Soft and Hard links Linux

Difference between symbolic link and hard link

(hard links can not be created for files on a different drive,  but soft link can)

What is the difference between symbolic link and hard link? Explaining the difference between a symbolic link or a symlink and a hard link is easy and vital to knowing about how Linux/Unix environments work.

Understanding the difference between a symbolic link and a hard link is also important for web server maintenance and understanding how modern websites work.

What is symbolic link or symlink?

Symbolic link, often called symlink or softlink, is very similar to what we know from Windows – a shortcut. They are kind of shortcuts in the Linux/Unix world. Well, symbolic link can exist in the Windows world too, but for the simplicity of our explanation, let’s just work with the comparison that symlink is kind of a shortcutfor now. We will get into more details later. Symbolic link contains information about the destination of the target file.

What is hard link?

Hard link (often also called hardlink) is a bit different object when compared to a symlink. Hard link is a directory reference or pointer to a file. Hardlink is a label stored in a directory structure that refers the operating system to the file data when it is accessed. The important part is that hard link is closely tied together with its originating file. If you make changes to a hard link, you automatically make changes to the underlying file that the hardlink is attached to.

Hard link can only refer to data that exists on the same file system.

Many of us are used to Windows where files live in folders. Files in Linux/Unix are not stored in directories. Files in Linux are assigned an inode number which Linux uses to locate files. Each file can have multiple hard links which are located in various directories. A file does not get deleted until there are no remaining hard links to it.

Differences between symbolic link and hard link

Let’s summarize our findings. The list bellow summarizes some differences between symlink and hard link:

  1. Hardlink or hardlinks cannot be created for directories (folders). Hard link can only be created for a file.
  2. Symbolic links or symlinks can link to a directory (folder).
  3. Removing the original file that your hard link points to does not remove the hardlink itself; the hardlink still provides the content of the underlying file.
  4. If you remove the hard link or the symlink itself, the original file will stay intact.
  5. Removing the original file does not remove the attached symbolic link or symlink, but without the original file, the symlink is useless (the same concept like Windows shortcut).

In case you are interested getting to know even more details, this list is expanded more on the the Mklink page. The concept is simply that hard links are tied to their sources more rigidly.

What is the difference between symlink and shortcut?

We mentioned that symlinks are like shortcuts. They are like shortcuts but with some small differences. Symbolic links are automatically resolved by the file system. Any software programs, upon accessing a symbolic link, will see the target instead, whether the program is aware of symbolic links or not. On the other hand, shortcuts are treated like ordinary files by the files system and by software programs that are not aware of them. Only software programs that understand shortcuts (such as Windows) treat shortcuts as references to other files. Shortcuts can point to files or directories that exist in another file system or on the network. The difference between symbolic link and shortcut is clearer from the example mentioned at the bottom of this article, respectively as shown in the big print screen on the Mklink page.

How to create a hard link or hardlink?

In Linux, you would use the ln command to create a hard link.

$ ln fileA fileB

where fileA is the original file and fileB is the name you want to give to the hardlink. Let’s do some research now. You have the original file and one hard link that is attached to it. Now, you look at these two objects with the ls command:

$ ls -il fileA fileB

You can see in the output of this command that both files fileA and fileB have the same inode number (the first number on the line). In addition to having the same inode, both files have the same file permissions and the same size. Because that size is reported for the same inode, we can see that a hard link does not occupy any extra space on your space.

If you now remove the original file and open the hard link, you will still be able to see the content of the original file.

Note, hard link cannot be created to a folder. If you try creating a hard link to a folder, you will get “Access denied.”

How to create a symlink?

Let’s demonstrate this with an example. When talking about Linux, you would use the ln command with the -s parameter. You would do something like:

$ ln -s fileA fileB

where fileA is the original file and fileB is the name you want to give to the symbolic link. Now, let’s take a look at these two objects with the ls command again:

$ ls -il fileA fileB

You can see that you get different result as compared to when we displayed the hard link. The first difference between symlink and the original file is the inode number. The inode is different for the original file and for the symbolic link. Next, you can also notice that there is the pipe symbol “l” before the permissions on the symlink line. Also, the symbolic link has different permissions than the original file (because it is just a symbolic link). The content of the symlink is just a string pointing to the original file. The size of the symlink is not the same as the size of the original file. The symbolic link is a separate entity and as such occupies some space on your hard drive. You can see at the end of the line where the symlink points to.

