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SYMLINK(7)                 OpenBSD Reference Manual                 SYMLINK(7)

NAME
     symlink - symbolic link handling

DESCRIPTION
     Symbolic links are files that act as pointers to other files.  To under-
     stand their behavior, it is necessary to understand how hard links work.
     A hard link to a file is indistinguishable from the original file because
     it is a reference to the object underlying the original file name.
     Changes to a file are independent of the name used to reference the file.
     Hard links may not refer to directories and may not reference files on
     different file systems.  A symbolic link contains the name of the file to
     which it is linked; i.e., it is a pointer to a name, and not to an under-
     lying object.  For this reason, symbolic links may reference directories
     and may span file systems.

     Because a symbolic link and its referenced object coexist in the filesys-
     tem name space, confusion can arise in distinguishing between the link
     itself and the referenced object.  Historically, commands and system
     calls have adopted their own link-following conventions in a somewhat ad
     hoc fashion.  Rules for a more uniform approach, as they are implemented
     in this system, are outlined here.  It is important that local applica-
     tions conform to these rules, too, so that the user interface can be as
     consistent as possible.

     Symbolic links are handled either by operating on the link itself, or by
     operating on the object referenced by the link.  In the latter case, an
     application or system call is said to ``follow'' the link.  Symbolic
     links may reference other symbolic links, in which case the links are
     dereferenced until an object that is not a symbolic link is found, a sym-
     bolic link which references a file which doesn't exist is found, or a
     loop is detected.  (Loop detection is done by placing an upper limit on
     the number of links that may be followed, with an error resulting if this
     limit is exceeded.)

     There are three separate areas that need to be discussed.  They are as
     follows:

           1.   Symbolic links used as file name arguments for system calls.
           2.   Symbolic links specified as command-line arguments to utili-
                ties that are not traversing a file tree.
           3.   Symbolic links encountered by utilities that are traversing a
                file tree (either specified on the command line or encountered
                as part of the file hierarchy walk).

   System calls
     The first area is symbolic links used as file name arguments for system
     calls.

     Except as noted below, all system calls follow symbolic links.  For exam-
     ple, if there were a symbolic link ``slink'' which pointed to a file
     named ``afile'', the system call ``open("slink" ...)'' would return a
     file descriptor to the file ``afile''.

     There are at least five system calls that do not follow links, and which
     operate on the symbolic link itself.  They are: lchown(2), lstat(2),
     readlink(2), rename(2), and unlink(2).  Because remove(3) is an alias for
     unlink(2), it also does not follow symbolic links.

     The 4.4BSD system differs from historical 4BSD systems in that the system
     call chown(2) has been changed to follow symbolic links.  The lchown(2)
     system call was added later when the limitations of the new chown(2) be-
     came apparent.

   Commands not traversing a file tree
     The second area is symbolic links, specified as command-line file name
     arguments, to commands which are not traversing a file tree.

     Except as noted below, commands follow symbolic links named as command-
     line arguments.  For example, if there were a symbolic link ``slink''
     which pointed to a file named ``afile'', the command ``cat slink'' would
     display the contents of the file ``afile''.

     It is important to realize that this rule includes commands which may op-
     tionally traverse file trees, e.g., the command ``chown owner file'' is
     included in this rule, while the command ``chown -R owner file'' is not.
     (The latter is described in the third area, below.)

     If it is explicitly intended that the command operate on the symbolic
     link instead of following the symbolic link -- e.g., it is desired that
     ``chown owner slink'' change the ownership of ``slink'', not of what it
     points to -- the -h option should be used.  In the above example, ``chown
     owner slink'' would change the owner of ``afile'' to ``owner'', while
     ``chown -h owner slink'' would change the ownership of ``slink''.

     There are several exceptions to this rule.  The mv(1) and rm(1) commands
     do not follow symbolic links named as arguments, but respectively attempt
     to rename and delete them.  (Note that if the symbolic link references a
     file via a relative path, moving it to another directory may very well
     cause it to stop working, since the path may no longer be correct.)

     The ls(1) command is also an exception to this rule.  For compatibility
     with historic systems (when ls is not doing a tree walk, i.e., the -R op-
     tion is not specified), the ls command follows symbolic links named as
     arguments if the -L option is specified, or if the -F, -d, or -l options
     are not specified.  (If the -L option is specified, ls always follows
     symbolic links.  The -L option affects its behavior even though it is not
     doing a walk of a file tree.)

