Lesson 5: Users, Groups, Permissions

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What are users?

You, right now.

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

Not just people: Apache, Mailman, ntp. “system users”

Users have

  • Username
  • UID
  • Group
  • Shell
  • Usually (but not always) password
  • Usually (but not always) home directory
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 (despite the name, it shouldn’t contain passwords).

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


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

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
xkcd letting go

What are groups?

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
# group name:password or placeholder:GID:member,member,member

Users won’t be active in new group until they “log back in”


/etc/shadow, not /etc/passwd

user@localhost ~ $ ls -l /etc/ | grep shadow
-rw-r-----  1 root shadow   1503 Nov 12 17:37 shadow

$ sudo su -
$ cat /etc/shadow

# name:hash:time last changed: min days between changes: max days
#    between changes:days to wait before expiry or disabling:day of
#    account expiry

$ chage # change when a user's password expires


  • UID 0
  • sudo
Sudo get me a sandwich.


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


Consult man 5 sudoers for more information:

# User alias specification
User_Alias  DOBC_ADMIN = lance, teacher
User_Alias  DOBC_STUDENT = john, jane

# Runas alias specification
Runas_Alias ADMIN = root, sysadmin
Runas_Alias STUDENT = httpd

# Host alias specification
Host_Alias OSU_NET =
Host_Alias SERVERS = www, db

# Cmnd alias specification
Cmnd_Alias KILL = /bin/kill
Cmnd_Alias SU = /bin/su

#  User privilege specification
root          ALL = (ALL) ALL

Acting as another user

$ su joe            # become user joe, with THEIR password
$ su                # become root, with root's password
$ sudo su -         # become root, with your password
$ sudo su joe       # become user joe with your password
Sudoers Naught List

A dash after su provides an environment similar to what the user would expect. Typically a good practice to always use su -

Super users

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 whatever 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 requires you to be on the sudoers list.

Trying to run commands which require root permissions as a regular user can be a problem. However, sudo authorizes you to do commands based on your permissions. For example:

[dobc@dobc ~]$ yum install httpd      # Runs command as `dobc` 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.

[dobc@dobc ~]$ sudo yum install httpd # Runs command as `root` user.
Loaded plugins: fastestmirror, ovl
[... installs correctly ...]


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

Exercise Answer Key

$ sudo su -
$ useradd lance
# better to use visudo instead
$ echo "lance ALL = (ALL) ALL" >> /etc/sudoers
$ passwd lance
Changing password for user lance.
New password:
Retype new password:
passwd: all authentication tokens updated successfully.
$ su - lance
$ mkdir bootcamp
$ sudo groupadd devops

We trust you have received the usual lecture from the local System
Administrator. It usually boils down to these three things:

    #1) Respect the privacy of others.
    #2) Think before you type.
    #3) With great power comes great responsibility.

[sudo] password for lance: