so that other programs could consume it:

$ cat tests.txt | tests2json >> tests.json


Folder Structure

The folder structure is fairly standard, skipping the obvious things like .gitignore, LICENSE, and package.json, the entry point for the module working as the command line tool is the tests2json.js file. The script internally loads the lib/tests2json.js module that is the actual logic that parses raw tests text. The test folder contains mocha test runner tests that use chai as the assertion library.

├── .gitignore
├── lib
│   └── tests2json.js
├── package.json
├── test
│   ├── convert.js
│   ├── get_options.js
│   ├── get_question.js
│   └── split_raw_tests.js
└── tests2json.js


The package.json file contents reveals that the only core dependency is the commander module that facilitates creating command-line interfaces:

  "name": "tests2json",
  "version": "1.0.1",
  "description": "Converts plain text tests to json",
  "main": "lib/tests2json.js",
  "bin": {
    "tests2json": "./tests2json.js"
  "scripts": {
    "test": "./node_modules/.bin/mocha --reporter spec test",
    "start": "node tests2json.js"
  "author": " <>",
  "license": "MIT",
  "devDependencies": {
    "chai": "^3.5.0",
    "mocha": "^2.4.5"
  "dependencies": {
    "commander": "^2.9.0"
  "repository": {
    "type": "git",
    "url": ""

The main property provides the entry point for the case the script is loaded as the module with the require function. When the user requires the module with require('tests2json'), the file specified as the value in this property is going to be loaded.

The bin property on the other hand is used to make the script available from the command line. The 'tests2json' key tells the name of the tool and the value is a path to the entry point which in this case is the tests2json.js in the project root folder. What actually happens during the npm install of the module is npm will add an entry to the PATH environmental variable's and will create a symlink from the ./tests2json.js to usr/local/bin/tests2json (for global install with -g) or ./node_modules/.bin/tests2json (for local install).

Another thing worth mentioning here is the scripts entry that enables the users to start the script using:

$ npm start

and run the tests using:

$npm tests

The command line entry point ./tests2json.js

Make module command line executable

To let the Node script run as any other script like bash, perl or python, we need to add the Node.js shebang at the top of the script file to specify its environment.

The shebang #! tells the system to pass the rest of the line after shebang to the interpreter, in other words when we run the script from the console, the system will run the /usr/bin/env and feed the contents of the file to the node interpreter. Node itself, like other scripting languages will ignore (will not interpret) the line that starts with shebang. An example of shebang for Perl: #!/usr/bin/perl.

#!/usr/bin/env node

Once we make the file executable by providing executable permissions with chmod...

$ chmod u+x tests2json

...we should be able to run is as a script:

$ ./tests2json --version

But since we populated the bin property in the package.json and installed the module with npn install what made npm create the symlink for us, we can run the script globally:

$ tests2json --version

Find out if input comes from pipe or from command line with params

We want our tool to support running in the two following ways:

  1. With parameters: tests2json --input testsfile.txt
  2. With pipe so that the input comes as stdin: cat testsfile.txt | tests2json

Node allows to recognise this is with the isTTY property available in the process.stdin which essentially checks if the script is run in the TTY context:

if (process.stdin.isTTY) {
  // Command line args - read args from process.argv
} else {
  // Pipe data - read from process.stdin

Read arguments and display help

There are quite many options for reading parameters and values passed from the shell when executing the script.

For the following execution:

$ tests2json -i tests.txt

we could read the parameters in the following way using the built in Node functions in the built-in process module:


// returns:
// ['node', 'tests2json', '-i', 'tests.txt']

// Remove two first values: the 'node' and the file name of he executed script:
var args = process.argv.slice(2);

Since we want to be able to print tool help and also support short and long parameters, it might be easier to use one of the popular npm modules, my favourite is commander.

var program = require('commander');

  .description('Converts tests in text format to json.')
  .option('-i, --input <value>', 'Input tests text file.')
  .option('-o, --output [value]', 'Output tests json file.')
  .on('--help', function(){
    console.log('  Alternatively you can pipe raw tests as input and output the json from the script.');
    console.log('    $ cat tests.txt | tests2json >> tests.json');

Purpose of each of the functions:

  • version sets the application version number that will get printed when we execute the script with -v/--version (we could actually read it from package.json to have just one point of reference)
  • description provides app description that will be printed at the top of the help (we could read that from package.json as well)
  • option specifies the short and the long version for parameters, type of the values expected and the description for the help. The angle brackets denote this parameter is required, square brackets are for optional.
  • on responds to event, in this case this is the custom help message when the user calls with -h/--help. In the callback we just use console.log to print the lines to terminal. If we didn't use that event handler, commander would still print help generated by default based on the options provided by us.

Here is how the help is generated using the above configuration:

$ tests2json --help

  Usage: tests2json [options]

  Converts tests in text format to json.


    -h, --help            output usage information
    -V, --version         output the version number
    -i, --input <value>   Input tests text file.
    -o, --output [value]  Output tests json file.

  Alternatively you can pipe raw tests as input and output the json from the script.

    $ cat tests.txt | tests2json >> tests.json

The script will expect the following parameters ( the output param is optional, if not provided, the results will be printed to console instead of saved to a file):

  $ tests2json -i tests.txt -o tests.json

  $ tests2json --input tests.txt --output tests.json

To print the error message when a required parameter is missing...

$ tests2json

Error: Providing input tests text file is required.

...I'm using the following code, where I'm checking if the input property isn't null, or alternatively in the same way I could check if the value provided is of the right data type or expected format with a regex value. In case the input isn't right, the script will printing the error message followed by the full help message printed again (for user's convenience) with the program.outputHelp() function and finally the script will exit with code 1 to indicate an error back to the shell.

if (!program.input) {
    console.log('Error: Providing input tests text file is required.');

Read piped or redirected data

Piping data between scripts is in the core of any *nix system. We want to allow output from other scripts to be piped as input to tests2json and we want to be able to pass the result to other apps, like in the example below when we read the contests of the tests.txt file with the cat utility, pipe it to our script and then redirect the results to the tests.json file using >>:

$ cat tests.txt | tests2json >> tests.json

Or redirected input:

$ cat tests2json < tests.txt >> tests.json

In order to implement that in Node, first we need to ensure the standard input isn't in the TTY mode as mentioned earlier in this article. Then we need to start reading from the process.stdin using the resume function, otherwise the script will exit without waiting for anything. After setting the utf8 encoding we are listening for the data event on the stdin to receive the piped data.

process.stdin.on("data", function(data){
  // process received data here...

Exit codes

A decent command line script should indicate whether there has been an error executing it or the process completed successfully. For this purpose we use the exit codes. You may have noticed earlier that we provided the exit code 1 when there has been an error condition (missing required input). When everything goes well, the process should finish execution with exit code 0.

if (err) process.exit(1)

// When complete:


Node applications can also listen to signals sent by the operating system, the process or the user. For example a signal might be sent by the user hitting ctrl+c (SIGINT) or another process (like kill -9 pid) sending the kill signal (SIGKILL/SIGSTOP/SIGTERM). List of signals and information on which are supported on Windows can be found in the node docs:

Listening to particular signals is done in the following way:

process.on('SIGINT', function () {
  console.log('Received SIGINT!');

If you find out the node's process ID, you can use it then to send the SIGINT signal:

$ ps aux | grep node

$ kill -s SIGINT node_process_id