Chapter 1. GNU/Linux tutorials

Table of Contents

1.1. Console basics
1.1.1. The shell prompt
1.1.2. The shell prompt under X
1.1.3. The root account
1.1.4. The root shell prompt
1.1.5. GUI system administration tools
1.1.6. Virtual consoles
1.1.7. How to leave the command prompt
1.1.8. How to shutdown the system
1.1.9. Recovering a sane console
1.1.10. Additional package suggestions for the newbie
1.1.11. An extra user account
1.1.12. sudo configuration
1.1.13. Play time
1.2. Unix-like filesystem
1.2.1. Unix file basics
1.2.2. Filesystem internals
1.2.3. Filesystem permissions
1.2.4. Control of permissions for newly created files: umask
1.2.5. Permissions for groups of users (group)
1.2.6. Timestamps
1.2.7. Links
1.2.8. Named pipes (FIFOs)
1.2.9. Sockets
1.2.10. Device files
1.2.11. Special device files
1.2.12. procfs and sysfs
1.2.13. tmpfs
1.3. Midnight Commander (MC)
1.3.1. Customization of MC
1.3.2. Starting MC
1.3.3. File manager in MC
1.3.4. Command-line tricks in MC
1.3.5. The internal editor in MC
1.3.6. The internal viewer in MC
1.3.7. Auto-start features of MC
1.3.8. FTP virtual filesystem of MC
1.4. The basic Unix-like work environment
1.4.1. The login shell
1.4.2. Customizing bash
1.4.3. Special key strokes
1.4.4. Unix style mouse operations
1.4.5. The pager
1.4.6. The text editor
1.4.7. Setting a default text editor
1.4.8. Customizing vim
1.4.9. Recording the shell activities
1.4.10. Basic Unix commands
1.5. The simple shell command
1.5.1. Command execution and environment variable
1.5.2. The "$LANG" variable
1.5.3. The "$PATH" variable
1.5.4. The "$HOME" variable
1.5.5. Command line options
1.5.6. Shell glob
1.5.7. Return value of the command
1.5.8. Typical command sequences and shell redirection
1.5.9. Command alias
1.6. Unix-like text processing
1.6.1. Unix text tools
1.6.2. Regular expressions
1.6.3. Replacement expressions
1.6.4. Global substitution with regular expressions
1.6.5. Extracting data from text file table
1.6.6. Script snippets for piping commands

I think learning a computer system is like learning a new foreign language. Although tutorial books and documentation are helpful, you have to practice it yourself. In order to help you get started smoothly, I elaborate a few basic points.

The powerful design of Debian GNU/Linux comes from the Unix operating system, i.e., a multiuser, multitasking operating system. You must learn to take advantage of the power of these features and similarities between Unix and GNU/Linux.

Don't shy away from Unix oriented texts and don't rely solely on GNU/Linux texts, as this robs you of much useful information.

[Note] Note

If you have been using any Unix-like system for a while with command line tools, you probably know everything I explain here. Please use this as a reality check and refresher.

Upon starting the system, you are presented with the character based login screen if you did not install X Window System with the display manager such as gdm3. Suppose your hostname is foo, the login prompt looks as follows.

foo login:

If you did install a GUI environment such as GNOME or KDE, then you can get to a login prompt by Ctrl-Alt-F1, and you can return to the GUI environment via Alt-F7 (see Section 1.1.6, “Virtual consoles” below for more).

At the login prompt, you type your username, e.g. penguin, and press the Enter-key, then type your password and press the Enter-key again.

[Note] Note

Following the Unix tradition, the username and password of the Debian system are case sensitive. The username is usually chosen only from the lowercase. The first user account is usually created during the installation. Additional user accounts can be created with adduser(8) by root.

The system starts with the greeting message stored in "/etc/motd" (Message Of The Day) and presents a command prompt.

Debian GNU/Linux jessie/sid foo tty1
foo login: penguin
Password:
Last login: Mon Sep 23 19:36:44 JST 2013 on tty3
Linux snoopy 3.11-1-amd64 #1 SMP Debian 3.11.6-2 (2013-11-01) x86_64

The programs included with the Debian GNU/Linux system are free software;
the exact distribution terms for each program are described in the
individual files in /usr/share/doc/*/copyright.

Debian GNU/Linux comes with ABSOLUTELY NO WARRANTY, to the extent
permitted by applicable law.
foo:~$

Here, the main part of the greeting message can be customized by editing the "/etc/motd.tail" file. The first line is generated from the system information using "uname -snrvm".

Now you are in the shell. The shell interprets your commands.

If you installed X Window System with a display manager such as GNOME's gdm3 by selecting "Desktop environment" task during the installation, you are presented with the graphical login screen upon starting your system. You type your username and your password to login to the non-privileged user account. Use tab to navigate between username and password, or use the mouse and primary click.

You can gain the shell prompt under X by starting a x-terminal-emulator program such as gnome-terminal(1), rxvt(1) or xterm(1). Under the GNOME Desktop environment, clicking "Applications" → "Accessories" → "Terminal" does the trick.

You can also see the section below Section 1.1.6, “Virtual consoles”.

Under some other Desktop systems (like fluxbox), there may be no obvious starting point for the menu. If this happens, just try (right) clicking the background of the desktop screen and hope for a menu to pop-up.

