Introduction to command line

This topic is an introduction to command line and remote access to computational resources using GNU/Linux operating system.

Basics commands

Find which directory you are in:


Go the the root directory:

cd /

See what is there:


Go back to your home directory:

cd ~

Edit a file with nano:

nano test1.txt

Write some text. Put the word "apple" on couple of lines and make couple of lines without the word "apple." To exit nano, press Ctrl+X, then press Y to confirm that you want to save the file, and then Enter to confirm the file name.

Now list the files in the current directory (you should see the file you just created):


To display its content in the command line, you can use cat:

cat test1.txt

For browsing content of a larger file, use less:

less test1.txt

Search content of a file

Usin grep, search for a line which contains apple in the file called test1.txt:

grep apple test1.txt

Spaces in the command line

Spaces separate individual parameters. The command echo prints its parameters separated by spaces. If you want to pass spaces as part of the parameter, use quotes:

echo Hello
echo Hello World
echo Hello       World
echo "Hello       World!"
echo "Hello

Confusion with cat

When you run cat without any parameters, you get into a strange situation:


To get out of it, use Ctrl+D to end the input (which ends cat) or Ctrl+C to terminate cat.

Parallel processing

First we need to prepare a text file with commands to run:

nano test2.txt

Use the following as the content of the file. This is just for the exercise. Each line would be, e.g. a call of a Python script which does some computations:

sleep 10 && echo 1;
sleep 25 && echo 2;
sleep 10 && echo 3;
sleep 25 && echo 4;
sleep 20 && echo 5;
sleep 10 && echo 6;
sleep 10 && echo 7;
sleep 10 && echo 8;

Installing a program

When we run the program GNU Parallel, systems informs us that we don' have it:


On Ubuntu and similar distributions, we can install it using apt-get install:

apt-get install parallel

However, only administrator (aka super user or root) can install new programs. We can execute program in that way using sudo:

sudo apt-get install parallel

Exploring the documentation

Now when we have the program, we can get suggestion how to use it using --help option:

parallel --help

A more detailed documetation is in the manual (exit by pressing Q):

man parallel

Running in parallel

Now run the commands from the text file in parallel:

parallel -j 2 -a test2.txt

The -j option specifies the number of jobs (commands) to execute in parallel at the same time and the -a option specifies the file with the commands to execute.

Observe how long it takes to execute the following commands:

time parallel -j 1 -a test2.txt
time parallel -j 2 -a test2.txt
time parallel -j 4 -a test2.txt

When doing actual processing, how much you gain by increasing number of jobs depends on how many CPUs you actually have available on your machine.

Redirecting inputs and outputs

Here the output of cat goes to the terminal:

cat test1.txt

Here the output is redirected to a file:

cat test1.txt > test3.txt

The output file is identical with what we read, that's not that useful (since we just could use cp test1.txt test3.txt to create a copy):

cat test3.txt

When it starts to be useful, is when we first pipe (redirect) the output to input of another command, here grep:

cat test1.txt | grep apple > test3.txt
cat test3.txt

Let's get just the lines which don't contain "apple" using the -v option:

cat test1.txt | grep -v apple
cat test1.txt | grep -v apple > test3.txt
cat test3.txt

Similarly to redirection to a file, we can do redirection from a file to command input:

grep apple test1.txt
grep apple < test1.txt

Both input and output can be connected to files at the same time:

grep apple < test1.txt > test3.txt
cat test3.txt

The cat command can concatenate multiple files together:

cat test1.txt test2.txt

The result can be redirected to another command:

cat test1.txt test2.txt | grep apple

The find command is good for searching all files matching a pattern, here we search for all files in the directory /bin which start with letter z:

find /bin -name "z*"

There is couple of programs which have "grep" in their name, we can filter then out and leave the rest. First see how our filter works:

find /bin -name "z*" | grep grep

Then tell grep to leave them out using the -v option:

find /bin -name "z*" | grep -v grep

Now we can use wc to count lines, words, and characters in this output:

find /bin/ -name "z*" | grep -v grep | wc

To get just the number of lines, we can use -l option:

find /bin/ -name "z*" | grep -v grep | wc -l

Here is how we can use find to search for all files with particular extension in our home directory:

find ~ -name "*.txt"

The find command is different to ls which we often also use with pattern, but the pattern is not in quotes and is evaluated by the command line (shell) itself rather than the ls program:

ls /bin/z*

Pausing execution

Sometimes, an examples are one of the cases, it is good to pause execution of a script for some time:

sleep 5

Running program in the background

So far all commands we were running were blocking the command line and we needed to wait for them to finish:

sleep 10

If we want to run a long-running program in the background, we can use ampersand at the end of the line:

sleep 10 &

This also works in the scripts enabling parallel processing. In that case you may find wait command to be useful for waiting for all processes to finish.

Ampersand is also useful when running GUI applications from the command line:

gedit &

Remote access using SSH

Although different remote desktop solutions are quite common, it is even more common to connect to servers and remote computational resources, such as high performance computing clusters, using SSH. The whole operation is done in command line and all further interaction happens in command line as well (see how the command line prompt changed):

ssh anndoe@ -X

The -X option is useful for servers which support applications with GUI, specifically servers with X server, and clients which support this type of connection (most of Linux distributions support that while on MS Windows it is harder to get that). When -X is used, GUI applications can be started from command line and the GUI appears on the client side similarly to the applications running on the client.

Bonus: Changing the path variable

This is how path variable can be changed to enable a program installed in non-standard location in the command line for the given session (expects Ubuntu 16.04):

sudo apt-get install sl
echo $PATH
echo export PATH="/usr/games:$PATH"
export PATH="/usr/games:$PATH"




Go through the above instructions. You can use NCSU VCL, specifically one of the Ubuntu machines. When you login in into the machine, use terminal to input commands. Alternatively, you can use terminal on Mac OS or Git Bash from the last class if you are using MS Windows but you may not be able to do all the steps. If you were in the class, you can skip this part and do the next one right away.

In some Linux command line (e.g. in NCSU VCL Ubuntu machine), find out how many CPUs has the machine you are working on. To find out that information, use file called /proc/cpuinfo which contains information about CPUs. Construct command line which will in one command print the number of CPUs, but nothing more. Post the command as a (online) text as assignment in Moodle.

Please do post questions to the forum as you are going through the provided material, just don't post possible solutions for that CPU command, so that others can come up with their own solutions.