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Using Linux in command line

Files and directories in Linux

The file systems in Linux machines are based on hierarchical directory tree. There is one root directory in to which you can refer with slash sign (/). All the files and directories locate in the subdirectories of this directory so that each file has a unique combination of name and directory path. Also the commands that user gives are executed in a directory in which user currently is called current working directory.

Normally you do not need to know the explicit directory paths when you work in the CSC environment. It is enough to know the locations of the files in users own disk areas. The user and project specific disk areas are presented in chapter 3. However, you should remember that many disk areas in CSC environment can be accessed from several different servers (e.g. the users home directory) while some areas are server specific. In the case of shared disk areas the path to a certain file may be different in different servers.

Structure of linux commands

Once the terminal connection to CSC, e.g. to [Puhti-shell], has been opened, the remote server is used with Linux commands. The standard structure of a command is:

command -options argument1 argument2 ...

The command is executed by pressing the return key (Enter). The names and functions of options and arguments depend on the linux command. In many cases you can run the command without any options and arguments. Options are used to modify the actions that the command performs. Arguments are used to define the files, directories and values that are used as input parameters and to define where the output is written.

For example command ls can be used as such or with several options and arguments. Running plane command ls lists the content of a directory in alphabetical order. You can modify the output of the command for example by using option -t. With this option the directory content list is ordered by the age of the file (time stamp). If no argument is given, ls prints out the content of the current working directory. By giving an argument to the ls command, user can define a directory which content should be listed. For example command:

ls -t /scratch/project_2979797

will list the content of directory /scratch/project_2979797. In case the command, argument or options contain errors, the command will not be executed when the return key is pressed. Instead an error message is printed to the screen. Thus having errors in the command normally does not cause any major problems. The output of commands depends on the command but in many cases, no output means that command was successfully executed.

Most of the Linux commands have their own manual page that can be studied with man command. For example the manual page of ls command could be studied with command:

man ls

The manual pages can be very detailed and technical. However, often you do not need to read and understand all the details on the manual pages, but instead you can just see what command line options are available for the given command, which are of interest for you and then start testing/using them in practice.

Often the most difficult thing in using Linux is knowing the name of suitable command. Below we introduce to the most frequently used linux commands. You can also use command apropos to find suitable command. Apropos lists those Linux commands whose short description lines match the text that is given as a command argument. For example to look for commands that are processing pdf files you could give command:

apropos pdf

Note that the listing that apropos prints out includes only linux commands but not application program names. Thus, the sample command above would produce a list that contain many pdf conversion commands but not the pdf viewing programs like acroread or evince.

Basic commands for using directories

Table below lists the commands that are most frequently used for moving in the directory hierarchy and managing it. Below are some examples of directory related commands.

Basic directory commands

Name Argument Description
cd directory Change current working directory
ls directory Lists the content of a directory
pwd Print the directory path of current working directory
mkdir directory Create a new directory
rmdir directory Remove a directory

When you log in to a server at CSC, you will first locate in your home directory. You can check your location i.e. the path of the current working directory with command pwd (abbreviation from Print current Working Directory). However, you do not have to remember the location of your home directory (see cd command).

The content of the directory can be listed with a command ls. Plain ls command just lists the names of the files and directories in your current directory. You can get more information about the files and directories with command ls -la. The -l option produces long directory listing that in addition to the name contains also information of accession settings, size and the modification dates of the files and directories. The option -a defines that all files, including also the settings files that start with dot (.) character, are listed. Below is a sample output for ls -la command:

kkayttaj@c305:~>ls -la
total 26914
drwx------+ 3  kkayttaj csc         10 Dec 22 09:12 .
drwxr-xr-x  20 root     root         0 Dec 22 09:12 ..
drwx------+ 42 kkayttaj csc        472 Dec 22 09:07 ..
-rwxr-x---+ 1  kkayttaj csc       1648 Dec 22 09:01 .cshrc
-rw-------+ 1  kkayttaj csc         93 Dec 22 09:01 .my.cnf
-rw-------+ 1  kkayttaj csc         48 Dec 22 09:05 Test.txt
-rw-------+ 1  kkayttaj csc     878849 Jan 19 2009  input.table
drwxr-xr-x+ 2  kkayttaj csc          2 Dec 22 09:11 project1
-rw-------+ 1  kkayttaj csc   26432051 Dec 22 09:08 results.out
-rw-------+ 1  kkayttaj csc         25 Mar 27 2009
-rw-------+ 1  kkayttaj csc         49 Mar 27 2009  test.txt

