Welcome to the Command Line - The Official Ubuntu Book (2011)

The Official Ubuntu Book (2011)

Appendix. Welcome to the Command Line

One of the most powerful parts of any Ubuntu system is the command line. It can also be one of the most daunting to dive into. It seems there is often little help, and that the commands are not easy to find or figure out. If you are willing to learn, the power of the command line will speed up your work and will be a great education that will serve you for years by increasing your ability to do exactly what you want to do with your computer with greater efficiency.

While the command line is a nice addition to a desktop user’s life, it is completely invaluable if you run a server. The Ubuntu server installs without any graphical user interface, so the tools explained in this chapter and other books will be absolutely critical to success. And hey, remember to have fun!

Starting Up the Terminal

The terminal can be found by clicking Accessories in the Launcher to find Terminal. When it first launches, you will see something similar to what Figure A-1 shows.

Figure A-1. The terminal window


You will see a blinking cursor immediately preceded by some letters, and perhaps numbers and symbols, ending with a $. The first word in that string of characters is your username, followed by the @ symbol. After the @, the hostname of your computer is listed, followed by a colon and the name of the directory you are currently in (you always start in your home directory, which is represented by a ~ symbol).

There are many dozens of commands. This appendix presents just a few useful ones in a narrative style to get you started, then lists some more with just a basic description and broken down by category.

Getting Started

First have a look at the files in your home folder by running the following command:

username@computer:~$ ls

The ls command lists the files in your current folder. The default command just displays a collection of items that are in your current directory, or location in the filesystem. To make ls more useful, you can type it with options:

username@computer:~$ ls -al

The -al parts are options that can be passed to the command. In this example, two options, a (list all files) and l (use a long display format to display file permissions, dates, sizes, and more), are used with ls to display all of the files (including hidden files) and their details.


To Dash or Not to Dash?

In many command-line tools, options are added after a dash (-). Some tools, however, don’t need the dash. It isn’t particularly consistent, so you must pay attention as you learn new commands.

Now move to a different directory:

username@computer:~$ cd Desktop

The cd command changes the directory to the place you specify after the command (in this case, the desktop directory). A nice shortcut that you can use when typing files and folders is to type the first few letters and then press the Tab key to fill in the remainder of the file/folder name. As an example, in the previous command, you could type cd Des and press the Tab key to fill in the rest of Desktop (with the / added automatically because it is a directory).

When inside a directory, you may want to have a quick look at the contents of a text file. To do this, use the cat command:

username@computer:~$ cat myfile.txt

This command prints the contents of the file on the screen (a more correct way to say this in computer geek jargon would be “outputs to the screen”).

Building Pipelines

The power of the command line really comes into its own when you start to pass the output of one command so that it goes to the input of the next, combining commands by using pipelines. A pipeline uses the pipe symbol (|) to string together a number of commands to perform a specific task. As an example, if you use the cat command to display the contents of a file to the screen, but the file scrolls past you, create a pipeline and use the less command so you can browse the file:

username@computer:~$ cat foo.txt | less

To see how this works, break the command into parts, each separated by the pipe. The output of the part on the left (cat’ing the file) is fed into the less command on the right, which allows you to browse the file with the arrow keys.

Pipelines can be useful for finding specific information on the system. As an example, if you want to find out how many particular processes are running, you could run a command like this:

username@computer:~$ ps ax | grep getty | wc -l

Here you count how many getty processes are running (getty is the software that runs a console session). The ps ax command on the left lists the processes on the system, and then the grep command searches through the process list and returns only the lines that contain the text “getty.” Finally, these lines are fed into wc, which is a small tool that counts the number of words or lines. The -l option specifies that the number of lines should be counted. Cool, huh?

Running Commands as the Superuser

When you log in to your computer, the account you use is a normal user account. This account is restricted from performing various system administration tasks. The security model behind Ubuntu has you run as a normal user all the time and dip into the system administrator account only when you need to. This prevents accidental changes or malicious installation of unwanted programs and similar things.

