Friday, November 4, 2016

Announcing the winner of the PowerShell Oneliner Contest 2016

I am excited to announce the winner of the second PowerShell Oneliner Contest. But before I do it, let me tell you one thing. This year, I received over ninety submissions from wannabe PowerShell Monks from all over the world. Some solutions stood out as the most striking and imaginative entries. Some others were not successful in achieving what I asked, but showed a lot of effort in learning and initiative. Everybody seemed to understand that the aim of such a contest is not just to push PowerShell to its limit and beyond, by bending the command line to your will. It's a matter of generating knowledge and sharing it for others to learn from. Building code that can benefit the whole community is of paramount importance here.


So thanks to all of the entrants and, without further ado, let's have a look at the winning solution, by Sam Seitz, with 65 chars:

([char[]](71..89)|?{!(gdr $_)2>0}|sort{[guid]::newguid()})[0]+':'
#Posted by Sam Seitz to Happy SysAdm at October 25, 2016 at 8:02 AM

I got in touch with Sam so he could share a bit about himself and his thought process for the script.

Two years into his IT career, Sam is a 25-year old systems engineer for Network Technologies, Inc., an MSP in Olathe, KS. He spends his days perpetually amazed that his employer pays him to "play with computers" (as his father would say). Outside of work, his incredible wife and their pair of regal beagles keep him happier than a man has any right to be.

Seeing this challenge made me realize two things: 1) off the top of my head I know, maybe, five default aliases and 2) I should really start using more aliases. I'm normally extremely verbose in my scripting, so this proved to be a unique challenge. To keep it as short as possible, I used a few interesting techniques, which I'll break down step-by-step:
To generate the array of letters from g-y, I took advantage of the fact that the 71 through 89 is g through y in the ASCII table. When cast as a [char], 71 is g, 72 is h, etc.
?{!(gdr $_)2>0}
I then filtered out occupied drive letters by using Where-Object (?), the alias for the "-not" operator (!), and Get-Drive (gdr). 2>0 redirects the inevitable error output to null. (If you don't mind seeing each error Get-Drive throws when it's used with a non-existant drive, the 2>0 could be removed as it isn't necessary for the success of the one-liner. But who likes all those ugly red errors on their screen? Terrorists, that's who.)
In order to ensure the result was random, I used Sort-Object (sort) on the array of letters and told it to sort by the new GUID created using the .Net method [guid]::newguid().
Finally, I selected the first result [0] from the array of randomly sorted available drive letters in the output and threw a colon on the end (+':').

Thanks to Sam for sharing his deep knowledge of PowerShell with us. For those interested, I created a Gist with a list of working solutions I got, sorted by line length.


Now in the following section I will explain why I could not accept some entries.

The most common error by far was the use of Random as an alias of Get-Random. Though I understand the extreme difficulty of generating a random number without using Get-Random, I couldn't accept oneliners using Random as an alias for the simple reason that it is not one. It just works as an alias because the PowerShell interpreter prepends by default the verb 'Get-' to nouns if it can't find another match.

Get-Alias | ? {$_.Definition -match "Get-Random"}

Trace-Command can confirm that interpreter behavior:

Trace-Command -Name CommandDiscovery -PSHost -Expression { random }

DEBUG: CommandDiscovery Information: 0 : The command [random] was not found, trying again with get- prepended
DEBUG: CommandDiscovery Information: 0 : Looking up command: get-random
DEBUG: CommandDiscovery Information: 0 : Cmdlet found: Get-Random  Microsoft.PowerShell.Commands.GetRandomCommand


Now a word about my solutions to the contest. I wrote four of them. Since they are pretty short, I am pleased to share them with you.

In the first solution I was actually able to get a random GUID to sort on by fetching it from the internet.

There are for sure many websites exposing an engine for GUID generation ( or for instance) but in our case we want the shortest URL possible, and I was lucky enough to find a website named There's a funky cmdlet for getting stuff from the web and it is Invoke-RestMethod. It has an alias which is irm. Now the cool thing of Internet is that nowadays many websites have adopted a JSON API to let consumers retrieve and manipulate their content using HTTP requests. And is one of them. Luck, again. So, doing the alike of:

Invoke-WebRequest -UseBasicParsing | ConvertFrom-Json

can be achieved in a simpler manner with:


which can be shortened to:


or even shorter:


And there I have my random guid. Internet for the IT pro, I daresay.

For the rest my first solution matches Sam's one:
([char[]](71..89)|?{!(gdr $_)2>0}|sort{irm})[0]+':'

In my second solution, I leverage the .NET Framework's System.Random class, but instead of using [random]::New().Next() I went for a shorter ([random]@{}).Next():

My third solution relies on use of my favorite cmdlets, Select-String (aliased as sls) in conjunction with the [guid] type accelerator, which called the NewGuid static method:
''+(ls function:[g-y]:|sls(gdr)-n|sort{[guid]::NewGuid()})[0]

In my fourth and last solution I mixed both my third and first solution, and so I was able to go down to 59 chars. It's a bit slower than the others because of the action of fetching GUIDs from the Internet, but for the purpose of the contest this is the shortest solution I was able to come up with:
''+(ls function:[g-y]:|sls(gdr)-n|sort{irm})[0]

I have created a Gist with my solutions, which you can find here.


