TweetFollow Us on Twitter

File Mode Idioms

Volume Number: 19 (2003)
Issue Number: 6
Column Tag: Section 7

Section 7

File Mode Idioms

by Rich Morin

Which modes are used for what?

Each Mac OS X file system node has a 16-bit mode word, as described in chmod(1,2) and stat(2). This word specifies the node's type, what access modes are allowed, and some specialized handling. 16 bits provides 64 K possible variations, but only a relatively small number of "file mode idioms" are found with any frequency. By learning some of these idioms, you can make your system more secure and understand existing configuration decisions.

File Types and Modes

Before we get into the idioms, however, let's review the basics of file types and modes. The file system recognizes many types of "files", including a number of things (e.g., directories) that aren't really files, at all. The most common file type, however, is the "regular file", followed by the "directory" and the "symbolic link" (aka symlink(7)).

There are dozens of device files (see mknod(1,2,8) for details), but they are almost always segregated into the /dev directory. Sockets and named pipes can be used to enable interprocess communication between arbitrary processes (see mkfifo(2) for details). Finally, the "whiteout" type is used for the (ever-experimental) Union File System, described in FreeBSD's mount_union(8) man page.

The node's type is specified by the top four bits in the mode word, available via the stat(2) system call:

0160000  whiteout
0140000  socket
0120000  symbolic link
0100000  regular file
0060000  block special device
0040000  directory
0020000  character special device
0010000  named pipe (fifo)

The next three bits specify some forms of "special handling". If the node is a regular file, the bits are interpreted as follows:

0004000  set user  id on execution
0002000  set group id on execution
0001000  save swapped text, even after use

The first two bits are described in the setuid(2) man page. Briefly, they allow a program to run with the permissions of its owner (or group), rather than those of the user who started it. This is used to provide controlled access to elevated privileges in (carefully constructed!) system commands.

You can get a list of your system's setuid and setgid commands with the following C-shell command (use whereis(1) or which(1) to find the full path name of a specific command). In the output below, df is setgid to "operator" and rcp is setuid to "root":

% ls -l /{,usr/}{,*/}{,s}bin | grep '[r-]-s'
-r-xr-sr-x  1 root  operator  ...  df
-r-sr-xr-x  1 root  wheel     ...  rcp
...

The third bit, described in sticky(8), tells the system to retain the read-only parts of a program's image in memory, after the program has terminated. This can be used to reduce the start-up time for frequently-run programs. Whether your OS honors the request is, of course, up to the vendor (:-).'

If the node is a directory and the system is SysV-ish (e.g., Red Hat Linux), the setgid bit may be interpreted as forcing "BSDish" behavior in setting the group for a new file. That is, a new file will get the enclosing directory's group, rather than the user's. On BSDish systems (e.g., OSX), this bit has no effect.

Sticky directories are a bit more complex; here's a snippet from the manual: "A file in a sticky directory may only be removed or renamed by a user if the user has write permission for the directory and the user is the owner of the file, the owner of the directory, or the super-user. This feature is usefully applied to directories such as /tmp, which must be publicly writable but should deny users the license to arbitrarily delete or rename each others' files."

The bottom nine bits are divided into three sets of permissions (for the file's owner, members of the file's group, and everyone else); each set specifies read, write, and execute permission:

0000400  read  permission, owner
0000200  write permission, owner
0000100  execute/search permission, owner
0000040  read permission, group
...

The meanings of read, write, and execute are a bit strained, when it comes to directories. Read permission allows the user to "read" the directory, looking for file names, etc. Write permission allows the user to "write" the directory, creating or removing files, etc. Finally, execute permission allows the user to access an item contained within the directory.

