DIGITAL Command Language

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DIGITAL Command Language
Designed byDigital Equipment Corporation
DeveloperDigital Equipment Corporation
Windows PowerShell

DIGITAL Command Language (DCL) is the standard command language adopted by most of the operating systems (OSs) that were sold by the former Digital Equipment Corporation (which was acquired by Compaq, which was in turn acquired by Hewlett-Packard). DCL had its roots in the IAS, TOPS-20, and RT-11 OSs and was implemented as a standard across most of Digital's OSs, notably RSX-11, but took its most powerful form in the OpenVMS OS.

Written when the programming language Fortran was in heavy use, DCL is a scripting language supporting several datatypes, including strings, integers, bit arrays, arrays and booleans, but not floating point numbers. Access to OpenVMS system services (kernel API) is through lexical functions, which perform the same as their compiled language counterparts and allow scripts to get information on system state. DCL includes IF-THEN-ELSE, access to all the Record Management Services (RMS) file types including stream, indexed, and sequential, but unfortunately lacks a DO-WHILE or other looping construct, requiring users to make do with IF and GOTO-label statements instead.

DCL is available for other operating systems as well, including

DCL is the basis of the XLNT language, implemented on Windows by an interpreter-IDE-WSH engine combination with CGI capabilities distributed by Advanced System Concepts Inc. from 1997.

Command line parser[edit]

OpenVMS Alpha 8.4-2L1, showing the DCL CLI in a terminal session

For the OpenVMS implementation, the command line parser is a runtime library (CLI$) that can be compiled into user applications and therefore gives a consistent command line interface for both OS supplied commands and user written commands. The command line must start with a verb and is then followed by arguments or qualifiers (switches in Unix terminology) which begin with a '/' character. Unlike Unix (but similar to DOS), a space is not required before the '/'. Qualifiers can be position independent (occurring anywhere on the command line) or position dependent, in which case the qualifier affects the parameter it appears after. Most qualifiers are position independent. Only the first most significant part of the verb and qualifier name is required. An example OS command may look like:

    set audit /alarm /enable=(authorization, breakin=all)
    show device /files $1$DGA1424:

The second show command could also be typed as:

   sho dev $1$DGA1424:/fil

While DCL documentation usually shows all DCL commands in uppercase, DCL commands are case-insensitive and may be typed in upper-, lower-, or mixed-case.

Some implementations such as OpenVMS used a minimum uniqueness scheme in allowing commands to be shortened while others such as RSX-11 allowed commands to be abbreviated to a minimum of three characters.

Unlike other systems which use paths for locating commands, DCL requires commands to be defined explicitly, either via CLD (Command Language Definition) definitions or a foreign symbol. Most OpenVMS-native commands are defined via CLD files; these are compiled by the CDU, the Command Definition Utility, and added to a DCL 'table' -- SYS$LIBRARY:DCLTABLES.EXE by default, although processes are free to use their own tables -- and can then be invoked by the user. For example, defining a command FOO that accepts the option "/BAR" and is implemented by the image SYS$SYSEXE:FOO.EXE could be done with a CLD file similar to:


The user can then type "FOO", or "FOO/BAR", and the FOO program will be invoked. The command definition language supports many types of options, for example dates and file specifications, and allows a qualifier to change the image invoked -- for example "CREATE", to create a file, vs. "CREATE/DIRECTORY" to create a directory.

The other (simpler, but less flexible) method to define commands is via foreign commands. This is more akin to the Unix method of invoking programs. By giving the command:

 foo :== $sys$sysexe:foo.exe

the command 'FOO' will invoke FOO.EXE, and supply any additional arguments literally to the program, for example, "foo -v". This method is generally used for programs ported from Unix and other non-native systems; for C programs using argc and argv command syntax.

Versions of OpenVMS DCL starting with V6.2 support the DCL$PATH logical name for establishing Unix-style command paths. This mechanism is known as an Automatic Foreign Command. DCL$PATH allows a list of directories to be specified, and these directories are then searched for DCL command procedures (command.COM) and then for executable images (command.EXE) with filenames that match the command that was input by the user. Like traditional foreign commands, automatic foreign commands also allow Unix-style command input.


DCL scripts look much like any other scripting language, with some exceptions. All DCL verbs in a script are preceded with a $ symbol; other lines are considered to be input to the previous command. For example, to use the TYPE command to print a paragraph onto the screen, one might use a script similar to:

This is an example of using the TYPE verb
in the DCL language.

Indirect variable referencing[edit]

It is possible to build arrays in DCL that are referenced through translated symbols. This allows the programmer to build arbitrarily sized data structures using the data itself as an indexing function.

$ i = 1
$ variable'i' = "blue"
$ i = 2 
$ variable'i' = "green"
$ j = 1
$ color = variable'j'
$ rainbow'color' = "red"
$ color = variable'i'
$ rainbow'color' = "yellow"

In this example the variable rainbowblue is assigned the value "red", and rainbowgreen is assigned the value "yellow".


The following is a list of DCL commands for common computing tasks that are supported by the OpenVMS command-line interface.[2]

Lexical functions[edit]

Lexical functions provide string functions and access to VMS-maintained data.

Some Lexicals are:

  • F$EXTRACT(start,length,string) — extract a substring
  • F$CVTIME — obtain date/time info, e.g.
  • F$ELEMENT(0," ",ABC_DEF) — for ABC_DEF = "ABC DEF" would return "ABC"
  • F$SEARCH — searches for a file, returns a null ("") if not found
  • F$LOCATE(needle,haystack)
  • F$SetPRV("BYPASS,CMKRNL,ALTPRI") — it's a privilege to have access to this.


  1. ^ "Comparison of PC-DCL vs. Open DCL Lite". A comparison of Valentin's PC-DCL vs. Accelr8 Open DCL Lite
  2. ^ OpenVMS User's Manual

See also[edit]


  • Paul C. Anagnostopoulos, Steve Hoffman: Writing Real Programs in DCL, Second Edition, 1998, Digital Press. ISBN 1-55558-191-9

External links[edit]