The root account is also called superuser or privileged user. From this account, you can perform the following system administration tasks.

  • Read, write, and remove any files on the system irrespective of their file permissions

  • Set file ownership and permissions of any files on the system

  • Set the password of any non-privileged users on the system

  • Login to any accounts without their passwords

This unlimited power of root account requires you to be considerate and responsible when using it.

[Warning] Warning

Never share the root password with others.

[Note] Note

File permissions of a file (including hardware devices such as CD-ROM etc. which are just another file for the Debian system) may render it unusable or inaccessible by non-root users. Although the use of root account is a quick way to test this kind of situation, its resolution should be done through proper setting of file permissions and user's group membership (see Section 1.2.3, “Filesystem permissions”).

When your desktop menu does not start GUI system administration tools automatically with the appropriate privilege, you can start them from the root shell prompt of the X terminal emulator, such as gnome-terminal(1), rxvt(1), or xterm(1). See Section 1.1.4, “The root shell prompt” and Section 7.8.4, “Running X clients as root”.

[Warning] Warning

Never start the X display/session manager under the root account by typing in root to the prompt of the display manager such as gdm3(1).

[Warning] Warning

Never run untrusted remote GUI program under X Window when critical information is displayed since it may eavesdrop your X screen.

In the default Debian system, there are six switchable VT100-like character consoles available to start the command shell directly on the Linux host. Unless you are in a GUI environment, you can switch between the virtual consoles by pressing the Left-Alt-key and one of the F1F6 keys simultaneously. Each character console allows independent login to the account and offers the multiuser environment. This multiuser environment is a great Unix feature, and very addictive.

If you are under the X Window System, you gain access to the character console 1 by pressing Ctrl-Alt-F1 key, i.e., the left-Ctrl-key, the left-Alt-key, and the F1-key are pressed together. You can get back to the X Window System, normally running on the virtual console 7, by pressing Alt-F7.

You can alternatively change to another virtual console, e.g. to the console 1, from the commandline.

# chvt 1

Just like any other modern OS where the file operation involves caching data in memory for improved performance, the Debian system needs the proper shutdown procedure before power can safely be turned off. This is to maintain the integrity of files, by forcing all changes in memory to be written to disk. If the software power control is available, the shutdown procedure automatically turns off power of the system. (Otherwise, you may have to press power button for few seconds after the shutdown procedure.)

You can shutdown the system under the normal multiuser mode from the commandline.

# shutdown -h now

You can shutdown the system under the single-user mode from the commandline.

# poweroff -i -f

Alternatively, you may type Ctrl-Alt-Delete (The left-Ctrl-key, the left-Alt-Key, and the Delete are pressed together) to shutdown if "/etc/inittab" contains "ca:12345:ctrlaltdel:/sbin/shutdown -t1 -a -h now" in it. See inittab(5) for details.

See Section 6.9.6, “How to shutdown the remote system on SSH”.

Although even the minimal installation of the Debian system without any desktop environment tasks provides the basic Unix functionality, it is a good idea to install few additional commandline and curses based character terminal packages such as mc and vim with apt-get(8) for beginners to get started by the following.

# apt-get update
 ...
# apt-get install mc vim sudo
 ...

If you already had these packages installed, no new packages are installed.


It may be a good idea to read some informative documentations.


You can install some of these packages by the following.

# apt-get install package_name

For the typical single user workstation such as the desktop Debian system on the laptop PC, it is common to deploy simple configuration of sudo(8) as follows to let the non-privileged user, e.g. penguin, to gain administrative privilege just with his user password but without the root password.

# echo "penguin  ALL=(ALL) ALL" >> /etc/sudoers

Alternatively, it is also common to do as follows to let the non-privileged user, e.g. penguin, to gain administrative privilege without any password.

# echo "penguin  ALL=(ALL) NOPASSWD:ALL" >> /etc/sudoers

This trick should only be used for the single user workstation which you administer and where you are the only user.

[Warning] Warning

Do not set up accounts of regular users on multiuser workstation like this because it would be very bad for system security.

[Caution] Caution

The password and the account of the penguin in the above example requires as much protection as the root password and the root account.

[Caution] Caution

Administrative privilege in this context belongs to someone authorized to perform the system administration task on the workstation. Never give some manager in the Admin department of your company or your boss such privilege unless they are authorized and capable.

[Note] Note

For providing access privilege to limited devices and limited files, you should consider to use group to provide limited access instead of using the root privilege via sudo(8).

[Note] Note

With more thoughtful and careful configuration, sudo(8) can grant limited administrative privileges to other users on a shared system without sharing the root password. This can help with accountability with hosts with multiple administrators so you can tell who did what. On the other hand, you might not want anyone else to have such privileges.

In GNU/Linux and other Unix-like operating systems, files are organized into directories. All files and directories are arranged in one big tree rooted at "/". It's called a tree because if you draw the filesystem, it looks like a tree but it is upside down.

These files and directories can be spread out over several devices. mount(8) serves to attach the filesystem found on some device to the big file tree. Conversely, umount(8) detaches it again. On recent Linux kernels, mount(8) with some options can bind part of a file tree somewhere else or can mount filesystem as shared, private, slave, or unbindable. Supported mount options for each filesystem are available in "/share/doc/linux-doc-*/Documentation/filesystems/".