File Idioms

Most files are readable and writable by their owners. If nobody else is expected to access the file, no other permissions are needed. However, it is common to allow group access, as well:

% touch 0600 0660
% chmod 0600 0600
% chmod 0660 0660
% ls -l 0*
-rw-------  ...  0600
-rw-rw----  ...  0660

Obviously, executable files need to have the appropriate "execute" bits set. Less obviously, the "read" bit must be set for scripts (so the interpreter can read them!). In practice, even binary executables tend to have read access turned on; for one thing, this allows debuggers to inspect the binary.

Distributed executables often have write access turned off. This seems like a good idea, because it reduces the chance of inappropriate modification. An inspection of /usr/bin on my OSX system, however, shows that this practice isn't universal:

-rwxr-xr-x  ...  cscope
-r-xr-xr-x  ...  ctags

System-wide files, such as the executables in bin directories, generally need to be accessible by everyone on the system. Many system control files also need universal read access:

-r--r--r--  ...  /etc/crontab

sudo(8) allows any command to be run as if by any specified user, assuming that the actual user can supply the required password. Unfortunately, this requires passwords to be handed out, remembered, guarded, etc. Fortunately, the file system provides an elegant solution:

-rwsr-x---  1 root  wheel  ...  so

The "so" command (at least our version :-) gives root privileges to anyone who is in group wheel. If arguments are given, they are run as a command line; otherwise, the user is given a root-enabled shell.

Directory Idioms

The mode bits for home directories should keep each user's files safe from casual inspection (let alone modification). Depending on the environment, and your own level of paranoia, one of the following is probably appropriate:

drwx------  ...  abc  grp1  ...
drwx--x---  ...  def  grp2  ...
drwxr-x---  ...  ghi  grp3  ...
drwxr-x--x  ...  jkl  grp4  ...
drwxr-xr-x  ...  mno  grp5  ...

User abc doesn't want anyone else doing anything with his files. User def is willing to let members of group grp2 access files, but only if they know the file's name (removing read access from directories turns off ls access, wild cards, etc.). User ghi seems to trust his group fairly well, but still doesn't want them creating files in his home directory.

Users jkl and mno trust everyone on their computer as much as users def and ghi trust members of their groups. Because security tends to be antithetical to convenience, user ghi has the least problems sharing files, etc. For what it's worth, I use mno's mode on my desktop machine and jkl's mode on my server account.

Allowing directory execute access by others can be quite useful. Let's say that you want to set up a "drop box" where other users can leave files. Anyone should be able to drop stuff off, but only you should be able to look into the box, retrieve files, or (gasp!) remove files. Here's how:

% chmod 1733 drop_box
% ls -d drop_box
drwx-wx-wt  ... drop_box

As the owner, I am allowed to do anything to the directory. Others (including members of my group) are allowed to access and even create files in the directory, but they are not allowed to list its contents. Finally, the "sticky" bit (described above), keeps anyone but me from removing files from the directory.

I encourage you to set up a "testbed" directory and try out different modes within it. Try out different combinations to see how they might be useful; all of this will pay off some day when you're trying to figure out an obscure "file not found" or "permission denied" error message!


Rich Morin has been using computers since 1970, Unix since 1983, and Mac-based Unix since 1986 (when he helped Apple create A/UX 1.0). When he isn't writing this column, Rich runs Prime Time Freeware (www.ptf.com), a publisher of books and CD-ROMs for the Free and Open Source software community. Feel free to write to Rich at rdm@ptf.com.

 
AAPL
$105.22
Apple Inc.
+0.39
MSFT
$46.13
Microsoft Corpora
+1.11
GOOG
$539.78
Google Inc.
-4.20

