In Linux, we can use both hard links and soft links (symbolic links) to create references to files or directories. However, these links work differently and have distinct characteristics. For example, hard links are equivalent to each other, thus they don’t have origin files like symbolic links. So, if we have a file that’s not a symbolic link (symlink) or another special file type, we can consider it a hard link.
In this tutorial, we’ll learn how to determine whether a file is a hard or soft link using several commands.
2. Using the test Command
In general, we can use the test command with the -h flag to determine whether a file is a symbolic link. If the file is a soft link, the test returns true; otherwise, it returns false.
Notably, the test command is represented with [ ]. It allows us to check various file attributes. Let’s see the -h option of test in use:
$ if [ -h /path/to/file ]; then echo "File is a symbolic link." else echo "File is not a symbolic link." fi
To illustrate, we can check if the file named my_file is a symbolic link:
$ if [ -h my_file ]; then echo "It is a symbolic link." else echo "It is not a symbolic link." fi It is a symbolic link.
Significantly, the file is verified to be a soft link when the outcome of our script is It is a symbolic link. Next, let’s see how to integrate the stat and the test commands to check if a file is a hard link.
3. Using the stat Command
Conversely, the test command doesn’t have a direct flag to check if a file is a hard link. However, we can indirectly determine if a file is a hard link using the stat command.
Here, we’ll employ command substitution to compare the inode numbers of two files. If two files have the same inode number, they are hard links to the same data, since inodes are unique identifiers for files in a filesystem.
For example, let’s compare the files, file_A, and file_B to check whether they are hard links:
$ if [ "$(stat -c '%i' file_A)" -eq "$(stat -c '%i' file_B)" ]; then echo "file_A and file_B are hard links to the same data." else echo "file_A and file_B are not hard links to the same data." fi file_A and file_B are hard links to the same data.
To understand the flags in the command, let’s break it down:
- -c ‘%i’ tells stat to extract the inode number of the file
- -eq tells the test command ([) to check if the inode number of file_A is equal to that of file_B
Further, the stat command, where available, can show how many names an inode has. For instance, we can create a basic script to check whether a file is the only hard link to a given inode:
$ if [ "$(stat -c '%h' -- "file")" -gt 1 ]; then echo "File has more than one name." fi File has more than one name.
Let’s dissect this command:
- -c ‘%h’ tells stat to output the number of hard links to the given file inode (i.e., the number of names the file has)
- -gt 1 checks if the number is more than 1
Notably, we can have several hard links that point to one symlink.
Let’s check for hard and soft links using another common command.
4. Using the ls Command
The ls command shows information about the content of a directory or the directory itself. To determine whether a file is a soft or hard link, we can use the ls command with the -l and -i flags.
4.1. ls -l
By using ls with its -l (long format) flag, we can get information about a file, including its type and permissions.
For symbolic links, the command shows the file type as l in the first character of the file permission string:
$ ls -l /path/to/file lrwxrwxrwx 1 user user 15 May 11 10:00 file -> target_file
For example, let’s check the permission string of the file tyre :
$ ls -l tyre lrwxrwxrwx 1 user user 15 May 23 10:00 tyre -> tubor
In this example, tyre is a symbolic link (l is the first character).
As with stat, when we use the ls -l command to list files in a directory, the output displays file details, including the link count. If the link count is greater than one, it indicates that the file has more hard links.
For instance, let’s check the link count of the file green:
$ ls -l green -rw-rw-r-- 2 user group 1024 May 15 10:30 green
In this example, we can see from the second column of the output that the link count is 2. This number indicates that the file has two hard links.
4.2. ls -i
Further, the ls -i command displays the inode number of files. As already mentioned, when two files have the same inode number, they are hard links to the same underlying data.
To illustrate, let’s check the information about the files glee and resin using the ls command with its -li flags:
$ ls -li glee resin 3699862 -rw-rw-r-- 2 baeldung baeldung_group 0 Jul 15 10:30 glee 3699862 -rw-rw-r-- 2 baeldung baeldung_group 0 Jul 15 10:30 resin
In the output of the command above, both rows start with the same inode numbers. Thus, they’re hard links.
Still, there are other commands that can provide the same information, albeit in a different form.
5. Using the file Command
Alternatively, we can use the file command to identify symbolic links in Linux. Significantly, when we run the file command on a symbolic link, it displays sym_link: symbolic link to main_file in the output. Notably, sym_link and main_file are placeholders for the actual file names of the symbolic link and target file respectively.
For example, let’s use file to check whether the file tyre is a symbolic link:
$ file tyre tyre: symbolic link to tubor
Indeed, tyre is a symlink. However, if a file isn’t a symbolic link, file prints information about the file type and its contents.
To illustrate, let’s see the output when we run the file command on a file that’s not a symbolic link:
$ file thesis1 thesis1: ASCII text
In this case, we get the type ASCII text instead.
Now, let’s turn to a common command that works with links.
6. Using the readlink Command
Let’s say we want to determine the target of a symbolic link. To do so, we can use the readlink command. The readlink command displays the target file that a soft link points to.
In general, to use the readlink command, we type in the command followed by the file name as argument:
$ readlink symbolic_link_name some_file
For example, let’s check the target file for the symlink, tyre:
$ readlink tyre tubor
In this case, the readlink command shows the target file or directory that the soft link points to.
However, the command returns nothing if the file doesn’t exist or isn’t a symlink. In this case, we can employ the -v flag to see the exact error message:
$ readlink nonexistent $ readlink hardlink $ readlink -v nonexistent readlink: nonexistent: No such file or directory $ readlink -v hardlink readlink: hardlink: Invalid argument
This way, we see the exact reason for a failure with readlink.
In this article, we saw how to determine whether a file is a soft link using the test ([ ]) command. Further, we combined the test and stat commands to check for hard links. Then, with the ls command, we examined files for both hard and symbolic links. Finally, using file and readlink commands, we learned how to check for symbolic links.