Directories on Unix systems are called folders on some other systems. Please also note that there is no concept for drive such as "A:" on any Unix system. There is one filesystem, and everything is included. This is a huge advantage compared to Windows.

Here are some Unix file basics.

[Note] Note

While you can use almost any letters or symbols in a file name, in practice it is a bad idea to do so. It is better to avoid any characters that often have special meanings on the command line, including spaces, tabs, newlines, and other special characters: { } ( ) [ ] ' ` " \ / > < | ; ! # & ^ * % @ $ . If you want to separate words in a name, good choices are the period, hyphen, and underscore. You could also capitalize each word, "LikeThis". Experienced Linux users tend to avoid spaces in filenames.

[Note] Note

The word "root" can mean either "root user" or "root directory". The context of their usage should make it clear.

[Note] Note

The word path is used not only for fully-qualified filename as above but also for the command search path. The intended meaning is usually clear from the context.

The detailed best practices for the file hierarchy are described in the Filesystem Hierarchy Standard ("/usr/share/doc/debian-policy/fhs/fhs-2.3.txt.gz" and hier(7)). You should remember the following facts as the starter.


Following the Unix tradition, the Debian GNU/Linux system provides the filesystem under which physical data on hard disks and other storage devices reside, and the interaction with the hardware devices such as console screens and remote serial consoles are represented in an unified manner under "/dev/".

Each file, directory, named pipe (a way two programs can share data), or physical device on a Debian GNU/Linux system has a data structure called an inode which describes its associated attributes such as the user who owns it (owner), the group that it belongs to, the time last accessed, etc. If you are really interested, see "/usr/include/linux/fs.h" for the exact definition of "struct inode" in the Debian GNU/Linux system. The idea of representing just about everything in the filesystem was a Unix innovation, and modern Linux kernels have developed this idea ever further. Now, even information about processes running in the computer can be found in the filesystem.

This abstract and unified representation of physical entities and internal processes is very powerful since this allows us to use the same command for the same kind of operation on many totally different devices. It is even possible to change the way the kernel works by writing data to special files that are linked to running processes.

[Tip] Tip

If you need to identify the correspondence between the file tree and the physical entity, execute mount(8) with no arguments.

Filesystem permissions of Unix-like system are defined for three categories of affected users.

  • The user who owns the file (u)

  • Other users in the group which the file belongs to (g)

  • All other users (o) also referred to as "world" and "everyone"

For the file, each corresponding permission allows following actions.

  • The read (r) permission allows owner to examine contents of the file.

  • The write (w) permission allows owner to modify the file.

  • The execute (x) permission allows owner to run the file as a command.

For the directory, each corresponding permission allows following actions.

  • The read (r) permission allows owner to list contents of the directory.

  • The write (w) permission allows owner to add or remove files in the directory.

  • The execute (x) permission allows owner to access files in the directory.

Here, the execute permission on a directory means not only to allow reading of files in that directory but also to allow viewing their attributes, such as the size and the modification time.

ls(1) is used to display permission information (and more) for files and directories. When it is invoked with the "-l" option, it displays the following information in the order given.

  • Type of file (first character)

  • Access permission of the file (nine characters, consisting of three characters each for user, group, and other in this order)

  • Number of hard links to the file

  • Name of the user who owns the file

  • Name of the group which the file belongs to

  • Size of the file in characters (bytes)

  • Date and time of the file (mtime)

  • Name of the file


chown(1) is used from the root account to change the owner of the file. chgrp(1) is used from the file's owner or root account to change the group of the file. chmod(1) is used from the file's owner or root account to change file and directory access permissions. Basic syntax to manipulate a foo file is the following.

# chown <newowner> foo
# chgrp <newgroup> foo
# chmod  [ugoa][+-=][rwxXst][,...] foo

For example, you can make a directory tree to be owned by a user foo and shared by a group bar by the following.

# cd /some/location/
# chown -R foo:bar .
# chmod -R ug+rwX,o=rX .

There are three more special permission bits.

  • The set user ID bit (s or S instead of user's x)

  • The set group ID bit (s or S instead of group's x)

  • The sticky bit (t or T instead of other's x)

Here the output of "ls -l" for these bits is capitalized if execution bits hidden by these outputs are unset.

Setting set user ID on an executable file allows a user to execute the executable file with the owner ID of the file (for example root). Similarly, setting set group ID on an executable file allows a user to execute the executable file with the group ID of the file (for example root). Because these settings can cause security risks, enabling them requires extra caution.

Setting set group ID on a directory enables the BSD-like file creation scheme where all files created in the directory belong to the group of the directory.

Setting the sticky bit on a directory prevents a file in the directory from being removed by a user who is not the owner of the file. In order to secure contents of a file in world-writable directories such as "/tmp" or in group-writable directories, one must not only reset the write permission for the file but also set the sticky bit on the directory. Otherwise, the file can be removed and a new file can be created with the same name by any user who has write access to the directory.

Here are a few interesting examples of file permissions.