MacTech Search:
Community Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

OS X Server 4.0 - For OS X 10.10 Yosemit...
Designed for OS X and iOS devices, OS X Server makes it easy to share files, schedule meetings, synchronize contacts, develop software, host your own website, publish wikis, configure Mac, iPhone,... Read more
TotalFinder 1.6.12 - Adds tabs, hotkeys,...
TotalFinder is a universally acclaimed navigational companion for your Mac. Enhance your Mac's Finder with features so smart and convenient, you won't believe you ever lived without them. Tab-based... Read more
BusyCal 2.6.3 - Powerful calendar app wi...
BusyCal is an award-winning desktop calendar that combines personal productivity features for individuals with powerful calendar sharing capabilities for families and workgroups. BusyCal's unique... Read more
calibre 2.7 - Complete e-library managem...
Calibre is a complete e-book library manager. Organize your collection, convert your books to multiple formats, and sync with all of your devices. Let Calibre be your multi-tasking digital... Read more
Skitch 2.7.3 - Take screenshots, annotat...
With Skitch, taking, annotating, and sharing screenshots or images is as fun as it is simple.Communicate and collaborate with images using Skitch and its intuitive, engaging drawing and annotating... Read more
Delicious Library 3.3.2 - Import, browse...
Delicious Library allows you to import, browse, and share all your books, movies, music, and video games with Delicious Library. Run your very own library from your home or office using our... Read more
Art Text 2.4.8 - Create high quality hea...
Art Text is an OS X application for creating high quality textual graphics, headings, logos, icons, Web site elements, and buttons. Thanks to multi-layer support, creating complex graphics is no... Read more
Live Interior 3D Pro 2.9.6 - Powerful an...
Live Interior 3D Pro is a powerful yet very intuitive interior designing application. View Video Tutorials It has every feature of Live Interior 3D Standard, plus some exclusive ones: Create multi... Read more
The Hit List 1.1.7 - Advanced reminder a...
The Hit List manages the daily chaos of your modern life. It's easy to learn - it's as easy as making lists. And it's powerful enough to let you plan, then forget, then act when the time is right.... Read more
jAlbum Pro 12.2.4 - Organize your digita...
jAlbum Pro has all the features you love in jAlbum, but comes with a commercial license. With jAlbum, you can create gorgeous custom photo galleries for the Web without writing a line of code!... Read more

Latest Forum Discussions

See All

Rami Ismail Opens Up distribute​() for D...
Rami Ismail Opens Up distribute​() for Developers Posted by Jessica Fisher on October 24th, 2014 [ permalink ] Rami Ismail, Chief Executive of Business and Development at indie game studio | Read more »
Great Hitman GO Goes on Sale and Gets Ne...
Great Hitman GO Goes on Sale and Gets New Update – Say That Three Times Fast Posted by Jessica Fisher on October 24th, 2014 [ permalink ] | Read more »
Rival Stars Basketball Review
Rival Stars Basketball Review By Jennifer Allen on October 24th, 2014 Our Rating: :: RESTRICTIVE BUT FUNUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Rival Stars Basketball is a fun mixture of basketball and card collecting but its... | Read more »
Rubicon Development Makes Over a Dozen o...
Rubicon Development Makes Over a Dozen of Their Games Free For This Weekend Only Posted by Jessica Fisher on October 24th, 2014 [ permalink ] | Read more »
I Am Dolphin Review
I Am Dolphin Review By Jennifer Allen on October 24th, 2014 Our Rating: :: NEARLY FIN-TASTICUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Swim around and eat nearly everything that moves in I Am Dolphin, a fun Ecco-ish kind of game... | Read more »
nPlayer looks to be the ultimate choice...
Developed by Newin Inc, nPlayer may seem like your standard video player – but is aiming to be the best in its field by providing high quality video play performance and support for a huge number of video formats and codecs. User reviews include... | Read more »
Fighting Fantasy: Caverns of the Snow Wi...
Fighting Fantasy: Caverns of the Snow Witch Review By Jennifer Allen on October 24th, 2014 Our Rating: :: CLASSY STORYTELLINGUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Fighting Fantasy: Caverns of the Snow Witch is a sterling... | Read more »
A Few Days Left (Games)
A Few Days Left 1.01 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $3.99, Version: 1.01 (iTunes) Description: Screenshots are in compliance to App Store's 4+ age rating! Please see App Preview for real game play! **Important: Make... | Read more »
Toca Boo (Education)
Toca Boo 1.0.2 Device: iOS Universal Category: Education Price: $2.99, Version: 1.0.2 (iTunes) Description: BOO! Did I scare you!? My name is Bonnie and my family loves to spook! Do you want to scare them back? Follow me and I'll... | Read more »
Intuon (Games)
Intuon 1.1 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $.99, Version: 1.1 (iTunes) Description: Join the battle with your intuition in a new hardcore game Intuon! How well do you trust your intuition? Can you find a needle in a... | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

