This week we will discuss the ways in which files and directories are organized under Unix. We will also talk about commands for interacting with files and directories.
Unix uses the term "directory" while other systems use the term "folder". Here, we will call them directories, but the concept is the same.
The file system is a tree with "/" as the root of the tree. Every other directory or file is under "/" some place. Note that "/" is itself a directory (akin to the "C:" folder on Windows systems.
The following image shows a portion of the file system tree:
The Unix directory structure
Your personal files are stored in your "home directory" which is a sub-directory of /home/. When you login, you automatically start in your home directory.
The directories outside of /home/ contain programs and files used by the system. You will not need to navigate these directories normally.
Some of these are summarized below:
The "Unix System Resources" directory contains most programs and that you will run, along with data files used by those programs.
Program files are stored here, including most of the commands that you will run.
Contains most data files used by the programs in /usr/bin/.
Contains configuration files for the operating system.
Used for storing temporary files that can be deleted at any time. Unlike the directories above, regular users can create files in this directory.
Most of the time, you will be working in your home directory, but it is good to have a sense of how the system as a whole fits together. When we get to administration tasks, we will talk more about some of these system directories.
When you are first logged in to your VM, you will be in your home
directory, which is a directory under /home/ named the same as your username.
The directory that you are in is called your present working directory,
and you can always find what it is using the
finlaysoni@myvm:~$ pwd /home/finlaysoni
On this VM I am using in the examples, my username is "finlaysoni".
You can list the files and directories in your present working directory
finlaysoni@myvm:~$ ls finlaysoni@myvm:~$
Right now, there is nothing in the home directory because we have not yet created any files!
You can pass ls an argument of another directory and it will tell you the contents of that directory instead of the present working directory:
finlaysoni@myvm:~$ ls / bin home lib64 opt sbin tmp vmlinuz.old boot initrd.img lost+found proc snap usr dev initrd.img.old media root srv var etc lib mnt run sys vmlinuz
ls also supports many options. In fact, of the 26 lowercase letters, only 'e', 'j', and 'y' are not valid options to ls. You will probably never need most of these options, but some helpful ones are listed below:
Show all files, even hidden ones that begin with a '.' character. These hidden files are used for your personal configurations to programs that you use. For instance, you have a hidden ".ssh/" directory within your home directory for SSH configuration files. Normally ls does not display these files, but the -a option tells it to.
Give long file listings including information on files such as the owner, size, date last modified and permissions.
Only useful in conjunction with -l, this gives file sizes in human readable format. By default, ls just gives the number of bytes which is hard for us to read. The -h flag gives more readable listings in units such as kilobytes, megabytes or gigabytes, whichever is appropriate.
Sort by modification time, with the most recently modified files first, instead of alphabetically by filename.
Sorts the files by size, with the largest first, instead of filename.
Reverse the order of the files being listed. With just the "-r" flag, files will be listed alphabetically from z to a. This flag can also be combined with "-t" or "-S".
List files recursively. This means that if there are directories in the listing, all of their contents will be listed as well. If those sub-directories themselves have sub-directories, their contents will be listed. This causes all files any where under the present working directory to be listed.
For instance, we can look at all of the hidden directories in our home directory, with details, and sizes in human readable format with:
finlaysoni@myvm:~$ ls -alh total 44K drwxr-xr-x 6 finlaysoni finlaysoni 4.0K Jun 20 18:09 . drwxr-xr-x 4 root root 4.0K Jun 19 16:26 .. -rw------- 1 finlaysoni finlaysoni 289 Jun 20 18:09 .bash_history -rw-r--r-- 1 finlaysoni finlaysoni 220 Apr 4 18:30 .bash_logout -rw-r--r-- 1 finlaysoni finlaysoni 3.7K Apr 4 18:30 .bashrc drwx------ 2 finlaysoni finlaysoni 4.0K Jun 19 16:29 .cache drwx------ 3 finlaysoni finlaysoni 4.0K Jun 19 16:29 .gnupg drwxrwxr-x 3 finlaysoni finlaysoni 4.0K Jun 20 18:05 .local -rw-r--r-- 1 finlaysoni finlaysoni 807 Apr 4 18:30 .profile drwxrwxr-x 2 finlaysoni finlaysoni 4.0K Jun 20 18:09 .ssh -rw------- 1 finlaysoni finlaysoni 1.6K Jun 20 18:05 .viminfo
Note that the options can be given in any order. The above command could
be given as
ls -lah or
ls -hla or any other order and it
would do the same thing.