$ ls -l /etc/passwd /etc/shadow /dev/ppp /usr/sbin/exim4
crw------T 1 root root   108, 0 Oct 16 20:57 /dev/ppp
-rw-r--r-- 1 root root     2761 Aug 30 10:38 /etc/passwd
-rw-r----- 1 root shadow   1695 Aug 30 10:38 /etc/shadow
-rwsr-xr-x 1 root root   973824 Sep 23 20:04 /usr/sbin/exim4
$ ls -ld /tmp /var/tmp /usr/local /var/mail /usr/src
drwxrwxrwt 14 root root  20480 Oct 16 21:25 /tmp
drwxrwsr-x 10 root staff  4096 Sep 29 22:50 /usr/local
drwxr-xr-x 10 root root   4096 Oct 11 00:28 /usr/src
drwxrwsr-x  2 root mail   4096 Oct 15 21:40 /var/mail
drwxrwxrwt  3 root root   4096 Oct 16 21:20 /var/tmp

There is an alternative numeric mode to describe file permissions with chmod(1). This numeric mode uses 3 to 4 digit wide octal (radix=8) numbers.


This sounds complicated but it is actually quite simple. If you look at the first few (2-10) columns from "ls -l" command output and read it as a binary (radix=2) representation of file permissions ("-" being "0" and "rwx" being "1"), the last 3 digit of the numeric mode value should make sense as an octal (radix=8) representation of file permissions to you.

For example, try the following

$ touch foo bar
$ chmod u=rw,go=r foo
$ chmod 644 bar
$ ls -l foo bar
-rw-r--r-- 1 penguin penguin 0 Oct 16 21:39 bar
-rw-r--r-- 1 penguin penguin 0 Oct 16 21:35 foo
[Tip] Tip

If you need to access information displayed by "ls -l" in shell script, you should use pertinent commands such as test(1), stat(1) and readlink(1). The shell builtin such as "[" or "test" may be used too.

In order to make group permissions to be applied to a particular user, that user needs to be made a member of the group using "sudo vigr" for /etc/group and "sudo vigr -s" for /etc/gshadow. You need to login after logout (or run "exec newgrp") to enable the new group configuration.

[Note] Note

Alternatively, you may dynamically add users to groups during the authentication process by adding "auth optional pam_group.so" line to "/etc/pam.d/common-auth" and setting "/etc/security/group.conf". (See Chapter 4, Authentication.)

The hardware devices are just another kind of file on the Debian system. If you have problems accessing devices such as CD-ROM and USB memory stick from a user account, you should make that user a member of the relevant group.

Some notable system-provided groups allow their members to access particular files and devices without root privilege.


[Tip] Tip

You need to belong to the dialout group to reconfigure modem, dial anywhere, etc. But if root creates pre-defined configuration files for trusted peers in "/etc/ppp/peers/", you only need to belong to the dip group to create Dialup IP connection to those trusted peers using pppd(8), pon(1), and poff(1) commands.

Some notable system-provided groups allow their members to execute particular commands without root privilege.


For the full listing of the system provided users and groups, see the recent version of the "Users and Groups" document in "/usr/share/doc/base-passwd/users-and-groups.html" provided by the base-passwd package.

See passwd(5), group(5), shadow(5), newgrp(1), vipw(8), vigr(8), and pam_group(8) for management commands of the user and group system.

There are two methods of associating a file "foo" with a different filename "bar".

See the following example for changes in link counts and the subtle differences in the result of the rm command.

$ umask 002
$ echo "Original Content" > foo
$ ls -li foo
1449840 -rw-rw-r-- 1 penguin penguin 17 Oct 16 21:42 foo
$ ln foo bar     # hard link
$ ln -s foo baz  # symlink
$ ls -li foo bar baz
1449840 -rw-rw-r-- 2 penguin penguin 17 Oct 16 21:42 bar
1450180 lrwxrwxrwx 1 penguin penguin  3 Oct 16 21:47 baz -> foo
1449840 -rw-rw-r-- 2 penguin penguin 17 Oct 16 21:42 foo
$ rm foo
$ echo "New Content" > foo
$ ls -li foo bar baz
1449840 -rw-rw-r-- 1 penguin penguin 17 Oct 16 21:42 bar
1450180 lrwxrwxrwx 1 penguin penguin  3 Oct 16 21:47 baz -> foo
1450183 -rw-rw-r-- 1 penguin penguin 12 Oct 16 21:48 foo
$ cat bar
Original Content
$ cat baz
New Content

The hardlink can be made within the same filesystem and shares the same inode number which the "-i" option with ls(1) reveals.

The symlink always has nominal file access permissions of "rwxrwxrwx", as shown in the above example, with the effective access permissions dictated by permissions of the file that it points to.

[Caution] Caution

It is generally a good idea not to create complicated symbolic links or hardlinks at all unless you have a very good reason. It may cause nightmares where the logical combination of the symbolic links results in loops in the filesystem.

[Note] Note

It is generally preferable to use symbolic links rather than hardlinks unless you have a good reason for using a hardlink.

The "." directory links to the directory that it appears in, thus the link count of any new directory starts at 2. The ".." directory links to the parent directory, thus the link count of the directory increases with the addition of new subdirectories.

If you are just moving to Linux from Windows, it soon becomes clear how well-designed the filename linking of Unix is, compared with the nearest Windows equivalent of "shortcuts". Because it is implemented in the filesystem, applications can't see any difference between a linked file and the original. In the case of hardlinks, there really is no difference.

