Manpage of SYMLINK

SYMLINK

Section: Linux Programmer's Manual (7)
Updated: 2016-03-15
Index
 

NAME

symlink - symbolic link handling  

DESCRIPTION

Symbolic links are files that act as pointers to other files. To understand their behavior, you must first understand how hard links work.

A hard link to a file is indistinguishable from the original file because it is a reference to the object underlying the original filename. (To be precise: each of the hard links to a file is a reference to the same inode number, where an inode number is an index into the inode table, which contains metadata about all files on a filesystem. See stat(2).) Changes to a file are independent of the name used to reference the file. Hard links may not refer to directories (to prevent the possibility of loops within the filesystem tree, which would confuse many programs) and may not refer to files on different filesystems (because inode numbers are not unique across filesystems).

A symbolic link is a special type of file whose contents are a string that is the pathname of another file, the file to which the link refers. (The contents of a symbolic link can be read using readlink(2).) In other words, a symbolic link is a pointer to another name, and not to an underlying object. For this reason, symbolic links may refer to directories and may cross filesystem boundaries.

There is no requirement that the pathname referred to by a symbolic link should exist. A symbolic link that refers to a pathname that does not exist is said to be a dangling link.

Because a symbolic link and its referenced object coexist in the filesystem name space, confusion can arise in distinguishing between the link itself and the referenced object. On historical systems, commands and system calls adopted their own link-following conventions in a somewhat ad-hoc fashion. Rules for a more uniform approach, as they are implemented on Linux and other systems, are outlined here. It is important that site-local applications also conform to these rules, so that the user interface can be as consistent as possible.  

Symbolic link ownership, permissions, and timestamps

The owner and group of an existing symbolic link can be changed using lchown(2). The only time that the ownership of a symbolic link matters is when the link is being removed or renamed in a directory that has the sticky bit set (see stat(2)).

The last access and last modification timestamps of a symbolic link can be changed using utimensat(2) or lutimes(3).

On Linux, the permissions of a symbolic link are not used in any operations; the permissions are always 0777 (read, write, and execute for all user categories), and can't be changed. (Note that there are some "magic" symbolic links in the /procdirectory tree---for example, the /proc/PID/fd/*files---that have different permissions.)  

Obtaining a file descriptor that refers to a symbolic link

Using the combination of the O_PATHand O_NOFOLLOWflags to open(2) yields a file descriptor that can be passed as the dirfdargument in system calls such as fstatat(2), fchownat(2), fchmodat(2), linkat(2), and readlinkat(2), in order to operate on the symbolic link itself (rather than the file to which it refers).

By default (i.e., if the AT_SYMLINK_FOLLOWflag is not specified), if name_to_handle_at(2) is applied to a symbolic link, it yields a handle for the symbolic link (rather than the file to which it refers). One can then obtain a file descriptor for the symbolic link (rather than the file to which it refers) by specifying the O_PATHflag in a subsequent call to open_by_handle_at(2). Again, that file descriptor can be used in the aforementioned system calls to operate on the symbolic link itself.  

Handling of symbolic links by system calls and commands

Symbolic links are handled either by operating on the link itself, or by operating on the object referred to by the link. In the latter case, an application or system call is said to followthe link. Symbolic links may refer to other symbolic links, in which case the links are dereferenced until an object that is not a symbolic link is found, a symbolic link that refers to a file which does not exist is found, or a loop is detected. (Loop detection is done by placing an upper limit on the number of links that may be followed, and an error results if this limit is exceeded.)

There are three separate areas that need to be discussed. They are as follows:

1.
Symbolic links used as filename arguments for system calls.
2.
Symbolic links specified as command-line arguments to utilities that are not traversing a file tree.
3.
Symbolic links encountered by utilities that are traversing a file tree (either specified on the command line or encountered as part of the file hierarchy walk).
 

System calls

The first area is symbolic links used as filename arguments for system calls.

Except as noted below, all system calls follow symbolic links. For example, if there were a symbolic link slinkwhich pointed to a file named afile, the system call open(slink ...)would return a file descriptor referring to the file afile.

Various system calls do not follow links, and operate on the symbolic link itself. They are: lchown(2), lgetxattr(2), llistxattr(2), lremovexattr(2), lsetxattr(2), lstat(2), readlink(2), rename(2), rmdir(2), and unlink(2).

Certain other system calls optionally follow symbolic links. They are: faccessat(2), fchownat(2), fstatat(2), linkat(2), name_to_handle_at(2), open(2), openat(2), open_by_handle_at(2), and utimensat(2); see their manual pages for details. Because remove(3) is an alias for unlink(2), that library function also does not follow symbolic links. When rmdir(2) is applied to a symbolic link, it fails with the error ENOTDIR.

link(2) warrants special discussion. POSIX.1-2001 specifies that link(2) should dereference oldpathif it is a symbolic link. However, Linux does not do this. (By default, Solaris is the same, but the POSIX.1-2001 specified behavior can be obtained with suitable compiler options.) POSIX.1-2008 changed the specification to allow either behavior in an implementation.  

Commands not traversing a file tree

The second area is symbolic links, specified as command-line filename arguments, to commands which are not traversing a file tree.

Except as noted below, commands follow symbolic links named as command-line arguments. For example, if there were a symbolic link slinkwhich pointed to a file named afile, the command cat slinkwould display the contents of the file afile.