The recursive flag is worth looking at, as many other commands share a recursive option. If we list files recursively, it shows what's in the directories here, instead of just listing the directory names:
finlaysoni@myvm:~$ ls -aR .: . .bash_history .bashrc .gnupg .profile .viminfo .. .bash_logout .cache .local .ssh ./.cache: . .. motd.legal-displayed ./.gnupg: . .. private-keys-v1.d ./.gnupg/private-keys-v1.d: . .. ./.local: . .. share ./.local/share: . .. nano ./.local/share/nano: . .. ./.ssh: . .. authorized_keys
ls list the files in our home directory first. Then it goes into
directories within here, and shows what's in them, as far down as needed. The
deepest directory is ".local/share/nano" which stores settings for the "nano"
text editor. You will also see that the .ssh directory has an authorized_keys file
(if you set up the SSH keys in week 1).
Essentially, by default ls shows us what things are here directly, whereas the recursive flag shows us everything that is here, no matter how many sub-directories it is in.
It is a good idea to keep the files in your home directory organized into their own directories. This keeps things tidy, makes it easier to find things and prevents you from accidentally changing the wrong files. Generally, making a directory for each project you work on is a good idea.
To create a directory, use the
mkdir command which takes the
name of the new directory to create as an argument:
finlaysoni@myvm:~$ mkdir new-directory
Now if we run
ls again, we will see our new directory:
finlaysoni@myvm:~$ ls new-directory
Note: it's simpler to avoid spaces in file and directory names in Unix which is why I've used a hyphen to separate the words instead of a space.
mkdir does not allow you to create multiple levels
of directories at one time:
finlaysoni@myvm:~$ mkdir projects/project1 mkdir: cannot create directory 'projects/project1': No such file or directory
Here, the "projects" directory did not exist, so
to create the projects/project1 directory. If we pass
"-p" option, it will create both directories:
finlaysoni@myvm:~$ mkdir -p projects/project1
You can than move into that directory using the
finlaysoni@myvm:~$ cd new-directory finlaysoni@myvm:new-directory$
Now you are no longer in your home directory, but the new directory that was just created:
finlaysoni@myvm:new-directory$ pwd /home/finlayson/new-directory
There are a couple of directory names in Unix which have special significance:
The tilde character always refers to your home directory. So if you want
to return to your home directory, you can always enter the command
no matter which directory you are currently in.
The . directory always refers to the current directory. The command
cd . does nothing, but the . directory will be useful in commands
we will learn later on.
The .. directory refers to one directory above us in the file system tree.
So if my present working directory is "/home/finlayson/new-directory", and
I enter the command
cd .., then I will move to the "/home/finlayson/"
directory. If I enter
cd .. again, then I will be in "/home/".
If we want to remove a directory, you can use the
rmdir command to
finlaysoni@myvm:~$ rmdir new-directory
rmdir only allows you to remove empty directories. We will
talk about removing non-empty directories later on.
Creating and moving into directories is fun, but to get real work done, we need files as well.
touch command creates an empty file. This is not something you
will need to do very often. Later, we will use Vim to create files and put things
touch will let us create empty files that we can move
and remove without worry. To create an empty file, run touch and pass the file
name as an argument:
finlaysoni@myvm:new-directory$ touch file1 finlaysoni@myvm:new-directory$ ls file1
Note: the other main purpose of the touch command is to update the modified time of a file. If you pass it an existing file, it doesn't change it, but updates the time as if you had.
The command to copy a file is
cp. The first argument is the file
to copy. The second argument is the location to copy it to. This can be a new
finlaysoni@myvm:new-directory$ ls file1 finlaysoni@myvm:new-directory$ cp file1 file2 finlaysoni@myvm:new-directory$ ls file1 file2
In this case,
cp has copied 'file1' into 'file2'.
