Science and technology

Linux su vs sudo: what is the distinction?

Both the su and the sudo instructions enable customers to carry out system administration duties that aren’t permitted for non-privileged customers—that’s, everybody however the root consumer. Some individuals favor the sudo command: For instance, Seth Kenlon not too long ago printed “5 reasons to use sudo on Linux“, during which he extols its many virtues.

I, however, am a fan of the su command and like it to sudo for many of the system administration work I do. In this text, I examine the 2 instructions and clarify why I favor su over sudo however nonetheless use each.

Historical perspective of sysadmins

The su and sudo instructions had been designed for a distinct world. Early Unix computer systems required full-time system directors, they usually used the basis account as their solely administrative account. In this historic world, the individual entrusted with the basis password would log in as root on a teletype machine or CRT terminal such because the DEC VT100, then carry out the executive duties essential to handle the Unix pc.

The root consumer would even have a non-root account for non-root actions similar to writing paperwork and managing their private e mail. There had been normally many non-root consumer accounts on these computer systems, and none of these customers wanted complete root entry. A consumer may have to run one or two instructions as root, however very occasionally. Many sysadmins log in as root to work as root and sign off of our root periods when completed. Some days require staying logged in as root all day lengthy. Most sysadmins not often use sudo as a result of it requires typing greater than essential to run important instructions.

These instruments each present escalated privileges, however the way in which they accomplish that is considerably totally different. This distinction is because of the distinct use instances for which they had been initially supposed.


The authentic intent of sudo was to allow the basis consumer to delegate to 1 or two non-root customers entry to 1 or two particular privileged instructions they want repeatedly. The sudo command offers non-root customers short-term entry to the elevated privileges wanted to carry out duties similar to including and deleting customers, deleting recordsdata that belong to different customers, putting in new software program, and usually any process required to manage a contemporary Linux host.

Allowing the customers entry to a incessantly used command or two that requires elevated privileges saves the sysadmin numerous requests from customers and eliminates the wait time. The sudo command doesn’t swap the consumer account to turn out to be root; most non-root customers ought to by no means have full root entry. In most instances, sudo lets a consumer subject one or two instructions then permits the privilege escalation to run out. During this temporary time interval, normally configured to be 5 minutes, the consumer could carry out any mandatory administrative duties that require elevated privileges. Users who have to proceed working with elevated privileges however should not able to subject one other task-related command can run the sudo -v command to revalidate the credentials and prolong the time for an additional 5 minutes.

Using the sudo command does have the aspect impact of producing log entries of instructions utilized by non-root customers, together with their IDs. The logs can facilitate a problem-related postmortem to find out when customers want extra coaching. (You thought I used to be going to say one thing like “assign blame,” did not you?)


The su command is meant to permit a non-root consumer to raise their privilege degree to that of root—in actual fact, the non-root consumer turns into the basis consumer. The solely requirement is that the consumer know the basis password. There are not any limits on this as a result of the consumer is now logged in as root.

No time restrict is positioned on the privilege escalation supplied by the su command. The consumer can work as root for so long as mandatory without having to re-authenticate. When completed, the consumer can subject the exit command to revert from root again to their very own non-root account.

Controversy and alter

There has been some current disagreement concerning the makes use of of su versus sudo.

Real [Sysadmins] do not use sudo. —Paul Venezia

Venezia contends in his InfoWorld article that sudo is used as an pointless prop for many individuals who act as sysadmins. He doesn’t spend a lot time defending or explaining this place; he simply states it as a truth. And I agree with him—for sysadmins. We do not want the coaching wheels to do our jobs. In truth, they get in the way in which.


The instances they’re a’changin.’ —Bob Dylan

Dylan was appropriate, though he was not singing about computer systems. The manner computer systems are administered has modified considerably for the reason that introduction of the one-person, one-computer period. In many environments, the consumer of a pc can also be its administrator. This makes it mandatory to supply some entry to the powers of root for these customers.

Some fashionable distributions, similar to Ubuntu and its derivatives, are configured to make use of the sudo command solely for privileged duties. In these distros, it’s inconceivable to log in instantly as the basis consumer and even to su to root, so the sudo command is required to permit non-root customers any entry to root privileges. In this surroundings, all system administrative duties are carried out utilizing sudo.

This configuration is feasible by locking the basis account and including the common consumer account(s) to the wheel group. This configuration may be circumvented simply. Try a bit of experiment on any Ubuntu host or VM. Let me stipulate the setup right here so you’ll be able to reproduce it if you want. I put in Ubuntu 16.04 LTS1 and put in it in a VM utilizing VirtualBox. During the set up, I created a non-root consumer, pupil, with a easy password for this experiment.