Weekend sale: 13-inch 128GB MacBook Air for $...
Best Buy has the 2014 13-inch 1.4GHz 128GB MacBook Air on sale for $849.99, or $150 off MSRP, on their online store. Choose free home shipping or free local store pickup (if available). Price valid... Read more
Nimbus Note Cross=Platform Notes Utility
Nimbus Note will make sure you never forget or lose your valuable data again. Create and edit notes, save web pages, screenshots and any other type of data – and share it all with your friends and... Read more
NewerTech’s Snuglet Makes MagSafe 2 Power Con...
NewerTech has introduced the Snuglet, a precision-manufactured ring designed to sit inside your MagSafe 2 connector port, providing a more snug fit to prevent your power cable from unintentional... Read more
Apple Planning To Sacrifice Gross Margins To...
Digitimes Research’s Jim Hsiao says its analysts believe Apple is planning to sacrifice its gross margins to save its tablet business, which has recently fallen into decline. They project that Apple’... Read more
Who’s On Now? – First Instant-Connect Search...
It’s nighttime and your car has broken down on the side of the highway. You need a tow truck right away, so you open an app on your iPhone, search for the closest tow truck and send an instant... Read more
13-inch 2.5GHz MacBook Pro on sale for $949,...
Best Buy has the 13″ 2.5GHz MacBook Pro available for $949.99 on their online store. Choose free shipping or free instant local store pickup (if available). Their price is $150 off MSRP. Price is... Read more
Save up to $125 on Retina MacBook Pros
B&H Photo has the new 2014 13″ and 15″ Retina MacBook Pros on sale for up to $125 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and B&H charges NY sales tax only. They’ll also include free copies of Parallels... Read more
Apple refurbished Time Capsules available sta...
The Apple Store has certified refurbished Time Capsules available for up to $60 off MSRP. Apple’s one-year warranty is included with each Time Capsule, and shipping is free: - 2TB Time Capsule: $255... Read more
Textilus New Word, Notes and PDF Processor fo...
Textilus is new word-crunching, notes, and PDF processor designed exclusively for the iPad. I haven’t had time to thoroughly check it out yet, but it looks great and early reviews are positive.... Read more
WD My Passport Pro Bus-Powered Thunderbolt RA...
WD’s My Passport Pro RAID solution is powered by an integrated Thunderbolt cable for true portability and speeds as high as 233 MB/s. HighlightsOverviewSpecifications Transfer, Back Up And Edit In... Read more

Jobs Board

*Apple* Solutions Consultant - Apple Inc. (U...
…important role that the ASC serves is that of providing an excellent Apple Customer Experience. Responsibilities include: * Promoting Apple products and solutions Read more
Senior Event Manager, *Apple* Retail Market...
…This senior level position is responsible for leading and imagining the Apple Retail Team's global event strategy. Delivering an overarching brand story; in-store, Read more
*Apple* Solutions Consultant (ASC) - Apple (...
**Job Summary** The ASC is an Apple employee who serves as an Apple brand ambassador and influencer in a Reseller's store. The ASC's role is to grow Apple Read more
Project Manager / Business Analyst, WW *Appl...
…a senior project manager / business analyst to work within our Worldwide Apple Fulfillment Operations and the Business Process Re-engineering team. This role will work Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions (US) - A...
Job Description: Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.