Files and Directories
Another key aspect of any operating system is the concept of a file. A file is nothing
more than a related set of bytes on disk or other media. These bytes are labeled with a
name, which is then used as a means of referring to that set of bytes. In most cases, it
is through the name that the operating system
is able to track down the file's exact location on the disk.
There are three kinds of files with which most people are familiar: programs, text
files, and data files. However, on a UNIX
system, there are other kinds of files. One of
the most common is a device file. These are often referred to as device files or
device nodes. Under UNIX,
every device is treated as a file. Access is gained to
the hardware by the operating system
through the device files. These tell the system what
specific device driver
needs to be used to access the hardware.
Another kind of file is a pipe. Like a real pipe, stuff goes in one end and
out the other. Some are named pipes. That is, they have a name and are located permanently
on the hard disk. Others are temporary and are unnamed pipes. Although these do not exist
once the process using them has ended, they do take up physical space on the hard disk.
We'll talk more about pipes later.
Unlike operating systems like DOS, there is no pattern for file names
that is expected or followed. DOS
will not even attempt to execute programs that do not end with .EXE,
.COM, or .BAT. UNIX,
on the other hand, is just as happy to execute a program called
program as it is a program called program.txt. In fact, you can use any character in a
file name except for "/" and NULL.
However, completely random things can happen if the operating system
tries to execute a text file as if it were a binary program. To prevent
this, UNIX has two mechanisms to ensure that text
does not get randomly executed. The first is the file's permission bits.
The permission bits determine who can read, write, and execute a particular file. You can
see the permissions
of a file by doing a long listing of that file. What the permissions
are all about, we get into a little later. The second is that the system must recognize a
magic number within the program indicating that it is a binary
executable. To see
what kinds of files the system recognizes, take a look in /etc/magic. This file contains a
list of file types and information that the system uses to determine a file's type.
Even if a file was set to allow you to execute it, the beginning portion of the file must contain
the right information to tell the operating system how to start this program.
If that information is missing, it will attempt to start it as a shell script
(similar to a DOS batch file). If the lines in the file do not belong to a
shell script and you try to execute the program, you end up with a screen full
What you name your file is up to you. You are not limited by the eight-letter name and
three-letter extension as you are in DOS. You can still use periods as
separators, but that's all they are. They do not have the same "special" meaning that they do under
DOS. For example, you could have files called
Only the first file example is valid under DOS,
but all are valid under Linux. Note that even in older versions of UNIX
where you were limited to 14 characters in a file name, all of these are still valid. With Linux, I
have been able to create file names that are 255 characters long. However, such long file names
are not easy to work with. Note that if you are running either Windows NT or
Windows 95, you can create file names that are basically the same as
Also keep in mind that although you can create file names with spaces in them, it can
cause problems. Spaces are used to seperate the different components on the command line. You can
tell your shell to treat a name with spaces as a single unit by including it in quotes. However, you
need to be careful. Typically, I simply use an underline (_) when the file name ought to have a
space. It almost looks the same and I don't run into problems.
One naming convention does have special meaning in Linux: "dot" files. In these files,
the first character is a "." (dot). If you have such a file, it will by default be
invisible to you. That is, when you do a listing of a directory
containing a "dot" file, you won't see it.
However, unlike the DOS/Windows concept of "hidden" files, "dot" files
can be seen by simply using the -a (all) option to ls, as in ls -a. (ls is a command
used to list the contents of directories.) With DOS/Windows the "dir" command can show
you hidden files and directories, but has no option to show these along with the
The ability to group your files together into some kind of organizational structure is very
helpful. Instead of having to wade through thousands of files on your hard disk to find the one you
want, Linux, along with other operating systems, enables you to group the files into a
directory. Under Linux, a directory is actually nothing more than a file itself with a
special format. It contains the names of the files associated with it and some pointers or other
information to tell the system where the data for the file actually reside on the hard disk.
Directories do not actually "contain" the files that are associated with them. Physically (that
is, how they exist on the disk), directories are just files in a certain format. The directory
structure is imposed on them by the program you use, such as ls.
The directories have information that points to where the real files are. In comparison, you
might consider a phone book. A phone book does not contain the people listed in it, just their
names and telephone numbers. A directory has the same information: the names of files and their
numbers. In this case, instead of a telephone number, there is an information node number, or
The logical structure in a telephone book is that names are grouped alphabetically. It is very
common for two entries (names) that appear next to each other in the phone book to be in different
parts of the city. Just like names in the phone book, names that are next to each other in a
directory may be in distant parts of the hard disk.
As I mentioned, directories are logical groupings of files. In fact, directories are nothing more
than files that have a particular structure imposed on them. It is common to say that the directory
"contains" those files or the file is "in" a particular directory. In a sense, this is true. The
file that is the directory "contains" the name of the file. However, this is the only connection
between the directory and file, but we will continue to use this terminology. You can find more details about this in the section on files and file systems.
One kind of file is a directory. What this kind of file can
contain are files and more directories. These, in turn, can contain still
more files and directories. The result is a hierarchical tree structure of directories, files, more
directories, and more files. Directories that contain other directories are referred to as the
parent directory of the child or subdirectory that they
contain. (Most references I have seen refer only to parent and subdirectories. Rarely have I seen
references to child directories.)