A named pipe is a file that acts like a pipe. You put something into the file, and it comes out the other end. Thus it's called a FIFO, or First-In-First-Out: the first thing you put in the pipe is the first thing to come out the other end.

If you write to a named pipe, the process which is writing to the pipe doesn't terminate until the information being written is read from the pipe. If you read from a named pipe, the reading process waits until there is nothing to read before terminating. The size of the pipe is always zero --- it does not store data, it just links two processes like the functionality offered by the shell "|" syntax. However, since this pipe has a name, the two processes don't have to be on the same command line or even be run by the same user. Pipes were a very influential innovation of Unix.

For example, try the following

$ cd; mkfifo mypipe
$ echo "hello" >mypipe & # put into background
[1] 8022
$ ls -l mypipe
prw-rw-r-- 1 penguin penguin 0 Oct 16 21:49 mypipe
$ cat mypipe
hello
[1]+  Done                    echo "hello" >mypipe
$ ls mypipe
mypipe
$ rm mypipe

Device files refer to physical or virtual devices on your system, such as your hard disk, video card, screen, or keyboard. An example of a virtual device is the console, represented by "/dev/console".

There are 2 types of device files.

  • Character device

    • Accessed one character at a time

    • 1 character = 1 byte

    • E.g. keyboard device, serial port, …

  • Block device

    • accessed in larger units called blocks

    • 1 block > 1 byte

    • E.g. hard disk, …

You can read and write device files, though the file may well contain binary data which may be an incomprehensible-to-humans gibberish. Writing data directly to these files is sometimes useful for the troubleshooting of hardware connections. For example, you can dump a text file to the printer device "/dev/lp0" or send modem commands to the appropriate serial port "/dev/ttyS0". But, unless this is done carefully, it may cause a major disaster. So be cautious.

[Note] Note

For the normal access to a printer, use lp(1).

The device node number are displayed by executing ls(1) as the following.

$ ls -l /dev/sda /dev/sr0 /dev/ttyS0 /dev/zero
brw-rw---T  1 root disk     8,  0 Oct 16 20:57 /dev/sda
brw-rw---T+ 1 root cdrom   11,  0 Oct 16 21:53 /dev/sr0
crw-rw---T  1 root dialout  4, 64 Oct 16 20:57 /dev/ttyS0
crw-rw-rw-  1 root root     1,  5 Oct 16 20:57 /dev/zero
  • "/dev/sda" has the major device number 8 and the minor device number 0. This is read/write accessible by users belonging to the disk group.

  • "/dev/sr0" has the major device number 11 and the minor device number 0. This is read/write accessible by users belonging to the cdrom group.

  • "/dev/ttyS0" has the major device number 4 and the minor device number 64. This is read/write accessible by users belonging to the dialout group.

  • "/dev/zero" has the major device number 1 and the minor device number 5. This is read/write accessible by anyone.

On the modern Linux system, the filesystem under "/dev/" is automatically populated by the udev(7) mechanism.

The procfs and sysfs mounted on "/proc" and "/sys" are the pseudo-filesystem and expose internal data structures of the kernel to the userspace. In other word, these entries are virtual, meaning that they act as a convenient window into the operation of the operating system.

The directory "/proc" contains (among other things) one subdirectory for each process running on the system, which is named after the process ID (PID). System utilities that access process information, such as ps(1), get their information from this directory structure.

The directories under "/proc/sys/" contain interfaces to change certain kernel parameters at run time. (You may do the same through the specialized sysctl(8) command or its preload/configuration file "/etc/sysctl.conf".)

People frequently panic when they notice one file in particular - "/proc/kcore" - which is generally huge. This is (more or less) a copy of the content of your computer's memory. It's used to debug the kernel. It is a virtual file that points to computer memory, so don't worry about its size.

The directory under "/sys" contains exported kernel data structures, their attributes, and their linkages between them. It also contains interfaces to change certain kernel parameters at run time.

See "proc.txt(.gz)", "sysfs.txt(.gz)" and other related documents in the Linux kernel documentation ("/usr/share/doc/linux-doc-*/Documentation/filesystems/*") provided by the linux-doc-* package.

The tmpfs is a temporary filesystem which keeps all files in the virtual memory. The data of the tmpfs in the page cache on memory may be swapped out to the swap space on disk as needed.

The directory "/run" is mounted as the tmpfs in the early boot process. This enables writing to it even when the directory "/" is mounted as read-only. This is the new location for the storage of transient state files and replaces several locations described in the Filesystem Hierarchy Standard version 2.3:

  • "/var/run" → "/run"

  • "/var/lock" → "/run/lock"

  • "/dev/shm" → "/run/shm"

See "tmpfs.txt(.gz)" in the Linux kernel documentation ("/usr/share/doc/linux-doc-*/Documentation/filesystems/*") provided by the linux-doc-* package.

Midnight Commander (MC) is a GNU "Swiss army knife" for the Linux console and other terminal environments. This gives newbie a menu driven console experience which is much easier to learn than standard Unix commands.

You may need to install the Midnight Commander package which is titled "mc" by the following.

$ sudo apt-get install mc

Use the mc(1) command to explore the Debian system. This is the best way to learn. Please explore few interesting locations just using the cursor keys and Enter key.

