An introduction to the CLI (Command Line Interface) and Bash on Ubuntu Linux aka a bash tutorial
The default shell that is installed on Ubuntu Linux is bash. Alternatives exist, but they’re beyond the scope of this tutorial (check our post here for more info on how to isntall a better alternative to bash called Zshell or zsh). Bash is available on almost all Linux distributions, so this tutorial will work on most Linux distributions as well.
What is a shell? Simply put, the shell is a program that takes your commands from the keyboard and gives them to the operating system to perform. In the old days, it was the only user interface available on a Unix computer. Nowadays, we have graphical user interfaces (GUIs) in addition to command line interfaces (CLIs) such as the shell. Bash is the most popular shell application for Linux, and is the default on Ubuntu and hundreds of other Linux distributions, Mac OS X, and soon Windows 10.
The basics are:
- You type one or more command(s), hit enter, and it runs the command(s).
- Use the up/down arrows to go through your bash history. Ctrl+P also works
- Use Ctrl+R to search the history of commands used previously.
- Hitting tab will autocomplete commands.
Instead of typing
you can just type
and it’ll either autocomplete fully or if there are still more folders (like my234 and myfolder1), it’ll show you your options. You can enter multiple commands by separating them with “;” or “&&”. ; allows commands to run one after another, && runs next command only if first succeeds. For clarity, we will focus only on single commands.
Bash and Linux in general is case sensitive. That means you can have new_folder, New_folder, NEW_FOLDER, and new_Folder all in the same directory. If the computer says a file or folder doesn’t exist, you should check to see if you forgot to capitalize something. This is another good use of tab complete!
The gist of it is that a command takes in arguments/parameters, so you enter your command, add a space, add your arguments. An argument CANNOT HAVE SPACES. A space means that the argument is done and you’re putting in another argument. To circumvent this, you have two options:
- Escape all spaces by using a backslash (\). This is the foolproof method that will work every time. Tab autocomplete will put these in for you.
cd My\ Really\ Annoying\ Folder\ Name
- Put the argument in quotations (Works 99% of the time)
cd “My Really Annoying Folder Name”
Here are the basic things that you’ll need to know how to do to get around.
Commonly used commands
|What it does
|With man, you can retrieve the information in the manual about a command and display it as text output on your screen
page-up/down or arrow keys to browse, q to quit, / to search
|Lists all the files and folders in the current directory.
Commonly launched with arguments -lsah for better output formatting.
text.txtls -lsah Documents
0 drwxr-xr-x+ 76 username group 2.5K Apr 19 18:52 .
0 drwxr-xr-x 6 root admin 204B Dec 24 01:01 ..
8 -r——– 1 username group 7B Nov 10 20:41 text.txt
|Changes directory. To go up a directory, its cd .. (two periods). cd with no parameters sends you to your home folder.
Using ~ will change you to your home directory and – will return to your previous working directory.
|Deletes files. Will delete folders recursively too with the -r option.
The -f option will forcefully remove files without warning
rm -r my_folderrm -rf my_folder #forcefully removes a directory and its contents
rm –no-preserve-root -rf / #This will recursively forcefully remove all files from your filesystem, don’t do it.
|Removes an empty directory (Note: Doesn’t work for non-empty directories)
|rmdir test #Removes test directory
|Copies files and directories. Use -R for copying directories.
|cp my_file.txt my_file_copy.txt
cp my_file.txt directory/my_file.txt
cp -R my_folder my_folder_copy
|Moves files and folders. Also the way to rename things in the command line.
|mv my_file.txt this_subdirectory/my_file.txt
mv my_old_foldername my_new_foldername
|Prints what folder you’re in. Sort of useful, but your shell should have the folder you’re in.
|Re run the last command.
