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Linux file permissions and chmod

When you view files and directories on Linux hosts, how can you tell which users have access? And how do you determine the extent of their access? Before approaching the sizable (but very important) subject of Linux (and Unix) file permissions, it is helpful to review the definitions of key terms which IT professionals need to be familiar with. Before proceeding, let’s define these terms clearly.

Common across all operating system (OS) platforms, files are the objects or things that OSes and user applications work with. More specifically, a file is a distinct collection of data that has a name and properties, or characteristics. Files can take the form of text documents, graphics, music, scripts, etc. If you prefer the geeky definition, Wikipedia states that a computer file is “a block of arbitrary information, or resource for storing information, which is available to a computer program and is usually based on some kind of durable storage.”

Computer files can be created, edited, deleted, moved, and stored. The orderly arranging of files is accomplished by means of directories, which are simply containers for files and other directories. On the Windows operating system, directories are often called “folders” because they are visually represented by icons resembling the paper folders which you would find in filing cabinets. This method of depicting directories as paper folders has also been adopted by Linux desktop environments, such as KDE and GNOME.

Directories are arranged in a hierarchical model. Users and software can use these directories to navigate the file system to find certain files. Files are often logically co-located based on type and usage.

File system hierarchy

A simple example of a file system hierarchy

Operating systems support access control restrictions on files and directories because it is not a best practice to permit the same level of system access to all users of a host or network. Users may not want other users to access their files for reasons of privacy and separation of duties, while system administrators often do not want non-administrative personnel to be able to change or possibly delete critical files needed for proper OS function. Therefore, file permissions are designed to prevent the unwanted viewing, editing, or deletion of files and folders. Within the popular discretionary access control (DAC) model, file owners can adjust the access permissions of the files they own. That is, file owners can determine who can read, change, or delete the files belonging to them. On a Unix-like OS like Linux, we will examine how to work with these file permissions.

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Written by Doug Vitale

February 16, 2013 at 10:49 PM

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