What the heck is Stow!?

Sometimes 1000 words doesn’t paint a very good picture.

GNU Stow is a symlink farm manager which takes distinct sets of software and/or data located in separate directories on the filesystem, and makes them all appear to be installed in a single directory tree.

I did not read this captivating description and fall in love with stow. I stumbled into it by way of trying to solve a problem. A few months back, I overhauled my dotfiles and accidentally learned about this new to me tool. I watched a video on developer productivity by ThePrimeagen and he showed me the way of stow. He makes a lot of great points in that video, but the most profound impact on my workflow was learning about stow.

This steak deserves more sizzle

Here is the thing about that description, the importance of symlinks have to resonate with you for it to feel exciting. For me, symlinks were not a big part of my workflow. So a symlink manager didn’t seem to solve a problem that I had. In retrospect, the “turns out” is that symlinks weren’t part of my workflow because they’re kind of a pain to manage. Have you ever needed a file to live one place, but thought it would be more ergonomic if it lived someplace else? You wanted a symlink, you just didn’t realize it.

What does this have to do with dotfiles?

I don’t want my home directory in source control, not all of it. But some things that live in, or near, my home directory would be great to have in source control. Stow allows me to designate a folder to be the home to my source controlled files. I happen to have that directory in my repo, but it could be anywhere. I can then, effectively, hoist them up to where my OS expects them to be via stow ..

I could theoretically set my home directory up as a git repository and maintain git ignore rules to get a similar effect. But that sounds like a pain to maintain. It is way more more ergonomic and less error prone for me to keep all of the dotfiles in a folder and set that folder up as a repo. This is the problem that symlinks solve and is a great opportunity for stow to shine.

So, how does this work?

A simplified slice of my home directory could look like this.

  ├── .zshrc # symlink to .dotfiles/.zshrc
  └── .dotfiles/
      ├── .git/
      └── .zshrc # actual file

From inside my ~/.dotfiles/ directory, I can run stow . to create and maintain symlinks to the files within this directory. Any modifications done to these files are immediately reflected in the appropriate place. I just have to remember to create new files in the sub directory and stow them instead of creating them in the default directory.

What other problems might it solve?

I’m thinking about reworking my notes directory. It’s a folder full of markdown that I tend to view and edit via Obsidian. To wire this up to a static generator, I’d need to introduce all sorts of dependencies (node_modules, book.toml… stuff that is not markdown) that would muck up the editing experience of my notes. With stow, it seems reasonable to tend to a static site repo in one place while I care for and feed my notes in another directory. But that, is another post for another day.