Log in because the consumer pupil and open a terminal session. Look on the entry for root within the /and so on/shadow file, the place the encrypted passwords are saved.

pupil@ubuntu1:~$ cat /and so on/shadow
cat: /and so on/shadow: Permission denied

Permission is denied, so we can’t take a look at the /and so on/shadow file. This is widespread to all distributions to forestall non-privileged customers from seeing and accessing the encrypted passwords, which might make it potential to make use of widespread hacking instruments to crack these passwords.

Now let’s attempt to su - to root.

pupil@ubuntu1:~$ su -
Password: <Enter root password – however there isn't one>
su: Authentication failure

This fails as a result of the basis account has no password and is locked out. Use the sudo command to have a look at the /and so on/shadow file.

pupil@ubuntu1:~$ sudo cat /and so on/shadow
[sudo] password for pupil: <enter the coed password>

I’ve truncated the outcomes to indicate solely the entry for the basis and pupil customers. I’ve additionally shortened the encrypted password so the entry will match on a single line. The fields are separated by colons (:) and the second subject is the password. Notice that the password subject for root is a bang, recognized to the remainder of the world as an exclamation level (!). This signifies that the account is locked and that it can’t be used.

Now all it is advisable to do to make use of the basis account as a correct sysadmin is to arrange a password for the basis account.

pupil@ubuntu1:~$ sudo su -
[sudo] password for pupil: <Enter password for pupil>
root@ubuntu1:~# passwd root
Enter new UNIX password: <Enter new root password>
Retype new UNIX password: <Re-enter new root password>
passwd: password up to date efficiently

Now you’ll be able to log in instantly on a console as root or su on to root as a substitute of utilizing sudo for every command. Of course, you would simply use sudo su - each time you wish to log in as root, however why trouble?

Please don’t misunderstand me. Distributions like Ubuntu and their up- and downstream kin are completely effective, and I’ve used a number of of them over time. When utilizing Ubuntu and associated distros, one of many first issues I do is ready a root password in order that I can log in instantly as root. Other distributions, like Fedora and its kin, now present some attention-grabbing decisions throughout set up. The first Fedora launch the place I seen this was Fedora 34, which I’ve put in many instances whereas writing an upcoming e-book.

One of these set up choices may be discovered on the web page to set the basis password. The new choice permits the consumer to decide on “Lock root account” in the way in which an Ubuntu root account is locked. There can also be an choice on this web page that enables distant SSH login to this host as root utilizing a password, however that solely works when the basis account is unlocked. The second choice is on the web page that enables the creation of a non-root consumer account. One of the choices on this web page is “Make this user administrator.” When this feature is checked, the consumer ID is added to a particular group referred to as the wheel group, which authorizes members of that group to make use of the sudo command. Fedora 36 even mentions the wheel group within the description of that checkbox.

More than one non-root consumer may be set as an administrator. Anyone designated as an administrator utilizing this methodology can use the sudo command to carry out all administrative duties on a Linux pc. Linux solely permits the creation of 1 non-root consumer throughout set up, so different new customers may be added to the wheel group when created. Existing customers may be added to the wheel group by the basis consumer or one other administrator instantly by utilizing a textual content editor or the usermod command.

In most instances, at the moment’s directors have to do only some important duties similar to including a brand new printer, putting in updates or new software program, or deleting software program that’s now not wanted. These GUI instruments require a root or administrative password and can settle for the password from a consumer designated as an administrator.

How I take advantage of su and sudo on Linux

I take advantage of each su and sudo. They every have an vital place in my sysadmin toolbox.

I am unable to lock the basis account as a result of I would like to make use of it to run my Ansible playbooks and the rsbu Bash program I wrote to carry out backups. Both of those should be run as root, and so do a number of different administrative Bash scripts I’ve written. I take advantage of the su command to change customers to the basis consumer so I can carry out these and lots of different widespread duties. Elevating my privileges to root utilizing su is particularly useful when performing downside willpower and backbone. I actually do not desire a sudo session timing out on me whereas I’m in the course of my thought course of.

I take advantage of the sudo command for duties that want root privilege when a non-root consumer must carry out them. I set the non-root account up within the sudoers file with entry to solely these one or two instructions wanted to finish the duties. I additionally use sudo myself after I have to run just one or two fast instructions with escalated privileges.


The instruments you employ do not matter practically as a lot as getting the job finished. What distinction does it make if you happen to use vim or Emacs, systemd or SystemV, RPM or DEB, sudo or su? The backside line right here is that it is best to use the instruments with which you might be most snug and that work greatest for you. One of the best strengths of Linux and open supply is that there are normally many choices accessible for every process we have to accomplish.

Both su and sudo have strengths, and each may be safe when utilized correctly for his or her supposed use instances. I select to make use of each su and sudo largely of their historic roles as a result of that works for me. I favor su for many of my very own work as a result of it really works greatest for me and my workflow.

Share how you favor to work within the feedback!

This article is taken from Chapter 19 of my e-book The Linux Philosophy for Sysadmins (Apress, 2018) and is republished with permission.

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