symlink man page

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.

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 slink which 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 oldpath if 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 slink which pointed to a file named afile, the command cat slink would 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 file is 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 slink change the ownership of the file that slink is, whether it is a symbolic link or not—the -h option should be used. In the above example, chown root slink would change the ownership of the file referred to by slink, while chown -h root slink would change the ownership of slink itself.

There are some exceptions to this rule:

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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.)
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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, -R option is not specified), the ls(1) command follows symbolic links named as arguments if the -H or -L option is specified, or if the -F, -d, or -l options are not specified. (The ls(1) command is the only command where the -H and -L options affect its behavior even though it is not doing a walk of a file tree.)
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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 -L option 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 directory will 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:

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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 -H flag will be ignored if the -R flag is not also specified.)

For example, the command chown -HR user slink will traverse the file hierarchy rooted in the file pointed to by slink. Note, the -H is not the same as the previously discussed -h flag. The -H flag 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.

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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 -L flag will be ignored if the -R flag is not also specified.)

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

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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 -P flags are ignored if the -R flag is not also specified. In addition, you may specify the -H, -L, and -P options 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:

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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 -P options.
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To maintain compatibility with historic systems, the ls(1) command acts a little differently. If you do not specify the -F, -d or -l options, ls(1) will follow symbolic links specified on the command line. If the -L flag 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)

Colophon

This page is part of release 4.08 of the Linux man-pages project. A description of the project, information about reporting bugs, and the latest version of this page, can be found at https://www.kernel.org/doc/man-pages/.

Referenced By

access(2), chmod(2), chown(2), futimes(3), getxattr(2), intro(2), link(2), listxattr(2), open(2), path_resolution(7), readlink(2), remove(3), removexattr(2), rename(2), setxattr(2), stat(2), symlink(2), tar(1), unlink(2), utimensat(2).

2016-10-08 Linux Linux Programmer's Manual