  • "/etc" and its subdirectories

  • "/var/log" and its subdirectories

  • "/usr/share/doc" and its subdirectories

  • "/sbin" and "/bin"

Although MC enables you to do almost everything, it is very important for you to learn how to use the command line tools invoked from the shell prompt and become familiar with the Unix-like work environment.

You should become proficient in one of variants of Vim or Emacs programs which are popular in the Unix-like system.

I think getting used to Vim commands is the right thing to do, since Vi-editor is always there in the Linux/Unix world. (Actually, original vi or new nvi are programs you find everywhere. I chose Vim instead for newbie since it offers you help through F1 key while it is similar enough and more powerful.)

If you chose either Emacs or XEmacs instead as your choice of the editor, that is another good choice indeed, particularly for programming. Emacs has a plethora of other features as well, including functioning as a newsreader, directory editor, mail program, etc. When used for programming or editing shell scripts, it intelligently recognizes the format of what you are working on, and tries to provide assistance. Some people maintain that the only program they need on Linux is Emacs. Ten minutes learning Emacs now can save hours later. Having the GNU Emacs manual for reference when learning Emacs is highly recommended.

All these programs usually come with tutoring program for you to learn them by practice. Start Vim by typing "vim" and press F1-key. You should at least read the first 35 lines. Then do the online training course by moving cursor to "|tutor|" and pressing Ctrl-].

[Note] Note

Good editors, such as Vim and Emacs, can handle UTF-8 and other exotic encoding texts correctly. It is a good idea to use the X environment in the UTF-8 locale and to install required programs and fonts to it. Editors have options to set the file encoding independent of the X environment. Please refer to their documentation on multibyte text.

Let's learn basic Unix commands. Here I use "Unix" in its generic sense. Any Unix clone OSs usually offer equivalent commands. The Debian system is no exception. Do not worry if some commands do not work as you wish now. If alias is used in the shell, its corresponding command outputs are different. These examples are not meant to be executed in this order.

Try all following commands from the non-privileged user account.

Table 1.16. List of basic Unix commands

command description
pwd display name of current/working directory
whoami display current user name
id display current user identity (name, uid, gid, and associated groups)
file <foo> display a type of file for the file "<foo>"
type -p <commandname> display a file location of command "<commandname>"
which <commandname> , ,
type <commandname> display information on command "<commandname>"
apropos <key-word> find commands related to "<key-word>"
man -k <key-word> , ,
whatis <commandname> display one line explanation on command "<commandname>"
man -a <commandname> display explanation on command "<commandname>" (Unix style)
info <commandname> display rather long explanation on command "<commandname>" (GNU style)
ls list contents of directory (non-dot files and directories)
ls -a list contents of directory (all files and directories)
ls -A list contents of directory (almost all files and directories, i.e., skip ".." and ".")
ls -la list all contents of directory with detail information
ls -lai list all contents of directory with inode number and detail information
ls -d list all directories under the current directory
tree display file tree contents
lsof <foo> list open status of file "<foo>"
lsof -p <pid> list files opened by the process ID: "<pid>"
mkdir <foo> make a new directory "<foo>" in the current directory
rmdir <foo> remove a directory "<foo>" in the current directory
cd <foo> change directory to the directory "<foo>" in the current directory or in the directory listed in the variable "$CDPATH"
cd / change directory to the root directory
cd change directory to the current user's home directory
cd /<foo> change directory to the absolute path directory "/<foo>"
cd .. change directory to the parent directory
cd ~<foo> change directory to the home directory of the user "<foo>"
cd - change directory to the previous directory
</etc/motd pager display contents of "/etc/motd" using the default pager
touch <junkfile> create a empty file "<junkfile>"
cp <foo> <bar> copy a existing file "<foo>" to a new file "<bar>"
rm <junkfile> remove a file "<junkfile>"
mv <foo> <bar> rename an existing file "<foo>" to a new name "<bar>" ("<bar>" must not exist)
mv <foo> <bar> move an existing file "<foo>" to a new location "<bar>/<foo>" (the directory "<bar>" must exist)
mv <foo> <bar>/<baz> move an existing file "<foo>" to a new location with a new name "<bar>/<baz>" (the directory "<bar>" must exist but the directory "<bar>/<baz>" must not exist)
chmod 600 <foo> make an existing file "<foo>" to be non-readable and non-writable by the other people (non-executable for all)
chmod 644 <foo> make an existing file "<foo>" to be readable but non-writable by the other people (non-executable for all)
chmod 755 <foo> make an existing file "<foo>" to be readable but non-writable by the other people (executable for all)
find . -name <pattern> find matching filenames using shell "<pattern>" (slower)
locate -d . <pattern> find matching filenames using shell "<pattern>" (quicker using regularly generated database)
grep -e "<pattern>" *.html find a "<pattern>" in all files ending with ".html" in current directory and display them all
top display process information using full screen, type "q" to quit
ps aux | pager display information on all the running processes using BSD style output
ps -ef | pager display information on all the running processes using Unix system-V style output
ps aux | grep -e "[e]xim4*" display all processes running "exim" and "exim4"
ps axf | pager display information on all the running processes with ASCII art output
kill <1234> kill a process identified by the process ID: "<1234>"
gzip <foo> compress "<foo>" to create "<foo>.gz" using the Lempel-Ziv coding (LZ77)
gunzip <foo>.gz decompress "<foo>.gz" to create "<foo>"
bzip2 <foo> compress "<foo>" to create "<foo>.bz2" using the Burrows-Wheeler block sorting text compression algorithm, and Huffman coding (better compression than gzip)
bunzip2 <foo>.bz2 decompress "<foo>.bz2" to create "<foo>"
xz <foo> compress "<foo>" to create "<foo>.xz" using the Lempel–Ziv–Markov chain algorithm (better compression than bzip2)
unxz <foo>.xz decompress "<foo>.xz" to create "<foo>"
tar -xvf <foo>.tar extract files from "<foo>.tar" archive
tar -xvzf <foo>.tar.gz extract files from gzipped "<foo>.tar.gz" archive
tar -xvjf <foo>.tar.bz2 extract files from "<foo>.tar.bz2" archive
tar -xvJf <foo>.tar.xz extract files from "<foo>.tar.xz" archive
tar -cvf <foo>.tar <bar>/ archive contents of folder "<bar>/" in "<foo>.tar" archive
tar -cvzf <foo>.tar.gz <bar>/ archive contents of folder "<bar>/" in compressed "<foo>.tar.gz" archive
tar -cvjf <foo>.tar.bz2 <bar>/ archive contents of folder "<bar>/" in "<foo>.tar.bz2" archive
tar -cvJf <foo>.tar.xz <bar>/ archive contents of folder "<bar>/" in "<foo>.tar.xz" archive
zcat README.gz | pager display contents of compressed "README.gz" using the default pager
zcat README.gz > foo create a file "foo" with the decompressed content of "README.gz"
zcat README.gz >> foo append the decompressed content of "README.gz" to the end of the file "foo" (if it does not exist, create it first)