     The file(1) command behaves as ls(1) in that the -L option makes it fol-
     low a symbolic link.  By default, ``file slink'' will report that
     ``slink'' is a symbolic link.  This behavior is different from file(1) on
     some other systems, where the -h convention is followed.

     The 4.4BSD system differs from historical 4BSD systems in that the
     chown(8), chgrp(1), and file(1) commands follow symbolic links specified
     on the command line (unless the -h option is used).

   Commands traversing a file tree
     The following commands either optionally or always traverse file trees:
     chflags(1), chgrp(1), chmod(1), cp(1), du(1), find(1), ls(1), pax(1),
     rm(1), tar(1), and chown(8).

     It is important to realize that the following rules apply equally to sym-
     bolic links encountered during the file tree traversal and symbolic links
     listed as command-line arguments.

     The first rule applies to symbolic links that reference files that are
     not of type directory.  Operations that apply to symbolic links are per-
     formed on the links themselves, but otherwise the links are ignored.

     For example, the command ``chown -R user slink directory'' will ignore
     ``slink'', because the -h option was not given.  Any symbolic links en-
     countered during the tree traversal will also be ignored.  The command
     ``rm -r slink directory'' will remove ``slink'', as well as any symbolic
     links encountered in the tree traversal of ``directory'', because symbol-
     ic links may be removed.  In no case will either chown(8) or rm(1) follow
     the symlink to affect the file which ``slink'' references.

     The second rule applies to symbolic links that reference files of type
     directory.  Symbolic links which reference files of type directory are
     never ``followed'' by default.  This is often referred to as a
     ``physical'' walk, as opposed to a ``logical'' walk (where symbolic links
     referencing directories are followed).

     As consistently as possible, it is possible to make commands doing a file
     tree walk follow any symbolic links named on the command line, regardless
     of the type of file they reference, by specifying the -H (for
     ``half-logical'') flag.  This flag is intended to make the command-line
     name space look like the logical name space.  (Note: for commands that do
     not always do file tree traversals, the -H flag will be ignored if the -R
     flag is not also specified.)

     For example, the command ``chown -HR user slink'' will traverse the file
     hierarchy rooted in the file pointed to by ``slink''.  The -H is not the
     same as the previously discussed -h flag.  The -H flag causes symbolic
     links specified on the command line to be dereferenced both for the pur-
     poses of the action to be performed and the tree walk, and it is as if
     the user had specified the name of the file to which the symbolic link
     pointed.

     As consistently as possible, it is possible to make commands doing a file
     tree walk follow any symbolic links named on the command line, as well as
     any symbolic links encountered during the traversal, regardless of the
     type of file they reference, by specifying the -L (for ``logical'') flag.
     This flag is intended to make the entire name space look like the logical
     name space.  (Note: for commands that do not always do file tree traver-
     sals, the -L flag will be ignored if the -R flag is not also specified.)

     For example, the command ``chown -LR user slink'' will change the owner
     of the file referenced by ``slink''.  If ``slink'' references a directo-
     ry, chown will traverse the file hierarchy rooted in the directory that
     it references.  In addition, if any symbolic links are encountered in any
     file tree that chown traverses, they will be treated in the same fashion
     as ``slink''.

     As consistently as possible, it is possible to specify the default behav-
     ior by specifying the -P (for ``physical'') flag.  This flag is intended
     to make the entire name space look like the physical name space.

     For commands that do not by default do file tree traversals, the -H, -L,
     and -P flags are ignored if the -R flag is not also specified.  In addi-
     tion, the -H, -L, and -P options may be specified more than once; the
     last one specified determines the command's behavior.  This is intended
     to permit aliasing commands to behave one way or the other, and then
     override that behavior on the command line.

     The ls(1) and rm(1) commands have exceptions to these rules.  The rm com-
     mand operates on the symbolic link, and not the file it references, and
     therefore never follows a symbolic link.  The rm command does not support
     the -H, -L, or -P options.

     To maintain compatibility with historic systems, the ls command never
     follows symbolic links unless the -L flag is specified.  If the -L flag
     is specified, ls follows all symbolic links, regardless of their type,
     whether specified on the command line or encountered in the tree walk.
     The ls command does not support the -H or -P options.

SEE ALSO
     chflags(1), chgrp(1), chmod(1), cp(1), du(1), find(1), ln(1), ls(1),
     mv(1), pax(1), rm(1), tar(1), lchown(2), lstat(2), readlink(2),
     rename(2), symlink(2), unlink(2), fts(3), remove(3), chown(8)

OpenBSD 3.6                    January 25, 1997                              3