You can access the content of the original file directly by calling the original file or by calling the symbolic link. You will see the same result.

Now if you remove the original file, the symlink will still be there. If you try to access the content of the original file through the symbolic link after removing the original file, you will get a message saying there is no such file or directory.

Can I make a symlink to a hard link?

Yes. The hard link functions the same way like the original file; therefore, you can make symlinks to it. You would use in our example the following command:

$ ln -s fileB fileC

where fileB would be the name of the hard link, and fileC would be the name of your new symlink.

Difference between symlink and hard link in Windows?

There are not many differences between symbolic link and hard link in the concept; the concept is the same whether we are working with Linux or Windows; the difference between symlink and hardlink is in how you create them. When talking about MS Windows, you can create three things:

  • shortcut
  • hard link / hardlink
  • symbolic link / symlink

The Ultimate Linux Soft and Hard Link Guide (10 Ln Command Examples)

There are two types of links available in Linux — Soft Link and Hard Link.

Linux ln command is used to create either soft or hard links.

This article explains how to create soft link, how to create hard link, and various link tips and tricks with 10 practical examples.

$ ls -l
total 4
lrwxrwxrwx 1 chris chris 10 2010-09-17 23:40 file1 -> sample.txt
-rw-r--r-- 1 chris chris 22 2010-09-17 23:36 sample.txt

The 1st character in each and every line of the ls command output indicates one of the following file types. If the 1st character is l (lower case L), then it is a link file.

  • regular file
  • l link file
  • d directory
  • p pipe
  • c character special device
  • b block special device

1. What is Soft Link and Hard Link?

Soft Link

Linux OS recognizes the data part of this special file as a reference to another file path. The data in the original file can be accessed through the special file, which is called as Soft Link.

To create a soft link, do the following (ln command with -s option):

$ ln -s /full/path/of/original/file /full/path/of/soft/link/file

Hard Link

With Hard Link, more than one file name reference the same inode number. Once you create a directory, you would see the hidden directories “.” and “..” . In this, “.” directory is hard linked to the current directory and the “..” is hard linked to the parent directory.

When you use link files, it helps us to reduce the disk space by having single copy of the original file and ease the administration tasks as the modification in original file reflects in other places.

To create a hard link, do the following (ln command with no option):

$ ln /full/path/of/original/file /full/path/of/hard/link/file

2. Create Symbolic Link for File or Directory

Create a symbolic link for a File

The following examples creates a symbolic link under /home/chris/lib, based on the located under /home/chris/src/ directory.

$ cd /home/chris/lib 

$ ln -s /home/chris/src/

$ ls -l
lrwxrwxrwx  1 chris chris       21 2010-09-18 07:23 -> /home/chris/src/

Create a symbolic link for a Directory

Just like file, you can create symbolic link for directories as shown below.

$ mkdir /home/chris/obj

$ cd tmp

$ ln -s /home/chris/obj objects

$ ls -l objects
lrwxrwxrwx 1 chris chris       6 2010-09-19 16:48 objects -> /home/chris/obj

Note: The inode of the original file/directory and the soft link should not be identical.

3. Create Hard Link for Files

The inode number for the hard linked files would be same. The hard link for files can be created as follows,

$ ln src_original.txt dst_link.txt

$ ls -i dst_link.txt
253564 dst_link.txt

$ ls -i src_original.txt
253564 src_original.txt

Note: Unix / Linux will not allow any user (even root) to create hard link for a directory.

4. Create Links Across Different Partitions

When you want to create the link across partitions, you are allowed to create only the symbolic links. Creating hard link across partitions is not allowed, as Unix can’t create/maintain same inode numbers across partitions.

You would see the “Invalid cross-device link” error when you are trying to create a hard link file across partitions.

# mount /dev/sda5 /mnt

# cd /mnt

# ls
main.c Makefile

# ln Makefile /tmp/Makefile
ln: creating hard link `/tmp/Makefile' to `Makefile': Invalid cross-device link

And the symbolic link can be created in the same way as we did in the above.

5. Backup the Target Files If it Already Exists

When you create a new link (if another file exist already with the same name as the new link name), you can instruct ln command to take a backup of the original file before creating the new link using the –backup option as shown below.

