Overwrite a file but only if it exists (in BASH)

Imagine you have a line in a script:

cat /some/image.img > /dev/mmcblk0

which dumps a disk image on to an SD card. I have such a line as part of the setup. Actually, a more realistic one is:

pv /some/image.img | sudo 'bash -c cat >/dev/mmcblk0'

which displays a progress bar and doesn’t require having the whole script being run as root. Either way, there’s a problem: if the SD card doesn’t happen to be in when that line runs, it will create /dev/mmcblk0. Then all subsequent writes will go really fast (at the speed of the main disk), and you will get confused and sad when none of the changes are reflected on the SD card. You might even reboot which will magically fix the problem (/dev gets nuked). That happened to me 😦

The weird, out of place dd tool offers a nice fix:

pv /some/image.img | sudo dd conv=nocreat of=/dev/mmcblk0

You can specify a pseudo-conversion, which tells it to not create the file if it doesn’t already exist. It also serves the second purpose as the “sudo tee” idiom but without dumping everything to stdout.

A simple hack but a useful one. You can do similar things like append, but only if it exists, too. The incantation is:

dd conv=nocreat,notrunc oflag=append of=/file/to/append/to

That is, don’t create the file, don’t truncate it on opening and append. If you allow it to truncate, then it will truncate then append, which is entirely equivalent to overwriting but nonetheless you can still specify append without notrunc.

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