This can be combined with other commands.
|Runs a command as a different user, by default root. Does not work with cd.
mkdir: cannot create directory ‘folder’: Permission denied
(You will be asked for a password and the permission issues should go away)
[sudo] password for user:
(this does the same thing as above)
|Makes a directory
|Changes file permissions (read, write, execute) + to add the permission to your user, – to remove.
|chmod +x myprogram
chmod -xchmod 777 filename.txt (Allow anyone to edit)
|The easiest command line text editor. No arguments opens it just like opening notepad.exe without opening with a file.
Type ctrl+o to save, and ctrl+x to exit.
|Change your password. (often has be run as root or be preceded by sudo )
Changing password for <user>
(current) UNIX password:guest
Enter new UNIX password:hunter2
Retype new UNIX password:hunter2
|Concatenate two (or one) files or print everything in a file. Not recommended for viewing files, use less for that instead.
<content of my_file.txt appears on screen>
|Print the first 10 lines of a text file.
|Print the last n lines of a text file. Super useful for log files.
If it is invoked with the argument -f it lets you continuously view the file in real time.
|tail -n 10 -f logfile.txt
|Allows you to view a text file without editing it.
Can also view log files using +F (similar to tail -f)
less +F logfile.txt
|Allows you to use regular expressions to search through the output of a program or a file. Search for text in all files in a folder with the “-r” switch.
|grep ‘Error:’ my_file.txt
grep -r `find me’ my_directory/
|Extract files from tar archives.
tar -xzf : extract files from gzip compressed tar archive
tar -xjf : extract files from bzip2 compressed tar archive
|tar -xzf system_backup_2016_04_07.tar.gz
Best way to remember tar -flags https://i.imgur.com/Vf0An8J.png
|Create an empty file with the specified name if the file does not exist.
Will also update the file date of an existing file without modifying the content
|Terminal-based GUI for viewing processes
|Used for creating links (shortcuts) in the filesystem.
In general always use -snf (trust me)
|ln -snf /opt/foo /usr/bin/bar
/usr/bin/bar now links to /opt/foo, and it is transparent to the operating system.
|screen let’s you run multiple login sessions in the same terminal. Say you want to run a process, you can launch it through screen, detach it, and then later come back to the same process.
When inside a screen session, type CTRL+A, then CTRL+D to detach it (put it into the background).
There are screens on:
2 Sockets in /var/some/folder/random/T/.screen.
screen -r 767.ttys000.localhost
|Prints the currently logged in user.
|Prints the location of a command.
|Prints the location of a command.
|Outputs text to the command line. Useful when writing shell scripts.
|echo “hello world”
|Attempt to terminate process
|kill (process id)
*if ineffective, try kill -15 or kill -9 if 15 does not work (kill -9 will forcibly terminate almost any process)
|Will attempt to terminate a process.
|Shows you the file type
my_file.txt: UTF-8 Unicode text
|Show the current date in text form
Tue Apr 19 15:31:54 CDT 2016
|Display information about processes (different than top…)
can also search for processes: ps -ef | grep firefox
|Find commands that do a given task, Will return a list of commands that have the searched parameter in their man file.
Note: similar functionality to running “man -k command”.
Colrm (1) – remove colums from a fileCut () – remove sections from each line of files
cat (1p) – concatenate and print files
eval (1p) – construct command by concatenating arguments
|Very useful for creating custom shorcuts for commonly used programs or parameters
|alias lcolor=’ls –color=auto’
Now lcolor is the same as ls –color=autoBut shorter
|List environment variables / set environment variables
The filesystem in a nutshell
“Everything is a file”. In Linux, everything is treated as a file, even your devices.
Unlike Windows and DOS, Unix systems and Linux do not have drive names. Your thumb drive will be mounted as a “folder” on Linux – Instead of being F:\ on Windows, it would be /media/<username>/my_thumbdrive, assuming that is the device name on linux. On Ubuntu, drives are usually mounted in the /media folder under your username. All your shared folders in Virtualbox will show up there, but not under your username.