$ ls
ex1.c  ex2.c

$ ln --backup -s ex1.c ex2.c 

$ ls -lrt
total 8
-rw-r--r-- 1 chris chris 20 2010-09-19 16:57 ex1.c
-rw-r--r-- 1 chris chris 20 2010-09-19 16:57 ex2.c~
lrwxrwxrwx 1 chris chris  5 2010-09-19 17:02 ex2.c -> ex1.c

Note: If you don’t want the backup and overwrite the existing file then use -f option.

6. Create Link Using “No-Deference” ln Command Option

While creating a new soft link, normally OS would de-reference the destination path before it creates the new soft link.

Sometimes you might not want ln command to create the new link, if the destination path is already a symbolic link that is pointing to a directory.

Following examples shows a normal way of creating soft link inside a directory.

$ cd ~

$ mkdir example

$ ln -s /etc/passwd example

$ cd example/

$ ls -l
total 0
lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root 16 2010-09-19 17:24 passwd -> /etc/passwd

In case the “example” directory in the above code-snippet is a symbolic link pointing to some other directory (for example second-dir), the ln command shown will still create the link under second-dir. If you don’t want that to happen, use ln -n option as shown below.

$ cd ~

$ rm -rf example

$ mkdir second-dir

$ ln -s second-dir example

$ ln -n -s /etc/passwd example
ln: creating symbolic link `example': File exists

Note: In the above example, if you don’t use the -n option, the link will be created under ~/second-dir directory.

7. Create Link for Multiple Files at the Same Time

In the following example, there are two directories — first-dir and second-dir. The directory first-dir contains couple of C program files. If you want to create soft links for these files in second-dir, you’ll typically do it one by one. Instead, you can create soft list for multiple files together using -t option as shown below.

$ ls
first-dir second-dir

$ ls first-dir
ex1.c  ex2.c

$ cd second-dir

$ ln -s ../first-dir/*.c -t .

$ ls -l
total 0
lrwxrwxrwx 1 chris chris 14 2010-09-19 15:20 ex1.c -> ../first-dir/ex1.c
lrwxrwxrwx 1 chris chris 14 2010-09-19 15:20 ex2.c -> ../first-dir/ex2.c

Keep in mind that whenever you are creating link files with -t option, it is better to go into target directory and perform the link creation process. Otherwise, you would face the broken link files as shown below.

$ cd first-dir

$ ln -s *.c /home/chris/second-dir

$ cd /home/chris/second-dir
$ ls -l
total 0
lrwxrwxrwx 1 chris chris 5 2010-09-19 15:26 ex1.c -> ex1.c
lrwxrwxrwx 1 chris chris 5 2010-09-19 15:26 ex2.c -> ex2.c

Instead, you might also use actual path for source files to create the link properly.

8. Removing the Original File When a Soft Link is pointing to it

When the original file referred by a soft-link is deleted, the soft link will be broken as shown below.

$ ln -s file.txt /tmp/link

$ ls -l /tmp/link
lrwxrwxrwx 1 chris chris 9 2010-09-19 15:38 /tmp/link -> file1.txt

$ rm file.txt

$ ls -l /tmp/link
lrwxrwxrwx 1 chris chris 9 2010-09-19 15:38 /tmp/link -> file1.txt

9. Links Help You to Increase the Partition Size Virtually

Let us assume that you have two partitions – 5GB and 20GB. The first partition does not have too much free space available in it. If a program located on the first partition needs more space (For example, for it’s log file), you can use some of the space from the second partition by creating a link for the log files as shown below.

Consider that partition1 is mounted on /, and partition2 is mounted to /mnt/. Let us assume that the logs that are located on partition1 is running out of space, and you’ve decided to move them to partition2. You can achieve this as shown below.

$ mkdir /mnt/logs

$ cd /logs

$ mv * /mnt/logs

$ cd /; rmdir logs

$ ln -s /mnt/logs logs

10. Removing the Hard Linked Files

When you delete a file that is hard linked, you would be still able to access the content of the file until you have the last file which is hard linked to it, as shown in the example below.

Create a sample file.

$ vim src_original.txt
Created this file to test the hard link.

Create a hard link to the sample file.

$ ln src_original.txt dst_link.txt

Delete the original file.

$ rm src_original.txt

You can still access the original file content by using the hard link you created.

$ cat dst_link.txt
Created this file to test the hard link.

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