Sysadmin Tips and Tricks - Stop Using Root!

April 23, 2014

A common mistake newer Linux system administrators make is the overuse of root. It seems so easy! Everything is so much simpler! But in the end, it’s not—and it’s only a matter of time before you wish you had not been so free and easy with your super-user, use. Let me try to convince you.

Let’s start with a little history. The antecedents of Linux go all the way back to the early 1970s, when computers cost tens of thousands of dollars (at least). With that kind of expense, you as a user would hardly have a computer sitting on your desk (not to mention they were at least refrigerator-sized), and you would also not have the use of it dedicated to your needs. What was obviously needed was an operating system that would allow multiple users to use the machine at once, via terminals, in order to make the most use of the computing resources available.

If you think about it, it’s clear that the operating system had to be very good at keeping users from being able to stomp on each other’s files and processes. So the early UNIX™ variants were multi-user systems from the get-go. In the ensuing forty years, these systems have only gotten better at keeping the various users and processes from harming each other. And this is the technology that you’re paying for when you use Linux or other modern variants.

Now, you may think, “That doesn’t apply to me—I’m the only user on my server!” But are you, really?

You probably run Apache, which is generally run as the user httpd or apache. Why not root? Because if you run Apache as root, then anyone on the outside who manages to get Apache to execute arbitrary code, would then have that code running as root! Next thing you know, they can execute "rm –rf /," or worse, invade your system altogether and steal proprietary information. By running as a non-root user, even if the attacker gets total access to that user, they are limited to what that user can touch. Thus, user httpd is compromised, but not the entire server.

The same thing is true for mail servers, FTP servers, and so on. They all rely on the Linux permissions system in order to give the programs access to as little as possible—ideally, only exactly what they need to do their jobs.

So, think of yourself as another process on the system. When you log in as your regular user, you are limited in what you can do. But this is not intended to harm you or irritate you—indeed; the system is designed to keep you from accidentally doing damage to your server.

For example, consider if you wanted to completely remove a directory called ‘home’ within your home directory. Note the ever so slight difference between the first command:

rm –R home

And the second command:

rm –R /home

The first command removes a directory called ‘home’ from wherever you happen to be sitting on the file system. The second removes all users’ home directories from the system. One little slash makes all the difference in the world. This is probably why it has been said that Linux gives you enough rope to hang yourself with. Executing the second command as root looks like this:

server:# rm –R /home

And it’s just gone! Whereas if you accidentally put that slash in there while logged in as your user, you would get:

server:# rm –R /home 
server:# rm: cannot remove `home’: Permission denied

This will annoy you, until you realize that if you’d done it as root you would have wiped out all your customers home directories.

In short, just like the processes that run on your machine, you would be well served to use only the permissions you need. This is why many Linux distributions today encourage the use of sudo—you don’t even become root, but just execute things as root when needed. It’s a good policy, and makes the best use of four decades of expertise that have gone into the system you are using.

- Lee

P.S. This is also why you pretty much never want to chmod 777 anything!