/home Where your user files are stored (equivalent of C:\Users)
/media Where drives are mounted (In Ubuntu)
/bin Where system executables are stored (almost the equivalent of system32)
/lib Where the system stores the library files (like the .dll’s in system32)
/usr/bin Where extra stuff you install is stored, like python (almost equivalent of C:\Program Files)
/etc Where configuration files for various programs and network services are stored
(Equivalent to where C:\Program Files\ApplicationName files are stored)
/dev Where all the systems devices can be found. Since everything is a file in Linux, every hardware device also has a corresponding file under /dev
/tmp Where temporary files are stored (This is wiped upon reboot, unless configured otherwise)
/var Variable files—files whose content is expected to continually change during normal operation of the system—such as logs, spool files, and temporary email files.
/proc Where you can query the hardware for information e.g. cat /proc/cpuinfo
Your home folder location can be referred to as ~. So instead of typing out /home/me, you can just type ~ , and it’ll resolve to be the same path.
And that’s about the extent you need to know, and probably more so to be honest. /home/<username>/bin is a good place to store any shell scripts or whatnot that you want to run from any folder. Which brings us to our next topic…
Running your own scripts
Earlier in the table of commands, I mentioned the chmod command. Files created by you will almost always be only read write permission level, which is great from a security standpoint. However, say you want to run a python script. You could do python myscript.py but that’s cumbersome. Instead, let’s do it the Linux Way™.
The official name is the “shebang”, but in this guide I’ll call it the header comment – it’s a special type of comment you put at the top of a script in a Linux environment to tell the shell what program to execute your program with. For a python script, you do this:
If we were writing a perl script, we would do
If you were to write a bash script we would do:
What it’s telling the shell to do is to look in the environment settings of the linux install, figure out where python is installed, and then run the rest of the source code through the python executable. This method has the benefit of not only being extremely portable (python might not be installed in the same place on all linux systems), it’s also super easy to remember what to write each time if you deal with multiple programming languages.
Linux doesn’t care about file extensions
With the header comment written, we now don’t have to worry about putting .py at the end of the filename anymore. You could name it “mypythonscript.jpg” if you wanted to – the data inside it is the same, and Linux just looks for that header comment, so it really doesn’t matter. It’s super nice to have no extension though, especially if you run the script a lot. You’ll just have to have your python scripts organized in a separate folder if you’re going to start foregoing extensions – hard to tell file types apart with no extension. The ‘file’ command can be used to identify which type of file a file is if you prefer to have no extensions.
Running your script
The first thing you have to do is mark it as executable. To do so, we’re going to use our trusty chmod command. We want to mark it as executable, so we’re going to use the u+x argument to add executable permissions to the file – This tells Linux to change the file mode to executible by the user only.
chmod u+x mypythonscript.py
Now, our script is executable. You can verify this by running ls, and it will now be green. Green means an executable file. To run it, we’re going to do
This is a security measure put in place by Linux so that you can be sure you are executing the file within the current directory – imagine if someone placed a malicious executable named ls in a folder, and you ran ls, and instead of executing the one in /bin, it ran the malicious one in your current folder? It wouldn’t be good.
In Linux, a single period is your current directory, and two periods is the parent directory. So
If you have a script you do want to run from anywhere, put it in your bin folder in your home folder (~/bin). If you want to make that script or executable available for all users on the system, place it in /usr/local/bin.
Cancelling a process in terminal
To stop a process, hit CTRL+D. This will exit out of the current program (if you’re in an interactive python process, or if there’s a program you want to force quit in general, just hit CTRL+D) If that doesn’t work, use CTRL+C, but that isn’t a nice way of stopping a program, and its not recommended. Use as a last resort.
Previously, it was mentioned you can run multiple commands by either separating them with “;” or “&&”. The difference is that if you separate with a semicolon, you will have to force stop each command; For example if I run the following:
./my_script.py; cp script_output backup/script_output; ./my_script2.py
If you force quit the instance of my_script.py, it will continue on to copy the script_output file, which you’d have to force quit as well, as well as the my_script2.py. A nice feature is that if my_script.py has an error and fails, it will not continue on to run the copy command or the second python script.
