Reading from the Command-Line in Kotlin

And how to make short work of complex problems using higher order functions, lambdas and generics

  • Sean Soper
  • October 6, 2020

When it comes to breaking down complex problems into smaller ones Kotlin offers a full range of functional tools and patterns to make your job easier. Building on our previous entry around building a command-line application we will put several techniques to use to build a robust solution to the problem of accepting and validating user input.

Parse with Class

Let’s add a Kotlin class which we will be able to create instances of to parse our input. We’re going to call it the very originally named CommandLineParser. By bundling all of our parsing functionality into a single file we achieve two goals, separation of concerns and testability, both of which go a long ways towards ensuring ease of maintenance and extensability in the future.

Our parser will be pretty simple as it will accept only three arguments to start with: help, verbose and config the latter of which will be a string value pointing to a configuration file. However we will build it in such a way that if we wanted to add arguments that took integers as values it wouldn’t be difficult to do.

A summary of this new functionality, including the code highlighted below, can be found in these commits.

Data Class

While Swift has the struct, Kotlin has the data class. They share a similar goal of providing a general-purpose flexible construct to store values. However they differ significantly in where they are stored. While a Swift struct is stored in the stack, a data class, being the object that it is, is stored in the heap along with every other reference type instance.

data class Parsed(val pathToConfigFile: Path,
                  val verbose: Boolean)

This class will provide us a means of encapsulating the parsed results of whatever command-line input was passed.


Generics are a means of allowing a function to return more than one type of value while also providing compile-time checks. An example of this would be a sorting function which can take two strings, two integers, etc. and return which one is greater. You could write a sorting function for each type or you could write one sorting function that simply takes two of the same type regardless of that type.

In our example we are using generics, noted by the T such as in <T: Any>, to ensure that the type of the value parsed out of the command-line input is what is returned. Without generics we would need to write a similar but different function that parsed integers for say a port number vs. parsing the path to a configuration file that would return a string.

private fun<T: Any> parseArguments(regex: Regex, transform: (String) -> T): List<T> {
    val match = fun (str: String): T? {
        return regex.find(str)?.let {
            if (it.groups.count() < 2) {
                return null
            return it.groups[1]?.let {
    return args.mapNotNull(match)

HOFs and Lambdas

Higher Order Functions (HOFs) and lambdas are two sides of the same coin. HOFs are functions that can take functions as arguments. Lambdas are a type of function which can be passed as an argument to a HOF. Lambdas show up everywhere in functional programming but it should be noted they are distinct from anonymous functions. So just like a sort function will take a lambda as an expression to override the default sorting, our function will take a lambda to decide how to parse the input for that specific command-line argument.

private fun getPath(type: String): Path? {
    val regex = Regex("^-${type}=(.*)")
    return parseArguments(regex) {
        if (it.startsWith("/")) {
        } else {
            Paths.get(basePath, it)

In our case a typical value would be -config=/path/to/config along with a regular expression and the lambda. Most of the magic happens in parseArguments which uses the anonymous function stored in match to break the input up into logical parts which are then handed over to the lambda as a List. While it seems like overkill for parsing a String, it could just as easily be used to parse an integer.

private fun getPort(): Int {
    val regex = Regex("^-port=(\\d{2,5})")
    return parseArguments(regex) {
    }.firstOrNull() ?: defaultPort

In this example the string values are being converted and returned as an Int while using the exact same code under the hood to break up the initial command-line input. That is the power of generics, HOFs and lambdas all working together to break down complexity into bite-sized reusable chunks.


Using this new parser functionality is pretty simple thanks to our componentized approach. Within Core.kt we need only update the main function to look like this.

@JvmStatic fun main(args: Array<String>) {
    val cli = CommandLineParser(args)
    if (cli.shouldShowHelp) {
    val parsed = try {
    } catch (exception: ConfigFileNotFound) {
        println("❌ ${exception.localizedMessage}")
    println("verbose set to ${parsed.verbose}")
    println("config path set to ${parsed.pathToConfigFile}")

Rebuilding the JAR file and running it should now produce useful output. Here it is showing the help dialog.

[email protected] Batil % java -jar out/artifacts/Batil_main_jar/Batil.main.jar -help

    -help              Show documentation
    -verbose           Show debugging output
    -config=path       Path to configuration file, default is ./batil.config

Showing an error.

[email protected] Batil % java -jar out/artifacts/Batil_main_jar/Batil.main.jar -verbose
❌ Configuration file not found

    -help              Show documentation
    -verbose           Show debugging output
    -config=path       Path to configuration file, default is ./batil.config

And finally showing a successful run.

[email protected] Batil % touch batil.config
[email protected] Batil % java -jar out/artifacts/Batil_main_jar/Batil.main.jar -verbose
verbose set to true
config path set to /Users/ssoper/workspace/Batil/batil.config


Of course, neither you or I are the first ones to stumble upon this problem which is why libraries such as Clikt are available to use with your command-line applications should you not feel like building your own solution. Even if you do go with a pre-packaged command-line parser, there is plenty of opportunity to use the full range of functional tools provided by Kotlin to help reduce the complexity in your code.