Lesson 4: Users, Groups, Permissions

Homepage Content Slides Video


This lesson is under construction. Learn from it at your own risk. If you have any feedback, please fill out our General Feedback Survey.

The User

You... ish.

Users are the actors that do things in an OS. A user is responsible for invoking a program, has a list of unique attributes, and has certain permissions / restrictions.

Users can be people or non-people, but as far as the OS is concerned both are almost identical.

$ whoami    # your username
$ who       # who is logged in?
$ w         # who is here and what are they doing?
$ id        # user ID, group ID, and groups you're in

Sometimes robots are users too: Apache, Mailman, ntp.

What a User has

Usernames are what you call yourself as a user.

What your User is represented by in the OS. A unique identifier.

System users (robots) are UID 0-999, People users are UID 1000+.

Groups allow multiple user to share permissions. Every user is usually in their own group and may be added to other groups for additional system access.
Shell (not always interactive)

This is the shell you are given when you login. Usually defaults to /bin/bash on GNU/Linux.

Robot users are not given a shell since they don’t login.

Password (Usually but not always)
Most users have a password, but if one is not supposed to they can be given a wildcard password (*), which can never be matched, or an empty password, which is matched on empty input.
Home Directory (Usually but not always)
Below is a line from the file /etc/passwd which stores user information (dispite the name, it shouldn’t contain passwords).

All of this informaion is stored in a file called /etc/passwd.


username:password:uid:gid:uid info:home directory:shell

What Users Can Do

  • Change Passwords with the passwd command.
  • Act as Another user with su.
$ su $USER          # become user, with THEIR password
$ su                # become root, with root's password
$ sudo su -         # use your password instead of root's
$ sudo su $USER     # become $USER with your password
  • Act as themselves.

    • ls -l to see file permissions.
    • Check the file’s group and user.
    • Check the file’s read, write, and execute bits.
Sudoers Naught List

Managing Groups and Users

As someone interacting with servers, even as a developer, it’s necessary to understand how to manage users and groups on a Linux machine.

To view all user information on a system check the file /etc/passwd:

$ cat /etc/passwd
# username:x:UID:GID:GECOS:homedir:shell

To add, delete, and change the password of a user respectively run the following commands:

$ useradd <user_name>  # vs adduser, the friendly Ubuntu version
$ userdel <user_name>
$ passwd

To add a group, or the permissions of a user/group run groupmod, usermod, and groupmod respectively. Similarly to /etc/passwd, /etc/group carries group information.

$ groupadd
$ usermod
$ groupmod
$ cat /etc/group
xkcd letting go

Examples of Non-Human Users

As we mentioned above there’s a few users that aren’t real people, but users all the same (according to Linux)! Below are a few examples of those.

  • mailman: For the mailing list program.
  • apache: For the HTTP Server.
  • postfix: For the other mail program.

Root and Sudo

Basically god on Linux.

All users have a specific set of permissions, i.e., things they can and cannot do. The Linux super-user root is not burdened by this and so it can do pretty much whever it wants. As a person this is important because you can become root and get things done that your user is unable to do.

The way you act as root is one of two ways:
  • su root Is like logging in as root. Prompts you for the root user’s password.
  • sudo <command> runs a single command as root. Prompts you for your password, but requries you to be on the sudoers list.
[foo@compe ~]$ yum install httpd    # Runs command as `foo` user
Loaded plugins: fastestmirror, ovl
ovl: Error while doing RPMdb copy-up:
[Errno 13] Permission denied: '/var/lib/rpm/__db.002'
You need to be root to perform this command.
[foo@compe ~]$ sudo yum install httpd    # Runs command as `root` user.
Loaded plugins: fastestmirror, ovl
[... installs correctly ...]
Sudo get me a sandwich.


Acting as root is dangerous! You can accidentally delete your filesystem, forcing you to completley re-install your OS! Type carefully.


  • Create a user on your system for yourself, with your preferred username.
  • Give your user sudo powers.
  • Use su to get into your user account.
  • Change your password.
  • Create a directory called bootcamp in your home directory.
  • Create a group called devops.