The second argument to
cp can also be an existing directory
name. In this case,
cp will copy the first argument into the
directory keeping the same name:
finlaysoni@myvm:new-directory$ ls file1 finlaysoni@myvm:new-directory$ mkdir directory finlaysoni@myvm:new-directory$ cp file1 directory finlaysoni@myvm:new-directory$ ls directory file1 finlaysoni@myvm:new-directory$ ls directory file1
Sometimes we may want to copy not just one file, but an entire directory
to a new location. For instance, suppose I have "new-directory" containing
a file called "file1", and I want to make a copy of the directory including
the file as "backup-directory".
cp by default does not do this:
finlaysoni@myvm:~$ ls new-directory file1 finlaysoni@myvm:~$ cp new-directory backup-directory cp: omitting directory `new-directory'
cp to copy a whole directory, we need the
which stands for recursive:
finlaysoni@myvm:~$ ls new-directory file1 finlaysoni@myvm:~$ cp -R new-directory backup-directory finlaysoni@myvm:~$ ls backup-directory file1
Just like before, "recursive" means not just the directory, but everything inside of it as well.
Moving files is done with the
mv command which works very similarly
cp except that it does not keep the original file where it is.
If the second argument to
mv is a new name, then
the first argument to that name:
finlaysoni@myvm:new-directory$ ls file1 finlaysoni@myvm:new-directory$ mv file1 file2 finlaysoni@myvm:new-directory$ ls file2
If the second argument is the name of a directory, then
move the file into that directory:
finlaysoni@myvm:new-directory$ ls file1 finlaysoni@myvm:new-directory$ mkdir directory finlaysoni@myvm:new-directory$ mv file1 directory finlaysoni@myvm:new-directory$ ls directory finlaysoni@myvm:new-directory$ ls directory file1
You have to be somewhat careful with the
mv command as it can
remove files if you are not careful.
Say you have two files in a directory, named file1 and file2. Attempting to move file1 to file2 will actually erase the original file2 in the process:
finlaysoni@myvm:directory$ ls file1 file2 finlaysoni@myvm:directory$ mv file1 file2 finlaysoni@myvm:directory$ ls file2
Warning: Unix commands do not warn you when they will overwrite data. Furthermore, the command prompt has no "recycle bin". If you delete something, it is likely not recoverable.
If you want to use
mv in "interactive mode", it will prompt you
before overwriting data:
finlaysoni@myvm:directory$ ls file1 file2 finlaysoni@myvm:directory$ mv -i file1 file2 mv: overwrite `file2'? n finlaysoni@myvm:directory$ ls file1 file2
mv now asked if file2 should be overwritten, to
which you can answer 'y' or 'n'.
We have seen how to create, copy and move files. Now we will see how to
remove files with the
To remove one or more files, pass them as arguments to
finlaysoni@myvm:directory$ ls file1 file2 finlaysoni@myvm:directory$ rm file1 file2 finlaysoni@myvm:directory$ ls
rm also has a -i flag wherein it will prompt you for each
file that is being removed:
finlaysoni@myvm:directory$ ls file1 file2 finlaysoni@myvm:directory$ rm -i file1 file2 rm: remove regular empty file `file1'? y rm: remove regular empty file `file2'? n finlaysoni@myvm:directory$ ls file2
rm does not remove entire directories:
finlaysoni@myvm:new-directory$ ls directory finlaysoni@myvm:new-directory$ ls directory file1 file2 finlaysoni@myvm:new-directory$ rm directory rm: cannot remove `directory': Is a directory
We can tell
rm to remove the directory recursively with
the -R option. Again, in Unix, "recursive" means to apply some operation
not just to one directory, but to every file or directory nested within
finlaysoni@myvm:new-directory$ ls directory finlaysoni@myvm:new-directory$ ls directory file1 file2 finlaysoni@myvm:new-directory$ rm -R directory
You should be careful with the
rm command, especially with the
-R flag. Remember that Unix has no "recycle bin", so if you delete a file,
it is usually not possible to get it back!
Copyright © 2022 Ian Finlayson | Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.