The first output row: total 26914 tells that the total size of the files in the directory is 26914 KB. In the list, the first character tells if the item is a file (-) or directory(d). The next nine characters display the access permissions of the files (see the chmod command for more details). The next columns show the number of links pointing to the item, owner, user group, size in bytes, modification time and finally the name of the file or directory.

By default the files are presented in alphabetical order. You can order the results by the modification time with option -t or by size with option -S (note: upper case S, not lower case s). Two other frequently used options are -h (Human readable) which prints out the sizes of larger files in megabytes or gigabytes and -r which means reverse sorting order. For example command:

ls -ltrh

is very handy when you want to check what files have recently been modified or created. ls and pwd commands do not modify your files in any way so you can use them always when you want to know where you are and what files your current directory includes.

Command cd directory_name moves you from the current directory to a directory you specified. For example the user kkayttaj could go to his local temporary directory with command:

cd /local_scratch/kkayttaj



In the latter command automatically defined environment variable $TMPDIR, that contains the explicit directory path, is used to define the target directory.

New directories can be created with a command mkdir directory_name. For example command:

mkdir project1

Creates a new directory called project1. You can use ls command to check that the directory was created. Now you can go to this directory with command:

cd project1

You can come back from the project1 directory with command:

cd ..

Note the space between cd and the dots in the command. One dot (.) and two dots (..) have special meaning in the Linux commands. One dot (.) means the current directory and two dots (..) mean the directory that is one step lower in the directory tree i.e. the directory where current directory locates. Executing the cd command without any arguments will always move you back to your home directory, regardless where you are in the directory tree. An empty directory can be removed with command rmdir directory_name. For example:

rmdir project1

Basic commands for files

In a very basic level a file in a Linux system is just a string of bytes, were a byte consists of eight bits. So called text files the contain only bytes that can be interpreted as text characters using ASCII coding. Thus these files can be considered to consist of lines of text. In so called binary files, also non-ASCII bytes are used and the text can't and is not intended to be converted to text. Typical examples of binary files are compiled programs, images or compressed files. Normally users work mostly with text files and also in the examples of this guide we normally assume that the files contain some kind of text data: letters or numbers.

Each file has a name. Name can in principle be any combination of characters. However, several characters have special meaning e.g. ?, * and #, see below and thus using these characters in file names may cause problems. We recommend that you use only normal letters (lower or upper case), numbers, dot (.), dash (-) or under score (_) characters in file and directory names at CSC. Also the space characters in file names cause often problems. We recommend that the space characters are replaced with underscores, for example: new_file.txt. Note that Linux is case sensitive: lower and upper case characters are not considered equal and for example names New_File.txt and new_file.txt refer to different files.

In linux, usage of name extensions like .doc or .txt is not obligatory. Most of the linux tools do not require specific extensions to be used. However, on the long run, using systematic naming conventions, including illustrative name extensions, makes the file management easier.

File related commands:






Print the content of the specified file of files to the standard output (your screen)



Change the access permissions of a file


file_name1 file_name2

Copy the file content to a new file or new location


search_string file_name

Pick from the file the rows that contain a specific string



Print the first rows of the file to the standard output (your screen)



Show the content of a file one screenfull at a time



Show the content of a file one screenfull at a time


file_name1 link_name

Create a link to a file


file_name1 file_name2

Rename a file or move it to another location



Remove files



Show the last rows of a file

You can study the content of text files with commands cat, more and less. These commands are safe to use as they don't modify the files in any way. For example you could study the .bashrc file in your home directory with commands:

cat .bashrc
more .bashrc
less .bashrc

cat command (abbreviation from concatenate) prints the content of the specified file or files to the standard output that by default means your screen. Pager programs less and more are often more useful tools for studying text files as they allow user to study the file one screenfull at a time. In both more and less programs you can move forward one line at a time by pressing Return key or one screenfull at a time by pressing Space. You can stop viewing the file by pressing q.