Now a word about how the testing of the posted oneliners went.

Since I was rapidly flowed by plenty of tricky oneliners, I was a bit scared by having to check all of them manually for respect of contest rules. Fortunately I had already worked a bit with Pester to define test cases on other projects, so I just had adapt what I knew to the contest I had just started.

Then, and it was sheer luck, I got contacted by Jakub who proposed a complete solution to test those oneliners.

I am glad to say that what Jakub came up with is just brilliant. So, who better than him to explain his approach. Take it away Jakub.

I always loved one liners. "Make the code as short as possible" is such a simple, yet so challenging restriction. Such restriction does not exist in our day to day work, we care about readability, understandability and performance, but rarely about the length of our code. Putting this restriction in place and removing any other, turns our usual focus on its head. For once we get to write code that is so unreadable and uses so many quirks of the language that we will need to explain it at least twice (if not three times). Finally we can put all the side notes we read in books to work and use all the features, that we thought were bugs when we saw them for the first time, to force the language syntax to it's limits, and then watch in awe when others produce a solutions twice as short as ours.

For this reason I had to take part in the Oneliner contest of 2016 hosted by Carlo on his blog. Once I read the requirements I thought to myself: Well that's more that one requirement, what a nice opportunity to take this on another level and write some tests as well. And so I approached the whole problem in a kata-like way, which means not only taking my time to think about the problem itself, but also taking time to reason about the tests and the process of writing tests. Now since I know I have no way of winning the contest, especially after seeing how creative were people last year, I will at least walk you through my thought process.

First I read the requirements just to make sure they are quantifiable, what I mean by that is that I can measure if the requirement was met. A quantifiable requirement is for example "contains no semi-colon", a non-quantifiable requirement (at least not easily) would be "the code looks nice".

Once I made sure I will be able to write some tests for all of the requirements I proceeded to categorize the requirements and realized that they can be split to wwo categories: stylistic, and functional. Where stylistic is how the code should look like, and functional is how the code should behave.

I started with the functional part of the tests as they seemed much simpler to implement.

### Test 1 - Outputs single string
The first decision I made, was to store my one liner as a script block. This enabled me to reuse the same script block in all the test cases, and it also enabled me to change my one liner very easily.

The first test checks that the output of the oneliner is a single string. Pester has a built-in assertion `BeOfType` which was my first choice, but then I realized that piping the output through pipeline would expand the array that I might get, and I wouldn't be able to check if I got just a single item or whole array or items. So I went oldschool and used the `-is` operator.

It "outputs single string" {
    (&$oneliner) -is [string] | Should be $True

### Test 2 - Outputs one letter followed by colon
Next requirement forces me to match the text and specifies that it should be a letter followed by colon. Any text matching is easy with the `Match` assertion which uses regular expressions. The only thing I had to watch out for was matching the start and end of the string, to make sure that no sorrounding characters are matched.

It "Outputs single letter followed by colon" {
    &$oneliner | Should Match "^[a-z]\:$"

I decided to match the whole alphabet in this test to limit mixing the requirements. I find it being a good practice to specify requirements in one place without unnecessarily resticting other unrelated tests.

### Test 3 - Should exclude drives A-F and Z
Yet another requirement forces me to exclude some of the drive letters. I decided to use test cases to have a single test for each excluded letter and specified a list of test cases. This feature of Pester generates a single test per testcase and also modifies the name of the test to reflect the actual value of `$DriveLetter` for extra readability. The scriptblock then contains parameter I named $DriveLetter, which I use to write the assertion.

It "Should not output drive letter " -TestCases `
    @{DriveLetter = "a:"},
    @{DriveLetter = "b:"},
    @{DriveLetter = "c:"},
    @{DriveLetter = "d:"},
    @{DriveLetter = "e:"},
    @{DriveLetter = "f:"},
    @{DriveLetter = "z:"}{
    param ($DriveLetter)
        &$oneliner | Should Not Be $DriveLetter

### Test 4 - Drive should not be used
This test could not be easier. I am used the `Exist` assertion which I know uses `Test-Path` internally. Nothing else was needed here.

It "Resulting drive should not exist" {
    &$oneLiner | Should Not Exist

### Test 5 - Drive should be random
This test I found interesting because randomness is something to avoid in tests as much as possible. Randomness can make test fail from time to time and that unexpected failures lower the trust in we have in tests. But well in this case I'll be using the tests locally so I decided to take the simplest route and run the code twice and then compare the results. If the results are not the same the output is probably "random". This is far from perfect, but in this simple case I can validate by running the test multiple times. In a real production environment I'd run the code more than twice and compare the results.

It "Should be random" {
    &$oneLiner | Should Not Be (&$oneLiner)

Another interesting thing about this test is that I did not notice the randomness requirement at first and posted my solution without it, which automatically makes my solution incorrect :)

### Test 6 - Code should be error free
This test seemed straight forward because any terminating error (exception) in a Pester test makes the test fail. The difficult part was capturing non-terminating errors as well. I had to set the error action preference to `Stop` and also pipe to `Not Throw` to make the test behave correctly. That's something to be improved in the next version of Pester.