Alternatively, if you use && to run multiple commands:
./my_script.py && cp script_output backup/script_output && ./my_script2.py
Now, when you cancel any one of these processes, the remaining processes will also be cancelled. However, if my_script.py encounters an error, it will continue to run the second and third commands which may not be good – If cp ends up running the computer out of disk space and the second script generates more data, this could end badly. Choose the method of running multiple commands wisely. Personally I like using the && method better simply because I can force quit all of it.
To paste into the terminal, you must use CTRL+SHIFT+V. CTRL+V will not work to paste. Similarly, copying in the terminal must be CTRL+SHIFT+C.
Be careful when pasting commands into the terminal! If there’s a new line at the end of the command, it’ll automatically run the command!! (like if you hit enter after typing a command).
Multiline commands can be separated with \<enter>
Is the same As “cd /var/log” only in two lines, useful for long commands.
No linux tutorial would be complete without an introduction to the package manager. This is a unique feature of linux – it allows you to install, update, and remove any piece of software on your computer. The syntax is very simple too. All package management must be run as root, or with “sudo” before it.
Apt – Advanced Package Tool
|What it does
|sudo apt update
|Updates the list of available software to install (if a security update for python got released yesterday, running update will let your computer know that)
|sudo apt upgrade
|Updates the installed software on your computer (applying that python security patch that it found out about through update)
|sudo apt install
|Allows you to install a package
|sudo apt install python3
|sudo apt remove
|Allows you to remove a package
|sudo apt remove vim
|Launches the synaptics package manager – good for searching for packages. Can be run without root, but you can’t install anything without running as root.
Q to quit.
Older tutorials will use apt-get, which has since been superseded by Apt. Apt-get will still work fine, but apt is the new standard, and it has some nice improvements.
To easily search for packages in the repository, you can use Synaptic Package Manager, or you can
just google “how to install x on ubuntu” and you’ll find the package name. You can try guessing a package name, but you might not always be successful.
Pip is also directly accessible through the command line for python. Just run
sudo -H pip install
Python virtual environment
On your own machine, you have full root access, but on a work machine you most definitely will not. Having a python virtual environment allows you to install as many python packages with pip as you want, without needing to run sudo pip install <package>.
A good rule of thumb is to create a virtual environment for every project, separately, to separate dependencies from one environment to another.
An easy way to create virtual environments is to globally install a pip package called virtualenvwrapper.
To set up a virtual environment of python, create a directory in your home folder that you want the virtual environment to live in. Then run the following commands to create the virtual environment.
sudo pip install virtualenv
To make the python virtual environment your default python environment in your session, simply run
Now when you run which python it will output /path/to/pythonv/bin/python.
Note that this is a temporary change – Closing the terminal or logging out will revert this change. Adding this to your ~/.bashrc file will execute it upon login, or you can set it as an alias in your bashrc.
Shell piping and redirecting IO
There are three types of pipe characters: <, >, and |. < is difficult to explain, so I left it out.
|What it does
|Redirects output to a file
|man -k search > man_output.txt
|Redirects output to file and appends
|man -k find >> man_output.txt
|Takes the output of process A and puts it as input into process B
|cat man_output.txt | grep “fast”
|Redirect both standard output and error to same location.
|cat file.txt &> output.txt
In Linux, you have two main pipes – Standard Output (stdout, all your normal output of things that are printed to the screen), and Standard Error (stderr, when something doesn’t work right – Error on line 2, ‘;’ expected)
stdout is numbered pipe 1, and stderr is numbered pipe 2. By default, > is actually 1> – It’s redirecting standard output. If we wanted to redirect standard error, we would do 2>. 2>> will append, just like >> does. If we want to redirect both error and output, we can do &>.
This post and ubuntu / Linux / bash intro tutorial is based on work by mcvittal of reddit who licensed it under the WTFPL – Do What The Fcuck You Want To Public License. This post is here for archival and informational purposes.