The less pager program is more advanced than more. Less can browse the text also backwards either one row at a time by pressing k or one screenfull at a time by pressing b. You can also search a text string from the document by using slash (/) character. For example, to locate a string ABC from the file in less program type /ABC and the press Return. man command uses less program as its pager.

Commands head and tail can be used to see just the first or last rows of a file, respectively. By default these commands print out 10 lines, but you can change this by giving the number of rows to be printed as an option to a head or tail command. For example, to check the 30 last rows of a file called run1.log give command:

tail -30 run1.log

Copying files to a new file or to another directory is done with command cp (copy). Find below two examples of copy commands:

cp output.dat output_copy.dat
cp output1.dat output2.dat results/

The first command makes a copy of file output.dat to a new file called output_copy.dat. In the second example the two files: output1.dat and output2.dat are copied to an existing directory called results. Command mv (move) is used to rename or move the files to another location. For example:

mv output.dat output_copy.dat
mv output1.dat output2.dat results/

would create the same new files as cp sample commands. However in the case of mv the original files output.dat, output1.dat and output2.dat, would be removed from the current working directory.

Files are removed with command rm file-name. In the CSC environment, the rm command used to ask the user to confirm that he/she really wants to remove the file:

kkayttaj@c305:~>rm output_copy.dat
rm: remove output_copy.dat (yes/no)?

You can answer y (yes) or n (no). Note that this confirmation step is not necessary in use in your local Linux environment or currently in Puhti. You can skip the confirmation query with option -f. However you should use this option with caution as the rm command will remove the file immediately and permanently.

Special characters

Some characters have special functions in Linux. In the following paragraphs we present characters that are used for redirecting standard input and output or used as so called wildcard characters.

The $ sign, that is used as an indicator of a variable name, \# mark that is used to place comments and different kind of quotation marks are discussed later on in the [linux scripting chapter].

Commonly used special characters

Character Function
$ Indicates a shell or environmental variable
| Pipes standard output to the standard input of the next command
# Starts a comment
& Executes a process in the background
? Matches one character
* Matches any string (including an empty string)
> Output redirection operator
< Input redirection operator
>> Output redirection operator (to append to a file)
\ ignore the possible special function of the following character

Wildcard characters

In Linux, question mark (?) and asterisk (*) are used as so called wildcard characters. They can be used to define arguments that match many files or directories. When used in the command arguments, the ? sign is interpreted as any single character and * sign as any string of characters. For example command:

ls test?.input

Would produce a list of files that has a name: testany character.input. Thus files with names testA.input and test4.input would be listed, but file names like test10.input or testOld.input would be ignored. Instead, command:

ls test*.input

would list all of the files mentioned above as * matches any string. Now the only limitations would be that the command must start with string test and end with string .input.

Redirecting standard input and output

Characters less than (<), greater than (>), >> and pipe (|) are used to control the standard input and output. The less than (<) instructs the command to read data for standard input from a file defined after that < character instead of the keyboard.

The greater than character ('>') would direct the standard output of to a new file instead of the display. For example command:

ls test*.input > input_files

would produce a new file called input_files that would contain the names of files that start with string test and end with .input. Using two greater than signs with no space between them (>>) would append the results of a command to the end of an existing file or, if the file does not yet exist, direct the output to a new file.

The pipe character (|) directs the standard output of the command to the standard input of the next command. With this function you can combine several linux commands into a command chain. For example if your file listing does not fit to one screen, you could redirect it to less command so that you can study and browse it one screenfull at a time. This kind of redirecting could be done with command:

ls -l | less

As another example, we could use grep command as a post processor for ls command and pick for example those files that have been created on August 14th :

ls -l | grep "Aug 14"

Last update: April 8, 2020