It's Easier to Ask Forgiveness...

...than to understand Linux permissions! Honestly though, that's not really true. Linux permissions are simple and elegant, and once you understand them, they're easy to work with. Octal notation gets a little funky, but even that makes sense once you understand why it exists.

Users and Groups:

First I need to address that Linux does have ACL support for file and folder permissions. It's not how things work by default, however, and ACLs were added to address the fine controls needed for some situations. Most Linux systems rely on standard POSIX permissions. That's what I'm covering here.

Every file has an owner and a group membership. If you type ls -l, you'll see the owner and group on all the files and folders in your current directory. POSIX permissions allow you to control read, write and execute abilities for the user, group and a third set of users, "other". Using those three aspects on three different sets of users allows for some fairly complex "who can do what" on a filesystem.

Figure 1 shows an example of what a file listing looks like. I've separated the different sections showing which fields are which. Note the first field is usually either a "d" or a "-"; the former appears on directories, and the latter appears on regular files. For files, the permissions make straightforward sense. If the "read" bit is turned on, it means that user (user, group or other) can read the contents of the file. If the "write" bit is set, it can be written to, and if the "execute" bit is set, the file can be executed. Execute bits are usually set on binary files or on scripts you want to run directly.

Figure 1. Example File Listing

On folders, the permissions work almost the same: read means the ability to see what files are in the folder, and write is the ability to save a file into the folder. Execute is a little less obvious. When the "execute" bit is set, it means the user or group can change into the directory. So the cd command will work as long as you have execute access to a folder.

Changing Permissions:

Although Linux systems usually come with fairly sane standards for what permissions files are created with, it's often necessary to change them. For that, you use the chmod tool. The format is to use:

chmod u+rw,g-r,o+rwx file.txt

Granted, that's a fairly complex example, but let's break it down. The letters before the + or - are u for user, g for group and o for other. Then you either add or take away (+ or -) whichever aspects you desire. It's not required to specify all three user definitions, and they can be lumped together like this:

chmod ugo+rw file.txt

It's also possible to leave "ugo" off if you want to change user, group and other at the same time. So the following examples all do the same thing:

chmod ugo-rw file.txt
chmod -rw file.txt
chmod u-rw,g-rw,o-rw file.txt

Although the "ugo" format is fairly robust, it's sometimes very complicated to craft the string of pluses and minuses to get the exact permissions string you want. That's where octal notation comes into play. It's a little more confusing, but far more convenient once understood.

Octal Notation:

In Figure 2, you can see I've shown the numeric value of each permission bit. By simply adding the numbers, it's possible to create any possibility of permissions with three numbers. Figure 3 shows a few examples of how those can be figured out.

Figure 2. Numeric Value of Each Permission Bit

Figure 3. Creating Permissions

So with octal notation, the following two chmod statements are functionally the same:

chmod ug+rw,ug-x,o+r,o-wx file.txt
chmod 662 file.txt

Although it's not a requirement to use octal notation for setting permissions, it's usually the way it's done.

I urge you to play with chmod a bit until you get the results you expect when using octal notation. Then, just for fun, see if you can string together a bunch of pluses and minuses to get the same results!

Linux permissions are simple, elegant and allow for some very flexible file-sharing options on a filesystem. We use them most often when installing Web applications, because the Web server runs as a particular user, and that user (or group) needs to have access to the files it's attempting to serve.

Shawn is Associate Editor here at Linux Journal, and has been around Linux since the beginning. He has a passion for open source, and he loves to teach. He also drinks too much coffee, which often shows in his writing.

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