To jump to this superuser account when using the terminal, put the sudo command before the command you want to run. As an example, if you want to restart the networking system from the command line, run:

username@computer:~$ sudo apt-get install byobu

The command to the right of sudo is the command that should be run as the administrator, but sudo lets you run the command as the current user. When you run the above command, you are asked for the administrator password. This is the same password as the one you established for the first user you added when you installed Ubuntu on the computer. If you are using that user’s account, just enter your normal password. In this instance, you are installing byobu, which you can use to make your life in the terminal easier.

When you have authenticated yourself to sudo using the terminal, you will not be asked for the password again for another 15 minutes.

Finding Help

Each command on your computer includes a manual page—or man page—that contains a list of the options available. Man pages are traditionally rather terse and intended only for referencing the different ways the command should be used. For a friendlier introduction to using commands, we recommend a Google search.

To view a man page (such as the man page for ls), run:

username@computer:~$ man ls

The man page command itself has a number of options (run man man to see them), and one of the most useful is -k. This option allows you to search the man pages for a particular word. This is useful when you don’t remember the command. As an example, you could find all commands related to processes by running:

username@computer:~$ man -k processes

The remainder of this appendix gives a brief introduction to some of the more common and useful commands you will encounter and want to learn, organized in categories based on how they are used. We will end with a short list of some other resources for further research.

Moving Around the Filesystem

Commands for navigating in the filesystem include the following.

pwd: The pwd command allows you to know the directory in which you’re located (pwd stands for “print working directory”). For example, pwd in the desktop directory will show ~/Desktop. Note that the GNOME terminal also displays this information in the title bar of its window, as shown in Figure A-1.

cd: The cd command allows you to change directories. When you open a terminal, you will be in your home directory. To move around the filesystem, use cd.

• Use cd ~/Desktop to navigate to your desktop directory.

• Use cd / to navigate into the root directory.

• Use cd to navigate to your home directory.

• Use cd .. to navigate up one directory level.

• Use cd - to navigate to the previous directory (or back).

• If you want to go directly to a specific, known directory location at once, use cd /directory/otherdirectory. For example, cd /var/www will take you directly to the /www subdirectory of /var.

Manipulating Files and Folders

You can manipulate files and folders with the following commands.

cp: The cp command makes a copy of a file for you. For example, cp file foo makes an exact copy of the file whose name you entered and names the copy foo, but the first file will still exist with its original name.

mv: The mv command moves a file to a different location or renames a file. Examples are as follows: mv file foo renames the original file to foo. mv foo ~/Desktop moves the file foo to your desktop directory but does not rename it. You must specify a new filename to rename a file. After you use mv, the original file no longer exists, but after you use cp, as above, that file stays and a new copy is made.

• To save on typing, you can substitute ~ in place of the home directory, so /home/username/pictures is the same as ~/pictures.


If you are using mv with sudo, which is often necessary outside of your home directory, you will not be able to use the ~ shortcut. Instead, you will have to use the full pathnames to your files.

rm: Use this command to remove or delete a file in your directory, as in rm file.txt. It does not work on directories that contain files, which must first be emptied and may then be deleted using the rmdir command. There are some advanced cases where you may use rm to remove directories, but discussing those are beyond the intent of this appendix.

ls: The ls command shows you the files in your current directory. Used with certain options, it lets you see file sizes, when files where created, and file permissions. For example, ls ~ shows you the files that are in your home directory.

mkdir: The mkdir command allows you to create directories. For example, mkdir music creates a music directory.

chmod: The chmod command changes the permissions on the files listed. Permissions are based on a fairly simple model. You can set permissions for user, group, and world, and you can set whether each can read, write, and/or execute the file. For example, if a file had permission to allow everybody to read but only the user could write, the permissions would read rwxr–r–. To add or remove a permission, you append a + or a - in front of the specific permission. For example, to add the capability for the group to edit in the previous example, you could type chmod g+w file.

chown: The chown command allows the user to change the user and group ownerships of a file. For example, sudo chown jim file changes the ownership of the file to Jim.

