Who Is Root? Why Is He In My Computer?

Root password prompt.

A flamethrower!  That’s it!

Take your computer outside.  Grab your Churchill Crocodile flamethrowing tank (everyone has one of those right?).  And unleash four gallons of hellfire a second on that infernal device.

Now you won’t have to deal with stupid, nonsensical terminology.  I mean really… root?  Who is root?  Why is root in your computer?  And who the hell named them root?

 

If you’re going to go with the flamethrower option, then read no further.  If the flamethrower isn’t your style, I have a long list of disturbing computer obliteration techniques compiled during years of Linux use.  I can easily assist you with some medicinal computer destruction.

I take no responsibility for financial, legal, or emotional consequences of said destruction.

 

However, this article isn’t for flamethrower wielders.  This is for those who just want to know what root is and hopefully move on.  If that’s you, then keep reading.

 

Who Is Root?

Every operating system has a special user.  This special user has abilities above and beyond those of normal users.  They can create or change any file or directory anywhere they want.  They can change any configuration and setting.  They rule over everything and everyone using the operating system.

This user is called different names by different people and operating systems.  Some call them administrator.  The lazier ones admin.  Others still superuser.  In Linux, however, this user is called root.

 

Root is the master of everything.  Root has every permission.  Every capability.  And every tool at their disposal.

Root is almighty.  Root is powerful.  Root will cut you.  Fear root!

 

Why Root? There are Better Names Than That!

I agree.  I’m personal to superuser.  It sounds like a spandex sporting superhero.

Superuser superhero!

Supposedly, the root user is saddled with that sad, no-spandex name because of how an ancient precursor to the precursor of Linux worked.  Apparently, in the pioneering Multics operating system, this privileged user’s home directory was the root directory (read here for an explanation of the root directory).  And some super-creative type came up with the name root for the user.  And it stuck.

Multics inspired UNIX, which kept this terrible name because originally, the special user still used the root directory as home.  UNIX inspired Linux, which kept this terrible name because it was a reverse-engineered clone of UNIX.  Renaming things would have defeated the purpose.

 

Therefore, as with many things in the computer world, we live with the confusing because once, a long time ago, it wasn’t confusing.

 

Why Does Root Exist?

Sometimes it’s necessary to modify system configuration files.  Sometimes it’s necessary to add users.  Sometimes it’s necessary to install software.

But giving an average user permission to do jobs like that is a risk.  A principle tenet of computer security is to give people the fewest permissions and capabilities possible.

 

To make-up for the general population’s lack of permissions, there is a special user, root.  Root can do anything.

If you’ve ever been prompted for privileges or a password when doing a task, it’s because you don’t have permission.  You need root permission.

 

You’re not meant to use root as your normal user account.  It’s not for web browsing.  Not for music playing.  Not for a rousing round of World of Goo.  It’s a secret weapon used in extreme cases only.  Using root for menial office work is like using a Howitzer to swat a fly.

Howitzer Swatting a Fly

 

 

Are you still reaching for your flamethrower or are you calm again?

Root is really simple.  It’s a user that can do anything.  Think of root as the administrator account for the operating system.  You should only need and use root when you must have more permissions than a standard user.

Sure, superuser would have been cooler.  Spandex is cool.  But we’re stuck with root.

 

Written By

John is a sailing instructor and mechanical engineering student who happens to be a computer geek. To find more information about John, visit his website or find him on social media by clicking on the icons below.

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