[Note] Note

Unix has a tradition to hide filenames which start with ".". They are traditionally files that contain configuration information and user preferences.

[Note] Note

For cd command, see builtins(7).

[Note] Note

The default pager of the bare bone Debian system is more(1) which cannot scroll back. By installing the less package using command line "apt-get install less", less(1) becomes default pager and you can scroll back with cursor keys.

[Note] Note

The "[" and "]" in the regular expression of the "ps aux | grep -e "[e]xim4*"" command above enable grep to avoid matching itself. The "4*" in the regular expression means 0 or more repeats of character "4" thus enables grep to match both "exim" and "exim4". Although "*" is used in the shell filename glob and the regular expression, their meanings are different. Learn the regular expression from grep(1).

Please traverse directories and peek into the system using the above commands as training. If you have questions on any of console commands, please make sure to read the manual page.

For example, try the following

$ man man
$ man bash
$ man builtins
$ man grep
$ man ls

The style of man pages may be a little hard to get used to, because they are rather terse, particularly the older, very traditional ones. But once you get used to it, you come to appreciate their succinctness.

Please note that many Unix-like commands including ones from GNU and BSD display brief help information if you invoke them in one of the following ways (or without any arguments in some cases).

$ <commandname> --help
$ <commandname> -h

Now you have some feel on how to use the Debian system. Let's look deep into the mechanism of the command execution in the Debian system. Here, I have simplified reality for the newbie. See bash(1) for the exact explanation.

A simple command is a sequence of components.

  1. Variable assignments (optional)

  2. Command name

  3. Arguments (optional)

  4. Redirections (optional: > , >> , < , << , etc.)

  5. Control operator (optional: && , || , <newline> , ; , & , ( , ) )

The values of some environment variables change the behavior of some Unix commands.

Default values of environment variables are initially set by the PAM system and then some of them may be reset by some application programs.

  • The display manager such as gdm3 resets environment variables.

  • The shell in its start up codes resets environment variables in "~/.bash_profile" and "~/.bashrc".

The full locale value given to "$LANG" variable consists of 3 parts: "xx_YY.ZZZZ".


For language codes and country codes, see pertinent description in the "info gettext".

For the codeset on the modern Debian system, you should always set it to UTF-8 unless you specifically want to use the historic one with good reason and background knowledge.

For fine details of the locale configuration, see Section 8.3, “The locale”.

[Note] Note

The "LANG=en_US" is not "LANG=C" nor "LANG=en_US.UTF-8". It is "LANG=en_US.ISO-8859-1" (see Section 8.3.1, “Basics of encoding”).


Typical command execution uses a shell line sequence as the following.

$ date
Sun Jun  3 10:27:39 JST 2007
$ LANG=fr_FR.UTF-8 date
dimanche 3 juin 2007, 10:27:33 (UTC+0900)

Here, the program date(1) is executed with different values of the environment variable "$LANG".

Most command executions usually do not have preceding environment variable definition. For the above example, you can alternatively execute as the following.

$ LANG=fr_FR.UTF-8
$ date
dimanche 3 juin 2007, 10:27:33 (UTC+0900)

As you can see here, the output of command is affected by the environment variable to produce French output. If you want the environment variable to be inherited to subprocesses (e.g., when calling shell script), you need to export it instead by the following.

$ export LANG
[Note] Note

When you use a typical console terminal, the "$LANG" environment variable is usually set to be exported by the desktop environment. So the above is not really a good example to test the effect of export.

[Tip] Tip

When filing a bug report, running and checking the command under "LANG=en_US.UTF-8" is a good idea if you use non-English environment.

See locale(5) and locale(7) for "$LANG" and related environment variables.

