Basic GNU/Linux commandline applications

Introduction to GNU

GNU is an Unix-like computer operating system. “GNU” is pronounced g’noo. GNU is a recursive acronym for “GNU’s Not Unix!”. It was publicly announced by Dr. Richard Stallman on January 5, 1984.

The goal was to bring a wholly free software operating system into existence. [1]


The GNU logo

GNU project outlines

“Free software” is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of “free” as in “free speech”, not as in “free stuff”.

Free software is a matter of the users freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. More precisely, it refers to four kinds of freedom, for the users of the software:

  1. The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  2. The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  3. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  4. The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

The Hurd, GNU’s own kernel [2], is some way from being ready for daily use. Thus, GNU is typically used today with a kernel called Linux. This combination is the GNU/Linux operating system. GNU/Linux is used by millions, though many call it “Linux” by mistake. [3]


The Linux kernel

The Linux kernel was initially started by Linus Torvalds. Linux rapidly accumulated developers and users who adapted code from other free software projects for use with the new operating system. The Linux kernel has received contributions from thousands of programmers. [4]

Today, Linux kernel runs super-computers, servers, mobiles, tablets, TVs, set-top boxes and many consumer electronics.


The Linux logo


GNU/Linux distributions

Unlike other operating systems, GNU/Linux doesn’t have only one flavor. In fact, there are more than thousand variants available. The most popular are listed in You may also be interested in the Linux_distributions wikipedia page. This page showcase the history and development of popular GNU/Linux distributions.


logos of some GNU/Linux distributions

We will be using Ubuntu for rest of the discussion. The only reason for Ubuntu is its popularity and support. There are many distributions which are arguably more productive than Ubuntu.

Ubuntu is based on one of the oldest distribution Debian. There are many variants of Debian too, Ubuntu is most favoured by beginners.

On the other hand there are many sub-distributions of Ubuntu too. LinuxMint is most popular among them.


Linuxmint Desktop

In fact, anyone with good understanding of internals of GNU/Linux, can either customize or start his own distribution. More comprehensive details are available at

GNU/Linux applications

Text based and X-window application

Any GNU/Linux application can be broadly classified into text based and X-window based.

Text based applications are also known as command line applications. Usually, these command line applications run inside a Console. In modern GNU/Linux desktops, these applications are often accessed through terminal-emulator programs.

For example, vim is a popular command line application to view/edit text files, similarly
gedit is the popular X-window based application for text processing.

Shell and Bash

In computing, a shell is a user interface for access to an operating system’s services.

Generally, operating system shells use either a command-line interface (CLI) or graphical user interface (GUI). We will work with CLI based shell only.

Bash, also known as Bourne-again shell, is an advanced Unix shell, which comes pre-installed in all modern GNU/Linux distributions.

Bash can also read commands from a file, called a script (commonly known as Bash script). Like all Unix shells, it supports filename wildcarding, piping, command substitution, variables and control structures for condition-testing and iteration. The keywords, syntax and other basic features of the language were all copied from sh. Other features, e.g., history, were copied from csh and ksh. [5]

We will concentrate on more command line applications. The rest of the tutorial assumes that you have a terminal-emulator running bash.


Why text based applications ?

Its an obvious question occur to all. With all these user friendly graphical X-window based applications, why one need command based applications ?

The reasons could be the following :

  • The output of one application could be sent to other (mostly).
  • Low on RAM, CPU and other resources. Ideal for batch conversions and remote access.
  • Applications can be called inside a shell script efficiently.
  • Easy to develop and debug.

GNU/Linux text based applications

The following commands are tested in terminal-emulator and Console. The give precise output with Bash.

Do not just copy-paste them, read man pages, --help to explore more about each command(application).

Basic directory and files

  1. Change directory

    cd /tmp
  2. Print present working directory

  3. List files and directories

    ls -l /tmp

    -l long listing

  4. Create directories

    mkdir dir src-dir dest-dir
  5. Create files

    touch 1.txt 2.txt
  6. Remove file(s)

    rm -v 1.txt

    -v show verbose

  7. Remove directory

    rm -rv dir/

    -r recursive (only for directories and sub-directories)

  8. Move/Rename directory

    mv -i src-dir/ dest-dir/

    -i prompt before overwrite

Read, search and find

  1. Print file content on standard output (STDOUT) and exit

    cat /etc/lsb-release /etc/bash.bashrc
  2. Read and search through text file

    less /etc/bash.bashrc
  3. Print first line of the file and exit

    head -n1 /etc/bash.bashrc

    -n[K] Print first K lines of the file -c[K] Print first K bytes of the file

  4. Print last line of the file and exit, command line flags similar to head

    tail -n1 /etc/bash.bashrc
  5. Find files in the directory

    find ~/Downloads -iname \*.pdf -size +4M

    -iname name of the file (ignore case) -size file size larger than 4MB

  6. Search lines in text file

    grep 'nobody' /etc/passwd
  7. Search recursively in the directory

    grep -ri 'printf' /usr/include/
  8. Pipe (send) the output of one application to other

    ls -l | grep 'rw'

    Piping STDOUT of ls -l to grep command to search rw

User and permissions

  1. Know the current user

  2. Show all logged in users

  3. Change permission to write for others (other than users and groups)

    chmod -R o+w dest-dir/

    -R recursively to all directories.

  4. Only read and execute permissions to all

    chmod -R a=rx dest-dir/
  5. Change permission to rwxrwxr-x

    chmod -R 775 dest-dir/
  6. Change ownership to root user

    sudo chown -R root.root dest-dir/

    sudo is the command which allows user to run command as administrator

Network and installations

  1. Check network connectivity

    ping -c 5

    Use correct IP address. Localhost will always show replies.

  2. Show connected networks

  3. Download a file(s) from internet

    wget -c

    -c continue, or resume download operation

  4. Login to remote shell

    ssh -Y root@localhost

    -Y enable trusted X11 forwarding, which means one can view remote X-window programs

  5. Secure copy to remote machine

    scp -r /etc/udev root@localhost:/tmp

    -r recursive

Attributes and monitoring

  1. Know the file type

    file /bin/ls
  2. List all filesytem disk space usage

    df -h

    -h human readable form

  3. Estimate file space usage

    du -h /tmp
  4. Check the memory usage

    free -m

    -m display amount of memory in megabytes

  5. Check all the mounted filesystems

  6. Add custom path for binary

    export PATH=$PATH:/tmp/bin

This concludes the Basic introduction to GNU/Linux command line applications.