It "Should be error-free" {
    $errorActionPreference = 'Stop'
    $oneLiner | Should Not Throw

That was it for the functional tests. All of them were pretty easy to write, and there was not much to figure out. Next up were te the stylistic tests, which were a bit more challenging as I first needed to write some helper functions to avoid any ifs and for loops in the body of my tests.

### Test 6 - All cmdlets must have an alias
This test was the most challenging test to write. There are two things that I needed to figure out. First I needed a way to parse the code and find all the commands. For that I knew I could use the AST, but I had to write and test the code to find all the commands. The other thing was checking if all the found commands have aliases. First I started with the tests for AST parsing and then I implemented the function:

Describe "Get-ScriptBlockCommand" { 
    It "Finds basic cmdlet" {
        Get-ScriptBlockCommand { Get-Date } | Should Be "Get-Date"
    It "Finds basic alias" {
        Get-ScriptBlockCommand { gci } | Should Be "gci"
    It "Finds multiple commands alias" {
        $actual = Get-ScriptBlockCommand { ps; get-process } 
        $actual[0] | Should Be 'ps'
        $actual[1] | Should Be 'get-process'
    It "Ignores keywords" {
        Get-ScriptBlockCommand { if ($true) {} } | Should BeNullOrEmpty
    It "Ignores other tokens" {
        Get-ScriptBlockCommand { $a = 10 ; $false } | Should BeNullOrEmpty

function Get-ScriptBlockCommand ($ScriptBlock) {
     $tokens = [System.Management.Automation.PSParser]::Tokenize($ScriptBlock,[ref]$null)
     $tokens | where { $_.Type -eq 'Command' } | select -expand content

Then I followed with looking up aliases and testing the every command has at least one:

Describe "Test-Alias" {
    It "Finds alias for basic cmdlet" {
        Test-Alias Get-ChildItem | Should Be $True
        Test-Alias Test-Path | Should Be $False        

    It "Finds alias when given alias " {
        Test-Alias gci | Should Be $True
        Test-Alias ps | Should Be $True 

    It "Returns true when all commands have aliases" {
        Test-Alias ("gci", "ps", "get-childItem") | Should Be $True

    It "Returns false when any of the commands does not have an alias" {
        Test-Alias ("Test-path", "ps", "get-childItem") | Should Be $false

function Test-Alias ([string[]] $Name) {
    end {
        $aliases = Get-Alias
        foreach ($n in $name) {
            if ($null -eq ($aliases | Where {$_.Name -eq $n -or $_.Definition -eq $n}))
                return $false

Then I could finally proceed to writing the main test:

It "All used cmdlets have an alias" {
    $commands = Get-ScriptBlockCommand $oneliner
    Test-Alias $commands | Should Be $True

### Test 7 - Code must not contain semicolon
And finally I finished with another primitive test checking that semicolon is nowhere to be found in my oneliner. The one liner is also not executed this time. Rather we implicitly convert it to string and pass it to the `Match` assertion.

It "contains no semicolons" {
    $oneliner | Should Not Match "\;"

And that was it for my testing. I hope you enjoyed the competition and congratulation to the winners!!!

Thanks again to all the competitors, to Mike F Robbins for the original function, to Sam Seitz for his brilliant solution and to Jakub Jares for showing us the way to functional testing. And remember, it was all about learning.


  1. Thanks for the contest and congratulations to the winner! I see the winning solution went in the same general direction as mine, but it's more clever, and mine failed the random restriction. :) It looks like the winning solution still can be pushed a bit further by using cpu metrics to get "randomness", 57 characters: ([char[]](71..89)|?{!(gdr $_)2>0}|sort{ps|sort cpu})[0]+':'

    1. Brilliant! Thanks for improving the winning answer, and thanks again for spending time to give me a solid tool for checking those oneliners. Pester rocks.

    2. Now I am thinking, what about these 56 chars ([char[]](71..89)|?{!(gdr $_)2>0}|sort{ps|sort *u})[0]+':' :-)

  2. Ok, my main mistake was interpreting "available drive letter" as the letter of a drive that's mounted, instead of available in the sense of not yet mounted.

    I'd also argue that using is perhaps a bit cheating (in your own solution), since it uses an external service to solve part of the problem, instead of the actual language.

    1. Yes, but it was kind of a quest to find an external service with JSON support that offered the service I needed for the contest... and in just a small bunch of characters. Also, Jeffrey Snover hiself used a lot of irm and json for his show, so I am sure he wouldn't disagree :-)

      Thanks Johannes for taking the time to participate to the contest. It's always a pleasure to have a black-belt powersheller as you onboard.

  3. Tunnel vision got the best of me. Kept trying to look for alternatives to code I was using, and should have just cleaned up the code I had. Fun contest.

    1. The contest wasn't easy at all but you showed a lot imagination and skill and finally got some nice oneliners. Next time!


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