A Shortcut for Creating Shortcuts

If you come from the world of Windows, you undoubtedly understand the concept of a shortcut. In the Linux world, shortcuts do exist, but they're generally referred to as symbolic links, or symlinks. They are so named because, like shortcuts, a symlink is really just a symbolic placeholder or link to the file or directory you're trying to get at.

Of course, the world of pretty graphics and windows provides ways of creating symlinks. However, for the impatient, the command line allows you to do the job with less clicking around. Let's have a look at an example.

Suppose I'm working on a Web site, and I want all of the Web site files to be located in /home/jonesy/public_html/websites/testing/site1. I need to have quick access to this directory on a pretty regular basis, so it would be nice to have a shortcut on my desktop so I can get to it in a single click. It also would be nice to be able to drag files to the folder without having to browse to it first.

In this scenario, we call /home/jonesy/public_html/websites/testing/site1 the source directory, and I create that directory using the mkdir command. Follow along at home:

mkdir -p /home/jonesy/public_html/websites/testing/site1

Remember to change jonesy to your own login name.

Again, we've just created the source directory. The mkdir command creates a directory anywhere you have permission to do so. The -p option tells mkdir to create any parent directories along the way that don't already exist.

We call the symlink itself the target, and it points to the source we just created. Note that we can call the target whatever we want. In this case, I just call it site1. To make a link that shows up on my desktop, I open up Konsole and run the following command:

@cx:ln -s /home/jonesy/public_html/websites/testing/site1/home/jonesy/Desktop/site1

Again, remember to change jonesy in the above command to your own login name.

The ln command can make other types of links besides symbolic links, so it's important to remember to feed it the -s option to let it know that you want to create a symbolic link. Though it happens, it is relatively rare to use the ln command without the -s option, even for hard-core geeks.

For Aspiring Geeks
If you forget the -s option, you'll create what's called a hard link. Though the differences are subtle, they are significant. Depending on the location of the link in relationship to the source, you can generate an error, because hard links cannot cross drive partition boundaries. In the guts of the system, the plain facts are that a hard link is actually just another alternative name for the same bunch of data stored somewhere on the disk (in technical terms, the hard link and the original file would point to the same inode).

But Wait! There's More!

Of course, making a link to a particular file is exactly like making a link to a directory. So, if I want to make a link to my favorite photo (/home/jonesy/Photos/mypic.jpg) on my desktop, I can do it like this:

ln -s /home/jonesy/Photos/mypic.jpg /home/jonesy/Desktop/

I threw in a little trick in the above command. Because I didnt want the symlink to have a different name from the file it points to, I simply use a . (period), which is shorthand for saying, don't change the name.

For more information about the ln command, try running

man ln

, which is the manual or man page for the ln command.

About the Author

Brian Jones is a system/network/database administrator and sometime Web developer for the Computer Science Department at Princeton University. He is also a freelance writer and editor, spending most of his freelance time writing about technology for various Web and print publications. In his free time, he enjoys brewing beer, home recording and playing billiards.

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