It is important to realize that this rule includes commands which may optionally traverse file trees; for example, the command chown fileis included in this rule, while the command chown -R file, which performs a tree traversal, is not. (The latter is described in the third area, below.)

If it is explicitly intended that the command operate on the symbolic link instead of following the symbolic link---for example, it is desired that chown slinkchange the ownership of the file that slinkis, whether it is a symbolic link or not---the -hoption should be used. In the above example, chown root slinkwould change the ownership of the file referred to by slink, while chown -h root slinkwould change the ownership of slinkitself.

There are some exceptions to this rule:

*
The mv(1) and rm(1) commands do not follow symbolic links named as arguments, but respectively attempt to rename and delete them. (Note, if the symbolic link references a file via a relative path, moving it to another directory may very well cause it to stop working, since the path may no longer be correct.)
*
The ls(1) command is also an exception to this rule. For compatibility with historic systems (when ls(1) is not doing a tree walk---that is, -Roption is not specified), the ls(1) command follows symbolic links named as arguments if the -Hor -Loption is specified, or if the -F, -d, or -loptions are not specified. (The ls(1) command is the only command where the -Hand -Loptions affect its behavior even though it is not doing a walk of a file tree.)
*
The file(1) command is also an exception to this rule. The file(1) command does not follow symbolic links named as argument by default. The file(1) command does follow symbolic links named as argument if the -Loption is specified.
 

Commands traversing a file tree

The following commands either optionally or always traverse file trees: chgrp(1), chmod(1), chown(1), cp(1), du(1), find(1), ls(1), pax(1), rm(1), and tar(1).

It is important to realize that the following rules apply equally to symbolic links encountered during the file tree traversal and symbolic links listed as command-line arguments.

The first rule applies to symbolic links that reference files other than directories. Operations that apply to symbolic links are performed on the links themselves, but otherwise the links are ignored.

The command rm -r slink directorywill remove slink, as well as any symbolic links encountered in the tree traversal of directory, because symbolic links may be removed. In no case will rm(1) affect the file referred to by slink.

The second rule applies to symbolic links that refer to directories. Symbolic links that refer to directories are never followed by default. This is often referred to as a "physical" walk, as opposed to a "logical" walk (where symbolic links that refer to directories are followed).

Certain conventions are (should be) followed as consistently as possible by commands that perform file tree walks:

*
A command can be made to follow any symbolic links named on the command line, regardless of the type of file they reference, by specifying the -H(for "half-logical") flag. This flag is intended to make the command-line name space look like the logical name space. (Note, for commands that do not always do file tree traversals, the -Hflag will be ignored if the -Rflag is not also specified.)

For example, the command chown -HR user slinkwill traverse the file hierarchy rooted in the file pointed to by slink. Note, the -His not the same as the previously discussed -hflag. The -Hflag causes symbolic links specified on the command line to be dereferenced for the purposes of both the action to be performed and the tree walk, and it is as if the user had specified the name of the file to which the symbolic link pointed.

*
A command can be made to follow any symbolic links named on the command line, as well as any symbolic links encountered during the traversal, regardless of the type of file they reference, by specifying the -L(for "logical") flag. This flag is intended to make the entire name space look like the logical name space. (Note, for commands that do not always do file tree traversals, the -Lflag will be ignored if the -Rflag is not also specified.)

For example, the command chown -LR user slinkwill change the owner of the file referred to by slink. If slinkrefers to a directory, chownwill traverse the file hierarchy rooted in the directory that it references. In addition, if any symbolic links are encountered in any file tree that chowntraverses, they will be treated in the same fashion as slink.

*
A command can be made to provide the default behavior by specifying the -P(for "physical") flag. This flag is intended to make the entire name space look like the physical name space.

For commands that do not by default do file tree traversals, the -H, -L, and -Pflags are ignored if the -Rflag is not also specified. In addition, you may specify the -H, -L, and -Poptions more than once; the last one specified determines the command's behavior. This is intended to permit you to alias commands to behave one way or the other, and then override that behavior on the command line.

The ls(1) and rm(1) commands have exceptions to these rules:

*
The rm(1) command operates on the symbolic link, and not the file it references, and therefore never follows a symbolic link. The rm(1) command does not support the -H, -L, or -Poptions.
*
To maintain compatibility with historic systems, the ls(1) command acts a little differently. If you do not specify the -F, -dor -loptions, ls(1) will follow symbolic links specified on the command line. If the -Lflag is specified, ls(1) follows all symbolic links, regardless of their type, whether specified on the command line or encountered in the tree walk.
 

SEE ALSO

chgrp(1), chmod(1), find(1), ln(1), ls(1), mv(1), rm(1), lchown(2), link(2), lstat(2), readlink(2), rename(2), symlink(2), unlink(2), utimensat(2), lutimes(3), path_resolution(7)


 

Index

NAME
DESCRIPTION
Symbolic link ownership, permissions, and timestamps
Obtaining a file descriptor that refers to a symbolic link
Handling of symbolic links by system calls and commands
System calls
Commands not traversing a file tree
Commands traversing a file tree
SEE ALSO

This document was created by man2html, using the manual pages.
Time: 22:28:02 GMT, June 20, 2016