When referring to directories under UNIX,
there is often either a leading or trailing slash ("/"), and sometimes both. The top of the
directory tree is referred to with a single "/" and is called the "root" directory. Subdirectories
are referred to by this slash followed by their name, such as /bin or /dev. As you proceed down the
directory tree, each subsequent directory is separated by a slash. The concatenation of slashes and
directory names is referred to as a path. Several levels down, you might end up with a path such as
/home/jimmo/letters/personal/chris.txt, where chris.txt is the actual
file and /home/jimmo/letters/personal is all of the directories leading to
that file. The directory /home contains the subdirectory jimmo, which contains the subdirectory letters, which
contains the subdirectory personal. This directory contains the file chris.txt.
Movement up and down the tree is accomplished by the means of the cd (change directory) command,
which is part of your shell. Although this is often difficult to grasp at
first, you are not actually moving anywhere. One of the things that the
operating system keeps track of within the context of each process is the process's
current directory, also referred to as the current working directory. This is merely the name
of a directory on the system. Your process has no physical contact with this directory; it is
just keeping the directory name in memory.
When you change directories, this portion of the process memory is changed to reflect your new
"location." You can "move" up and down the tree or make jumps to completely unrelated parts of the
directory tree. However, all that really happens is that the
current working directory portion of your process gets changed.
Although there can be many files with the same name, each combination of directories
and file name must be unique. This is because the operating system refers to
every file on the system by this unique combination of directories and file name. In the example
above, I have a personal letter called chris.txt. I might also have a business letter by the same
name. Its path (or the combination of directory and file name) would be
/home/jimmo/letters/business/chris.txt. Someone else named John might
also have a business letter to
Chris. John's path (or combination of path and file name) might be
/home/john/letters/business/chris.txt. This might look something like this:
Image - Example of home directories. (interactive)
One thing to note is that John's business letter to Chris may be the exact same file as Jim's. I
am not talking about one being a copy of the other. Rather, I am talking about a situation where
both names point to the same physical locations on the hard disk. Because both files are referencing
the same bits on the disk, they must therefore be the same file.
This is accomplished through the concept of a link. Like a chain link, a file link
connects two pieces together. I mentioned above the "telephone number" for a file was its
inode. This number actually points to a special place on the disk called the
inode table, with the inode number being the offset into this table. Each entry in this
table not only contains the file's physical location on this disk, but the owner of the file, the
access permissions, and the number of links, as well as many other things. In
the case where the two files are referencing the same entry in the inode table, these are referred
to as hard links. A soft link or symbolic link is where a file is created
that contains the path of the other file. We will get into the details of this later.
does not contain the name of a file. The name is only contained within the
directory. Therefore, it is possible to have multiple directory entries that have the same inode.
Just as there can be multiple entries in the phone book, all with the same phone number. We'll get
into a lot more detail about inodes in the section on filesystems. A directory and where the inodes
point to on the hard disk might look like this:
Image - The relationship between file names, inodes and physical data on your hard disk. (interactive)
Lets think about the telephone book analogy once again. Although it is not common for an
individual to have multiple listings, there might be two people with the same number. For example,
if you were sharing a house with three of your friends, there might be only one telephone. However,
each of you would have an entry in the phone book. I could get the same phone to ring by dialing the
telephone number of four different people. I could also get to the same inode
with four different file names.
Under Linux, files and directories are grouped into units called filesystems. A
filesystem is a portion of your hard disk that is administered as a single
unit. Filesystems exist within a section of the hard disk called a partition. Each hard
disk can be broken down into multiple partitions and the filesystem is created within the
partition. Each has specific starting and ending points that are managed by
the system. (Note: Some dialects of UNIX allow multiple filesystems within a
When you create a filesystem
under Linux, this is comparable to formatting the partition
The filesystem structure is laid out and a table is created to tell you where the actual data are
located. This table, called the inode table in
is where almost all the information related to the file is kept.
In an operating system
such as Linux, a file is more than just the basic unit of data. Instead, almost everything is either
treated as a file or is only accessed through files. For example, to read the contents of a data
file, the operating system must access the hard disk. Linux treats the hard disk as if it were a
file. It opens it like a file, reads it like a file, and closes it like a file. The same applies to
other hardware such as tape drives and printers. Even memory is treated as a file. The files used to
access the physical hardware are the device files that I mentioned earlier.
When the operating system
wants to access any hardware device, it first opens a file that "points" toward that device (the
device node). Based on information it finds in the inode, the operating
system determines what kind of device it is and can therefore access it in the proper manner. This
includes opening, reading, and closing, just like any other file.
If, for example, you are reading a file from the hard disk, not only do you have the file open
that you are reading, but the operating system has opened the file that
relates to the filesystem within the partition,
the partition on the hard disk, and the hard disk itself
(more about these later).
Three additional files are opened every time you log in or start a shell.
These are the files that relate to input, output, and error messages.
Normally, when you login,
you get to a shell
prompt. When you type a command on the keyboard and press enter, a moment later something comes onto
your screen. If you made a mistake or the program otherwise encountered an error, there will
probably be some message on your screen to that effect. The keyboard where you are typing in your
data is the input, referred to as standard input (standard in or
stdin) and that is where input comes from by default. The program displays a message on
your screen, which is the output, referred to as standard output (standard out
or stdout). Although it appears on that same screen, the error message
appears on standard error (stderr).
appear to be separate physical devices (keyboard and monitor), there is only one connection to the
system. This is one of those device files I talked about a moment ago. When you log in, the file
(device) is opened for both reading, so you can get data from the keyboard, and writing, so that
output can go to the screen and you can see the error messages.
These three concepts (standard in, standard out, and standard error) may be somewhat
difficult to understand at first. At this point, it suffices to understand that these
represent input, output, and error messages. We'll get into the details
a bit later.