Introduction to Gawk

For many simple programming problems, awk is an excellent solution. Let Ian Gordon show you how to make your life easier.
Run-time Performance

It seems impossible to have such ease of use together with speed; there must be a trade-off. This is one area in which gawk suffers—run-time performance. However, this is not to say that gawk is a terribly slow language. Since gawk is interpreted rather than compiled, it cannot compete with compiled languages for speed of execution. (It also is somewhat slower than a comparable program written in Perl.) However, if your main concern is getting a working program written as quickly as possible, you probably do not want to wrestle with C or C++ for a week to perfect the most efficient algorithm. By trading off the speed advantages and control features of C (or another compiled language) for ease of use, gawk lets you get the job done quickly and relatively painlessly.

If, however, execution speed is a critical point, gawk makes an excellent tool for implementing and testing a prototype before you start to code in C. And when the prototype is complete you may find that the gawk version is fast enough to meet your needs.


gawk offers the programmer a simple, somewhat C-like syntax, automatic file handling, associative arrays, and powerful pattern matching—features which can help you to create a program much more quickly than with a more traditional language. gawk also has many other useful and powerful features such as user-defined functions, recursion, many built-in functions, regular expressions, multidimensional arrays, formatted output using printf and sprintf, even the ability to set variables on the command line. These features are beyond the scope of this article. Without doubt, gawk's interpreter will produce a slower running final product than a C compiler, or even a Perl interpreter. But this slower execution speed (it certainly is not slow!) is more than compensated for by the speed and ease of program development and testing. When you need a program to perform a task and you need it right now, whether it is a quick-and-dirty, use-once program or a program that will be getting plenty of use, gawk may prove to be the right language for the task.

Ian Gordon ( is a support programmer at Hyprotech Ltd. in Calgary, Alberta. He discovered the joys of Linux 15 months ago, a discovery which has taken up much of his free time.



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How Slow??

Daniel's picture


You say gawk is slower than Perl. Do you know how much slower? Are there any benchmarks? I've heared that there is an AWK compiler. Do you know anything about it?