Author: Michael Stutz
rm, right?” Oops. I feel your pain — this happens to everyone. But there’s a straightforward method to recover your lost file, and since it works on every standard Linux system, everyone ought to know how to do it.
Briefly, a file as it appears somewhere on a Linux filesystem is actually just a link to an inode, which contains all of the file’s properties, such as permissions and ownership, as well as the addresses of the data blocks where the file’s content is stored on disk. When you
rm a file, you’re removing the link that points to its inode, but not the inode itself; other processes (such as your audio player) might still have it open. It’s only after they’re through and all links are removed that an inode and the data blocks it pointed to are made available for writing.
This delay is your key to a quick and happy recovery: if a process still has the file open, the data’s there somewhere, even though according to the directory listing the file already appears to be gone.
This is where the Linux process pseudo-filesystem, the /proc directory, comes into play. Every process on the system has a directory here with its name on it, inside of which lies many things — including an fd (“file descriptor”) subdirectory containing links to all files that the process has open. Even if a file has been removed from the filesystem, a copy of the data will be right here:
/proc/process id/fd/file descriptor
To know where to go, you need to get the id of the process that has the file open, and the file descriptor. These you get with
lsof, whose name means “list open files.” (It actually does a whole lot more than this and is so useful that almost every system has it installed. If yours isn’t one of them, you can grab the latest version straight from its author.)
Once you get that information from
lsof, you can just copy the data out of /proc and call it a day.
This whole thing is best demonstrated with a live example. First, create a text file that you can delete and then bring back:
$ man lsof | col -b > myfile
Then have a look at the contents of the file that you just created:
$ less myfile
You should see a plaintext version of
man page looking out at you, courtesy of
Ctrl-Z to suspend
less. Back at a shell prompt make sure your file is still there:
$ ls -l myfile -rw-r--r-- 1 jimbo jimbo 114383 Oct 31 16:14 myfile $ stat myfile File: `myfile' Size: 114383 Blocks: 232 IO Block: 4096 regular file Device: 341h/833d Inode: 1276722 Links: 1 Access: (0644/-rw-r--r--) Uid: ( 1010/ jimbo) Gid: ( 1010/ jimbo) Access: 2006-10-31 16:15:08.423715488 -0400 Modify: 2006-10-31 16:14:52.684417746 -0400 Change: 2006-10-31 16:14:52.684417746 -0400
Yup, it’s there all right. OK, go ahead and oops it:
$ rm myfile $ ls -l myfile ls: myfile: No such file or directory $ stat myfile stat: cannot stat `myfile': No such file or directory $
At this point, you must not allow the process still using the file to exit, because once that happens, the file will really be gone and your troubles will intensify. Your background
less process in this walkthrough isn’t going anywhere (unless you kill the process or exit the shell), but if this were a video or sound file that you were playing, the first thing to do at the point where you realize you deleted the file would be to immediately pause the application playback, or otherwise freeze the process, so that it doesn’t eventually stop playing the file and exit.
Now to bring the file back. First see what
lsof has to say about it:
$ lsof | grep myfile less 4158 jimbo 4r REG 3,65 114383 1276722 /home/jimbo/myfile (deleted)
The first column gives you the name of the command associated with the process, the second column is the process id, and the number in the fourth column is the file descriptor (the “r” means that it’s a regular file). Now you know that process 4158 still has the file open, and you know the file descriptor, 4. That’s everything you have to know to copy it out of /proc.
You might think that using the
-a flag with
cp is the right thing to do here, since you’re restoring the file — but it’s actually important that you don’t do that. Otherwise, instead of copying the literal data contained in the file, you’ll be copying a now-broken symbolic link to the file as it once was listed in its original directory:
$ ls -l /proc/4158/fd/4 lr-x------ 1 jimbo jimbo 64 Oct 31 16:18 /proc/4158/fd/4 -> /home/jimbo/myfile (deleted) $ cp -a /proc/4158/fd/4 myfile.wrong $ ls -l myfile.wrong lrwxr-xr-x 1 jimbo jimbo 24 Oct 31 16:22 myfile.wrong -> /home/jimbo/myfile (deleted) $ file myfile.wrong myfile.wrong: broken symbolic link to `/home/jimbo/myfile (deleted)' $ file /proc/4158/fd/4 /proc/4158/fd/4: broken symbolic link to `/home/jimbo/myfile (deleted)'
So instead of all that, just a plain old
cp will do the trick:
$ cp /proc/4158/fd/4 myfile.saved
And finally, verify that you’ve done good:
$ ls -l myfile.saved -rw-r--r-- 1 jimbo jimbo 114383 Oct 31 16:25 myfile.saved $ man lsof | col -b > myfile.new $ cmp myfile.saved myfile.new
No complaints from
cmp — your restoration is the real deal.
Incidentally, there are a lot of useful things you can do with
lsof in addition to rescuing lost files.