Linux Command Line Series: sudo

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What is sudo?

Most often used in Ubuntu-like distributions to allow a standard user to issue commands that would normally be run be run by the root user. By using sudo you can run tools like apt-get, Synaptic, iptables, Samba, Apache, etc.. Without the help of sudo, distributions such as Ubuntu would be crippled because you can not log in as the root user. Created by Bob Coggeshall and Cliff Spencer, sudo has been around since the ’80s and is now maintained by Todd C. Miller and released under the BSD license. Although sudo can be set up on a system that doesn’t traditionally require sudo (such as Fedora, Mandriva, and SuSE), it can be installed and used for security purposes. By employing sudo you can control which users, on a multi-user system, have access to administrative powers without handing out the root password.

Basic usage

When using a distribution that requires sudo to undertake any administrative tasks, the use of sudo is simple. Say you want to install Gnucash with apt-get. If you issue the command apt-get install gnucash you will see the error messages:

E: Could not open lock file /var/lib/dpkg/lock - open (13 Permission denied)

E: Unable to lock the administration directory (/var/lib/dpkg/), are you root?

The above simply means you do not have permission to do what you tried to do. Now if you prefaced the same command sudo like so: sudo apt-get install gnucash, you would see:


Once you enter your user password the command would execute.

After this command is completed, if you wanted to issue another command requiring sudo you wouldn’t have to enter the password a second time. This feature does time out after five minutes of inactivity.

Those of you who are accustomed to Fedora, Mandriva, and SuSE will notice that, by default, you can not successfully issue the su command to gain root access. In Ubuntu there is no root password set by default so you can not log in as root. This system is added for security reasons.

Editing text files with sudo

A nice feature of sudo is the “e” argument which is for “edit”. If you need to edit a text file that requires root privileges you can do this in two ways. Let’s use the Nano text editor and the httpd.conf file for examples.

sudo nano /etc/apache2/conf/httpd.conf


sudo -e /etc/apache2/conf/httpd.conf

Using the “e” argument automatically uses your default text editor to place you in sudoedit mode. You can get the same results by issuing the command:

sudoedit /etc/apache2/conf/httpd.conf

Final Thoughts

If you are migrating from a distribution that does not take advantage of sudo, it will take you a while to get used to typing “sudo”. But the learning curve is worth it for the security using sudo brings. The sudo system is an outstanding way to allow users administrative privileges without fully comprising your system.

This post is part of the series: Linux Command Line

If you ever plan on doing any administration on a Linux machine, you would be well served to get to know the command line interface. In this Bright Hub series you will be introduced to various concepts surrounding one of the most powerful admin tools around.

  1. Linux Command Line: Introduction
  2. Linux Command Line: ls
  3. Linux Command Line: cd
  4. Linux Command Line: mkdir
  5. Linux Command Line: df
  6. Linux Command Line: ln
  7. Linux Command Line: top
  8. Linux Command Line: mount/umount
  9. Linux Command Line: Cron/Crontab
  10. Linux Command Line: chmod
  11. Linux Command Line: wget
  12. Linux Command Line: cat
  13. Linux Command Line: grep
  14. Linux Command Line: dd
  15. Linux Command Line: sudo
  16. Linux Command Line: startx
  17. Linux Command Line: adduser
  18. Linux Command Line: at
  19. Linux Command Line: aterm
  20. Linux Command Line: nano
  21. Linux Command Line: hostname