[Note] Note

I recommend you to configure the system environment just by the "$LANG" variable and to stay away from "$LC_*" variables unless it is absolutely needed.

Let's try to remember following shell command idioms typed in one line as a part of shell command.


The Debian system is a multi-tasking system. Background jobs allow users to run multiple programs in a single shell. The management of the background process involves the shell builtins: jobs, fg, bg, and kill. Please read sections of bash(1) under "SIGNALS", and "JOB CONTROL", and builtins(1).

For example, try the following

$ </etc/motd pager
$ pager </etc/motd
$ pager /etc/motd
$ cat /etc/motd | pager

Although all 4 examples of shell redirections display the same thing, the last example runs an extra cat command and wastes resources with no reason.

The shell allows you to open files using the exec builtin with an arbitrary file descriptor.

$ echo Hello >foo
$ exec 3<foo 4>bar  # open files
$ cat <&3 >&4       # redirect stdin to 3, stdout to 4
$ exec 3<&- 4>&-    # close files
$ cat bar
Hello

The file descriptor 0-2 are predefined.


In Unix-like work environment, text processing is done by piping text through chains of standard text processing tools. This was another crucial Unix innovation.

There are few standard text processing tools which are used very often on the Unix-like system.

If you are not sure what exactly these commands do, please use "man command" to figure it out by yourself.

[Note] Note

Sort order and range expression are locale dependent. If you wish to obtain traditional behavior for a command, use C locale instead of UTF-8 ones by prepending command with "LANG=C" (see Section 1.5.2, “The "$LANG" variable” and Section 8.3, “The locale”).

[Note] Note

Perl regular expressions (perlre(1)), Perl Compatible Regular Expressions (PCRE), and Python regular expressions offered by the re module have many common extensions to the normal ERE.

Regular expressions are used in many text processing tools. They are analogous to the shell globs, but they are more complicated and powerful.

The regular expression describes the matching pattern and is made up of text characters and metacharacters.

A metacharacter is just a character with a special meaning. There are 2 major styles, BRE and ERE, depending on the text tools as described above.


The regular expression of emacs is basically BRE but has been extended to treat "+"and "?" as the metacharacters as in ERE. Thus, there are no needs to escape them with "\" in the regular expression of emacs.

grep(1) can be used to perform the text search using the regular expression.

For example, try the following

$ egrep 'GNU.*LICENSE|Yoyodyne' /usr/share/common-licenses/GPL
GNU GENERAL PUBLIC LICENSE
GNU GENERAL PUBLIC LICENSE
Yoyodyne, Inc., hereby disclaims all copyright interest in the program

Let's consider a text file called "DPL" in which some pre-2004 Debian project leader's names and their initiation date are listed in a space-separated format.

Ian     Murdock   August  1993
Bruce   Perens    April   1996
Ian     Jackson   January 1998
Wichert Akkerman  January 1999
Ben     Collins   April   2001
Bdale   Garbee    April   2002
Martin  Michlmayr March   2003

Awk is frequently used to extract data from these types of files.

For example, try the following

$ awk '{ print $3 }' <DPL                   # month started
August
April
January
January
April
April
March
$ awk '($1=="Ian") { print }' <DPL          # DPL called Ian
Ian     Murdock   August  1993
Ian     Jackson   January 1998
$ awk '($2=="Perens") { print $3,$4 }' <DPL # When Perens started
April 1996

Shells such as Bash can be also used to parse this kind of file.

For example, try the following

$ while read first last month year; do
    echo $month
  done <DPL
... same output as the first Awk example

Here, the read builtin command uses characters in "$IFS" (internal field separators) to split lines into words.

If you change "$IFS" to ":", you can parse "/etc/passwd" with shell nicely.

$ oldIFS="$IFS"   # save old value
$ IFS=':'
$ while read user password uid gid rest_of_line; do
    if [ "$user" = "bozo" ]; then
      echo "$user's ID is $uid"
    fi
  done < /etc/passwd
bozo's ID is 1000
$ IFS="$oldIFS"   # restore old value

(If Awk is used to do the equivalent, use "FS=':'" to set the field separator.)

IFS is also used by the shell to split results of parameter expansion, command substitution, and arithmetic expansion. These do not occur within double or single quoted words. The default value of IFS is <space>, <tab>, and <newline> combined.

Be careful about using this shell IFS tricks. Strange things may happen, when shell interprets some parts of the script as its input.

$ IFS=":,"                        # use ":" and "," as IFS
$ echo IFS=$IFS,   IFS="$IFS"     # echo is a Bash builtin
IFS=  , IFS=:,
$ date -R                         # just a command output
Sat, 23 Aug 2003 08:30:15 +0200
$ echo $(date -R)                 # sub shell --> input to main shell
Sat  23 Aug 2003 08 30 36 +0200
$ unset IFS                       # reset IFS to the default
$ echo $(date -R)
Sat, 23 Aug 2003 08:30:50 +0200

The following scripts do nice things as a part of a pipe.


A one-line shell script can loop over many files using find(1) and xargs(1) to perform quite complicated tasks. See Section 10.1.5, “Idioms for the selection of files” and Section 9.3.9, “Repeating a command looping over files”.

When using the shell interactive mode becomes too complicated, please consider to write a shell script (see Section 12.1, “The shell script”).