Aravind Aravind - 2 years ago 94
Linux Question

What is there behind a symbolic link?

How are symbolic links managed internally by UNIX/Linux systems. It is known that a symbolic link may exist even without an actual target file (Dangling link). So what is that which represents a symbolic link internally.

In Windows, the answer is a

reparse point


Is the answer an
in UNIX/Linux?

If yes, then will the inode number be same for target and links?

If yes, can the link inode can have permissions different from that of target's inode (if one exists)?

Answer Source

It is not about UNIX/Linux but about filesystem implementation - but yes, Unix/Linux uses inodes at kernel level and filesystem implementations have inodes (at least virtual ones).

In the general, symbolic links are simply files (btw, directories are also files), that have:

  • the flag file-type in the "inode" that tells to the system this file is a "symbolic link"
  • file-content: path to the target - in other words: a symbolic link is simply a file which contains a filename with an flag in the inode.

Virtual filesystems can have symbolic links too, so, check FUSE or some other filesystem implementation sources. (ext2/ext3/ufs..etc)


Is the answer an inode in UNIX/Linux?

depends on filesystem implementation, but yes, generally the inode contains a "file-type" (and owners, access rights, timestamps, size, pointers to data blocks). There are filesystems that don't have inodes (in a physical implmementation) but have only "virtual inodes" for maintaining compatibility with the kernel.

If yes, then will the inode number be same for target and links?

No. Usually, the symlink is a file with its own inode, (with file-type, own data blocks, etc.)

If yes, can the link inode can have permissions different from that of target's inode(if one exists)?

This is about how symlink files are handled. Usually the kernel doesn't allow changes to the symlink permissions - and symlinks always have default permissions. You could write your own filesystem that would allow different permissions for symlinks, but you would get into trouble, because common programs like chmod don't changes permissions on symlinks themselves, so making such a filesystem would be pointless anyway)

To understand the difference between hardlinks and symlinks, you should understand directories first.

Directories are files (with differentiated by a flag in the inode) that tell the kernel, "handle this file as a map of file-name to inode_number". Hard-links are simply file names that map to the same inode. So if the directory-file contains:

file_a: 1000
file_b: 1001
file_c: 1000

the above means, in this directory are 3 files:

  • file_a described by inode 1000
  • file_b described by inode 1001 and
  • file_c again described by inode 1000 (so it is a hardlink with file_a, not hardlink to file_a - because it is impossible to tell which file name came first - they are identical).

This is the main difference to symlinks, where the inode of file_b (inode 1001) could have content "file_a" and a flag meaning "this is a symlink". In this case, file_b would be a symlink pointing to file_a.

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