System Information Commands

System information commands include the following.

df: The df command displays filesystem disk space usage for all partitions. The command df-h is probably the most useful. It uses megabytes (M) and gigabytes (G) instead of blocks to report. (-h means “human-readable.”)

free: The free command displays the amount of free and used memory in the system. For example, free -m gives the information using megabytes, which is probably most useful for current computers.

top: The top command displays information on your Linux system, running processes, and system resources, including the CPU, RAM, swap usage, and total number of tasks being run. To exit top, press Q.

uname -a: The uname command with the -a option prints all system information, including machine name, kernel name, version, and a few other details. This command is most useful for checking which kernel you’re using.

lsb_release -a: The lsb_release command with the -a option prints version information for the Linux release you’re running. For example:

username@computer:~$ lsb_release -a

No LSB modules are available.
Distributor ID: Ubuntu
Description: Ubuntu 11.04
Release: 11.04
Codename: natty

ifconfig: This reports on your system’s network interfaces.

iwconfig: The iwconfig command shows you any wireless network adapters and the wireless-specific information from them, such as speed and network connected.

ps: The ps command allows you to view all the processes running on the machine.

The following commands list the hardware on your computer, either of a specific type or with a specific method. They are most useful for debugging when a piece of hardware does not function correctly.

lspci: The lspci command lists all PCI buses and devices connected to them. This commonly includes network cards and sound cards.

lsusb: The lsusb command lists all USB buses and any connected USB devices, such as printers and thumb drives.

lshal: The lshal command lists all devices the hardware abstraction layer (HAL) knows about, which should be most hardware on your system.

lshw: The lshw command lists hardware on your system, including maker, type, and where it is connected.

Searching and Editing Text Files

Search and edit text files by using the following commands.

grep: The grep command allows you to search inside a number of files for a particular search pattern and then print matching lines. For example, grep blah file will search for the text “blah” in the file and then print any matching lines.

sed: The sed (or Stream EDitor) command allows search and replace of a particular string in a file. For example, if you want to find the string “cat” and replace it with “dog” in a file named pets, type sed s/cat/dog/g pets.

Both grep and sed are extremely powerful programs. There are many excellent tutorials available on using them, but here are a couple of good Web sites to get you started:



Three other commands are useful for dealing with text.

cat: The cat command, short for concatenate, is useful for viewing and adding to text files. The simple command cat FILENAME displays the contents of the file. Using cat FILENAME file adds the contents of the first file to the second and displays both on the screen, one after the other. You could also use cat file1 >> file2 to append the contents of file1 to the end of file2.

nano: Nano is a simple text editor for the command line. To open a file, use nano filename. Commands listed at the bottom of the screen are accessed via pressing Ctrl followed by the letter. To close and save a file you are working on, use Ctrl-X.

less: The less command is used for viewing text files as well as standard output. A common usage is to pipe another command through less to be able to see all the output, such as ls | less.

Dealing with Users and Groups

You can use the following commands to administer users and groups.

adduser: The adduser command creates a new user. To create a new user, simply type sudo adduser loginname. This creates the user’s home directory and default group. It prompts for a user password and then further details about the user.

passwd: The passwd command changes the user’s password. If run by a regular user, it will change his or her password. If run using sudo, it can change any user’s password. For example, sudo passwd joe changes Joe’s password.

who: The who command tells you who is currently logged into the machine.

addgroup: The addgroup command adds a new group. To create a new group, type sudo addgroup groupname.

deluser: The deluser command removes a user from the system. To remove the user’s files and home directory, you need to add the -remove-home option.

delgroup: The delgroup command removes a group from the system. You cannot remove a group that is the primary group of any users.

Getting Help on the Command Line

This section provides you with some tips for getting help on the command line. The commands—help and man are the two most important tools at the command line.

Virtually all commands understand the -h (or —help) option, which produces a short usage description of the command and its options, then exits back to the command prompt. Try man -h or man—help to see this in action.

Every command and nearly every application in Linux has a man (manual) file, so finding such a file is as simple as typing man command to bring up a longer manual entry for the specified command. For example, man mv brings up the mv (move) manual.

Some helpful tips for using the man command include the following.

Arrow keys: Move up and down the man file by using the arrow keys.

q: Quit back to the command prompt by typing q.

man man: man man brings up the manual entry for the man command, which is a good place to start!

man intro: man intro is especially useful. It displays the Introduction to User Commands, which is a well-written, fairly brief introduction to the Linux command line.

There are also info pages, which are generally more in-depth than man pages. Try info info for the introduction to info pages.

