The Shell Interface

The Shell Interface

There are several ways to get to a shell interface in Red Hat Linux. Common ways are:

  • No GUI If your Red Hat Linux system has no GUI (or one that isn't working at the moment), you must enter commands from the shell.

  • A Terminal window — With the desktop GUI running, you can open a Terminal window (right-click on the desktop, then click New Terminal) to start a shell. You can begin typing commands into the Terminal window.

If you are using a shell interface, the first thing you see is the shell prompt. The default prompt for a user is simply a dollar sign:


The default prompt for the root user is a pound sign (also called a hash mark):


For most Red Hat Linux systems, the $ or # prompts are preceded by your user name, system name, and current directory name. So, for example, a login prompt for the user named jake on a computer named pine with /tmp as the current directory would appear as:

[jake@pine tmp]$

You can change the prompt to display any characters you like. You could use as your prompt the current directory, the date, the local computer name, or any string of characters. (To configure your prompt, see the "Setting your prompt" section later in this chapter.)

Although there are a tremendous number of features available with the shell, it's easy to begin by just typing a few commands. Try some of the commands shown in the remainder of this section to become familiar with your current shell environment.


If, instead of a shell prompt, you see a GUI when you log in, you can still try out the shell commands shown in the next section. To access a shell from the GUI, you can open a Terminal window by right-clicking on your desktop and selecting New Terminal.

In the examples that follow, the $ or # symbols indicate a prompt. The prompt is followed by the command that you type and then by Enter or Return (depending on your keyboard). The lines that follow show the output that results from the command.

Checking your login session

When you log in to a Linux system, Linux views you as having a particular identity. That identity includes your user name, group name, user ID, and group ID. Linux also keeps track of your login session: it knows when you logged in, how long you have been idle, and where you logged in from.

To find out information about your identity, use the id command as follows:

$ id
  uid=501(chris) gid=105(sales) groups=105(sales),4(adm),7(lp)

This shows that the user name is chris, which is represented by the numeric user ID (uid) 501. Here, the primary group for chris is called sales, which has a group ID (gid) of 105. Chris also belongs to other groups called adm (uid 4) and lp (uid 7). These names and numbers represent the permissions that chris has to access computer resources. (Permissions are described later in this chapter in the section on working with files.)

You can see information about your current login session by using the who command. In the following example, the -m option tells the who command to print information about the current user, -u says to add information about idle time and the process ID, and -H asks that a header be printed:

$ who -umH
NAME     LINE        TIME                IDLE        PID   COMMENT
chris       tty1         Jan 13 20:57       .        2013

The output from this who command shows that the user name is chris. Here, chris is logged in on tty1 (which is the monitor connected to the computer), and his login session began at 20:57 on January 13. The IDLE time shows how long the shell has been open without any command being typed (the dot indicates that it is currently active). COMMENT would show the name of the remote computer the user had logged in from, if that user had logged in from another computer on the network, or the name of the local X display if you were using a Terminal window (such as :0.0).

Checking directories and permissions

Associated with each shell is a location in the Linux file system known as the current or working directory. As previously mentioned, each user has a directory that is identified as the user's home directory. When you first log in to Linux, you begin with your home directory as the current directory.

When you request to open or save a file, your shell uses the current directory as the point of reference. Simply give a filename when you save a file, and it will be placed in the current directory. Alternatively, you can identify a file by its relation to the current directory (relative path). Or you can ignore the current directory and identify a file by the full directory hierarchy that locates it (absolute path). The structure and use of the file system is described in detail later in this chapter.

To find out what your current directory is, type the pwd command:

  $ pwd

In this example, the current/working directory is /usr/bin. To find out the name of your home directory, type the echo command, followed by the $HOME variable:

  $ echo $HOME

In the preceding example, the home directory is /home/chris. To get back to your home directory, you can simply type the change directory (cd) command. Although cd, followed by a directory name, changes the current directory to the directory that you choose, simply typing cd takes you to your home directory:

  $ cd

At this point, list the contents of your home directory, using the ls command. Either you can type the full path to your home directory to list its contents, or you can use the ls command without a directory name to list the contents of the current directory. Using the -a option to ls enables you to view the hidden files (dot files) as well as all other files. With the -l option, you can see a long, detailed list of information on each file. (You can put multiple single-letter options together after a single dash, for example, -la.)

