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Understanding Links in Linux. Symbolic Links vs Hard Links

In this graph:

  • A and C represent the original file and its hard link. Both point to the same data blocks, denoted by B.
  • D represents the symbolic link, which points to A, the original file.

Linux, like other Unix-based operating systems, offers a powerful feature known as "links." Links essentially serve as pointers or shortcuts to files or directories. In Linux, there are two main types of links: symbolic links and hard links. Although they may seem similar at first glance, they behave quite differently and are useful in distinct situations. This article aims to explore these two types of links, how they differ, and where they are best applied.

A hard link is essentially an additional reference to an existing file on a file system. When you create a hard link, you are creating a new directory entry ( inode) that points to the same file content as the original file. Both the original file and the hard link share the same inode number, meaning they point to the exact same data blocks on the disk.

Here's a simple way to create a hard link:

ln original-file.txt hard-link-file.txt
  1. Same Inode: Hard links share the same inode as the original file.
  2. No Redirection: When you access a hard link, you directly access the file content without any form of redirection.
  3. Filesystem Bound: Hard links are confined to the same file system.
  4. Data Consistency: Changes made to the data in either the original file or the hard link are immediately reflected in the other.
  5. Survival: If you delete the original file, the hard link remains intact and still provides access to the content.

Symbolic links, also known as soft links, are more like shortcuts or references to the original file or directory. A symbolic link is a separate file that contains a path pointing to the file or directory it links to.

Here's how to create a symbolic link:

ln -s original-file.txt symbolic-link-file.txt
  1. Different Inode: Symbolic links have their own inodes.
  2. Redirection: Accessing a symbolic link leads to redirection to the target file or directory.
  3. Filesystem Independent: You can create a symbolic link that points to files or directories in other file systems.
  4. Link Breakage: If the original file is moved, renamed, or deleted, the symbolic link becomes broken.
  5. Flexibility: Symbolic links can point to directories, whereas hard links cannot.

Comparison Table

FeatureHard LinkSymbolic Link
Same InodeYesNo
Filesystem BoundYesNo
Data ConsistencyYesDepends on target
Survival after DeletionYesNo
Can Link to DirectoriesNoYes
Link BreakageNoYes

By using links wisely, you can make your workflow in Linux more efficient and organized. Both hard links and symbolic links have their pros and cons, but understanding their differences and applications will allow you to use them to your advantage.

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