Searching for Man Files

If you aren’t sure which command or application you need to use, you can try searching the man files.

man -k foo: This searches the man files for foo. Try man -k nautilus to see how this works.


man -k foo is the same as the apropos command.

man -f foo: This searches only the titles of your system’s man files. Try man -f gnome, for example.


man -f foo is the same as the whatis command.

Using Wildcards

Sometimes you need to look at or use multiple files at the same time. For instance, you might want to delete all .rar files or move all .odt files to another directory. Thankfully, you can use a series of wildcards to accomplish such tasks.

* matches any number of characters. For example, *.rar matches any file with the ending .rar.

? matches any single character. For example, ?.rar matches a.rar but not ab.rar.

[characters] matches any of the characters within the brackets. For example, [ab].rar matches a.rar and b.rar but not c.rar.

*[!characters] matches any characters that are not listed. For example, *[!ab].rar matches c.rar but not a.rar or b.rar.

Executing Multiple Commands

Often you may want to execute several commands together, either by running one after another or by passing output from one to another.

Running Sequentially

If you need to execute multiple commands in sequence but don’t need to pass output between them, there are two options based on whether or not you want the subsequent commands to run only if the previous commands succeed or not. If you want the commands to run one after the other regardless of whether or not preceding commands succeed, place a ; between the commands. For example, if you want to get information about your hardware, you could run lspci ; lsusb, which would output information on your PCI buses and USB devices in sequence.

However, if you need to conditionally run the commands based on whether the previous command has succeeded, insert && between commands. An example of this is building a program from source, which is traditionally done with ./configure, make, and make install. The commands make and make install require that the previous commands have completed successfully, so you would use ./configure && make && make install.

Using Byobu to Manage Your Terminal

One of the challenges of using the terminal is the difficulty of managing multiple screens. If you are in a desktop environment, you can launch another terminal window or use GNOME terminal’s tabs, but if you are on a server or another machine that doesn’t have a desktop environment installed, that doesn’t work.

Thankfully, such a tool to help you does exist: byobu. Japanese for screen, byobu is a set of default configurations for the GNU screen command. Essentially, screen is a window manager for the command line. Since 9.10, this great tool has been installed by default, so all you need to do is launch the byobu command in a terminal.

After it is started, you will notice you are back at a terminal prompt, but with a few differences. At the bottom are two lines of information. From the left to the right, the bottom line shows you the version of Ubuntu you are currently running, number of packages to update (if there are none, this won’t appear), how long the system has been running, the system load, the CPU speed, the current memory usage, and the current date and time. The upper bar shows the list of open windows, the current logged in user, the system name, and the menu option (Figure A-2).

Figure A-2. Byobu in GNOME terminal


You can now use your terminal exactly as you normally would, just with a few added pieces of information. Advanced usage of byobu (and screen) is a topic too large for this appendix, but following are a few commands to get you started:


Using Byobu by Default in GNOME Terminal

To have GNOME terminal launch byobu by default when it starts, you need to edit the preferences, which can be found at Edit > Profile Preferences under the Title and Command tab. Tick the box “Run a custom command instead of my shell,” and enter byobu in the line below. Now when you launch GNOME terminal, byobu will launch with it, and closing byobu will close GNOME terminal as well.

Moving to More Advanced Uses of the Command Line

There are a great number of good books out there for working the command line. In addition, because most of the command line has not changed in many years, a large body of information is available on the Internet. If you need help with something, often simply searching for the command will turn up what you need.

As you can imagine, there are hundreds and hundreds of different commands available on the system, and we don’t have the space to cover them here. A number of superb Web sites and books can help you find out about the many different commands.

To get you started, here are some recommendations.

The Official Ubuntu Server Book by Kyle Rankin and Benjamin Mako Hill (Prentice Hall, 2009) is an excellent resource for learning all things server related, including the effective use of the command line to accomplish administration tasks.

A Practical Guide to Linux® Commands, Editors, and Shell Programming, 2nd Edition, by Mark G. Sobell (Prentice Hall, 2009) is a good book for any user of the shell in Linux to have on his or her bookshelf.

LinuxCommand.org, found at http://linuxcommand.org, is an excellent Web site designed to help people new to using the command line.

The Linux Documentation Project, found at http://www.tdlp.org, is another excellent and free resource.