$ ls -la /home/chris
total 158
drwxrwxrwx     2   chris   sales    1024  May 12 13:55 .
drwxr-xr-x     3   root    root     1024  May 10 01:49 ..
-rw-------     1   chris   sales    2204  May 18 21:30 .bash_history
-rw-r--r--     1   chris   sales      24  May 10 01:50 .bash_logout
-rw-r--r--     1   chris   sales     230  May 10 01:50 .bash_profile
-rw-r--r--     1   chris   sales     124  May 10 01:50 .bashrc
drw-r--r--     1   chris   sales    4096  May 10 01:50 .kde
-rw-rw-r--     1   chris   sales  149872  May 11 22:49 letter

Displaying a long list (-l option) of the contents of your home directory shows you more about file sizes and directories. Directories such as the current directory (.) and the directory above the current directory (..) are noted as directories by the letter "d" at the beginning of each entry. In this case, dot (.) represents /home/chris and two dots (..), which is also referred to as the parent directory, represents /home. The /home directory is owned by root. All other files are owned by the user chris (who belongs to the sales group).

The file or directory names shown on the right are mostly dot (.) files that are used to store GUI properties (.kde) or shell properties (.bash files). The only non-dot file shown in this example is the one named letter. At the beginning of each line are the permissions set for each file. (Permissions and configuring shell property files are described later in this chapter.) Other information in the listing includes the size of each file in bytes (column 4) and the date and time each file was most recently modified (column 5).

Checking system activity

In addition to being a multiuser operating system, Linux is also a multitasking system. Multitasking means that many programs can be running at the same time. An instance of a running program is referred to as a process. Linux provides tools for listing running processes, monitoring system usage, and stopping (or killing) processes when necessary.

The most common utility for checking running processes is the ps command. With ps, you can see which programs are running, the resources they are using, and who is running them. The following is an example of the ps command:

$ ps -au
root   2146 0.0  0.8 1908   1100   ttyp0  S    14:50  0:00 login -- jake
jake   2147 0.0  0.7 1836   1020   ttyp0  S    14:50  0:00 -bash
jake   2310 0.0  0.7 2592    912   ttyp0  R    18:22  0:00 ps -au

In this example, the -a option asks to show processes of all users that are associated with your current terminal, and the -u option asks that user names be shown, as well as other information such as the time the process started and memory and CPU usage. The concept of terminal comes from the old days, when people worked exclusively from character terminals, so a terminal typically represented a single person at a single screen. Now you can have many "terminals" on one screen by opening multiple Terminal windows.

On this shell session, there isn't much happening. The first process shows that the user named jake logged in to the login process (which is controlled by the root user). The next process shows that jake is using a bash shell and has just run the ps au command. The terminal device ttyp0 is being used for the login session. The STAT column represents the state of the process, with R indicating a currently running process and S representing a sleeping process.

The USER column shows the name of the user who started the process. Each process is represented by a unique ID number referred to as a process ID (PID). (You can use the PID if you ever need to kill a runaway process.) The %CPU and %MEM columns show the percentage of the processor and random access memory, respectively, that the process is consuming. VSZ (virtual set size) shows size of the image process (in kilobytes), and RSS (resident set size) shows the size of the program in memory. START shows the time the process began running, and TIME shows the cumulative system time used.

Many processes running on a computer are not associated with a terminal. A normal Red Hat Linux system has many processes running in the background. Background system processes perform such tasks as logging system activity or listening for data coming in from the network. They are often started when Red Hat Linux boots up and runs continuously until it shuts down. To see and thereby monitor all the processes running on your Red Hat Linux system, type:

$ ps aux | less

I added the pipe ( | ) and the less command to ps aux to allow you to page through the many processes that will appear on your screen. Use the spacebar to page through and type q to end the list. A pipe lets you direct the output of one command to be the input of the next command.

Exiting the shell

To exit the shell when you are done, either type exit or press Ctrl+D. If you are exiting from your login shell (the shell that started when you first logged in), type logout to exit the shell.

I just showed a few commands designed to familiarize you quickly with your Linux system. There are hundreds of other commands that you can try that are contained in directories such as /bin and /usr/bin. There are also administrative commands in /sbin or /usr/sbin directories. Many of these commands are described in the remainder of this chapter.

Part IV: Red Hat Linux Network and Server Setup