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Creative uses of rm

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Absence of backup Rush/absence of testing Creative uses of rm Abuse of privileges LVM and disk related mishaps Working on the wrong computer
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Many Unix sysadmin horror stories are related to unintended consequences such as side effects of classic Unix commands. One of the most prominent of such commands is rm.  Behavior of rm -r .* can easily be forgotten from one encounter to another, especially if sysadmin works both with Unix and Windows servers. Consequences if executed as root are tragic...  There are several classic blunders committed using the rm command :

  1. Running rm - R command without testing it using ls . You should always use ls -Rl command to test complex rm  -R  commands (  -R, --recursive means process  subdirectories recursively).
  2. Mistyping complex path or file name in rm commands. It's always better to use copy and paste operation for directories and files used in rm command as it helps to avoid various typos. If you do recursive deletion is is useful to have a "dry run" using find or ls to see the files.

    Here are to example of typos:

    rm -rf /tmp/foo/bar/ *

    instead of

    rm -rf /tmp/foo/bar/*


    rm -r /etc

    instead of

    rm -r etc

    This actually is an interesting type of error because /etc is typed daily so often that it kind of ingrained in sysadmin head and can be typed subconsciously instead of etc

  3. Using .*   That essentially make rm recursive as it matches ".." (parent directory).
  4. You can accidentally hit Enter by mistake before finishing typing the line containing rm command. 

Those cases can be viewed as shortcomings of rm implementation (it should automatically block * deletion of system directories like //etc/ and so on unless -f  flag is specified. As well as any system file.  Also Unix does not have system attribute for files although sticky bit on files can be used instead along with ownership of sys instead of root).

In view of  danger of  rm unleashed as root it is wise to use wrappers for rm. There are several more or less usable approach to writing such a wrapper:

Backups before execution of rm command are important. For example making backup of /etc directory on modern server takes a couple of seconds, but can save quite a lot of nerves in situations that otherwise can s can be devastating. For example, in the example above you would erase all your files and subdirectories in the /etc directory. Modern flavors of Unix usually prevent erasing / but not /etc.

Again, it's much safer to list the directory and copy it using cut and paste.

I once automatically typed /etc instead of etc trying to delete directory to free space on a backup directory on a production server (/etc probably in engraved in sysadmin head as it is typed so often and can be substituted for etc subconsciously).  I realized that it was mistake and cancelled the command, but it was a fast server and one third of /etc was gone. The rest of the day was spoiled...  Actually not completely: I learned quite a bit about the behavior of AIX in this situation and the structure of AIX /etc directory this day so each such disaster is actually a great learning experience, almost like one day training course ;-). But it's much less nerve wracking to get this knowledge from the course...

Another interesting thing is having backup was not enough is this case -- backup software stopped working. The same was true for telnet and ssh. And this was a remote server is a datacenter across the country.  I restored the directory on the other non-production server (overwriting its /etc directory in this second box with the help of operations, tell me about cascading errors and Murphy law :-). Then netcat helped to transfer the tar file. 

If you are working as root and perform dangerous operations never type a path of the command, copy it from the screen. If you can copy command from history instead of typing, do it !

In such cases network services with authentication stop working and the only way to transfer files is using CD/DVD, USB drive or netcat. That's why it is useful to have netcat on servers: netcat is the last resort file transfer program when  services with authentication like ftp or scp stop working.  It is especially useful to have it if the datacenter is remote.

netcat is the last resort file transfer program when  services with authentication like ftp or scp stop working.  It is especially useful to have it if the datacenter is remote.

The saying is that experience keeps the most expensive school but fools are unable to learn in any other ;-).

The saying is that experience keeps the most expensive school but fools are unable to learn in any other ;-). Please read classic sysadmin horror stories. 

A simple extra space often produced horrible consequences:

cd /usr/lib
ls /tmp/foo/bar

I typed
rm -rf /tmp/foo/bar/ *

instead of

rm -rf /tmp/foo/bar/*

The system doesn’t run very will without all of it’s libraries……

Another poplar class of recursive rm errors are so called dot-star-errors. Novice sysadmins usually do not realize that '.*' also matches '..' often with disastrous consequences. 

Dr. Nikolai Bezroukov

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Old News ;-)

[Jun 12, 2010] Sysadmin Blunder (3rd Response)

Toolbox for IT Groups


I needed to clear a directory full of ".directories" and I issued:

rm -r .*

It seemed to find ".." awfully fast. That was a bad day, but, we restored most of the files in about an hour.

John T. Mills


hi every one

for me , i remember 2

1 - 'rm *;old' in / directory note ';' instead of '.'

2 - kill #pid of the informix process (oninit) and delete it (i dreamed)


Variation on a theme ... the 'rm -r theme'

as a junior admin on AIX3.2.5, I had been left to my own devices to create
some housekeeping scripts - all my draft scripts being created and tested
in my home directory with a '.jt' suffix. After completing the scripts I
found that I had inadvertantly placed some copies in / with a .jt suffix.
Easy job then to issue a 'rm *.jt' in / and all would be well. Well it
would have been if I hadn't put a space between the * and the .jt. And the
worst thing of all, not being a touch typist and looking at the keys, I
glanced at the screen before hitting the enter key and realised with horror
what was going to happen and STILL my little finger continued to proceed
toward the enter key.

Talk about 'Gone in 60 seconds' - my life was at an end - over - finished
- perhaps I could park cars or pump gas for a living. Like other
correspondents a helpful senior admin was on hand to smile kindly and show
me how to restore from mksysb-fortunately taken daily on these production
systems. (Thanks Pete :))) )

To this day, rm -i is my first choice with multiple rm's just as a test!!!!!!

Happy rm-ing :)


I know that one. Does any body remember when the rm man page had a warning not do rm -rf / as root? How may systems were rebuild due that blunder. Not that I have ever done something like that, nor will ever admit to it:).


That is a no brainer!

First a little background. I cooked up a script called "killme" which
would ask for a search string then parse the process table and return a
list of all matches. If the list contained the processes you wanted to
kill then you would answer "Yes", not once, but twice just to be sure
you thought about it. This was very handy at times so I put it out on
all of our servers.

Some time had passed and I had not used it for a while when I had a need
to kill a group of processes. So I typed the command not realizing that
I had forgotten the scripts name. Of course I was on our biggest
production system at that time and everything stopped in it's tracks!

Unknown to me was that there is an AIX command called "killall" which is
what I typed.

From the MAN page: "The killall command cancels all processes that you
started, except those producing the killall process. This command
provides a convenient means of canceling all processes created by the
shell that you control. When started by a root user, the killall command
cancels all cancellable processes except those processes that started

And it doesn't ask for confirmation or anything! Fortunately the
database didn't get corrupted and we were able to bring everything back
on line fairly quickly. Needless to say we changed the name of this
command so it couldn't be run so easily.

"Killall" is a great command for a programmer developing an application
which goes wild and he/she needs to kill the processes and retain
control of the system, but it is very dangerous in the real world!

Jeff Scott:

The silliest mistake? That had to be a permissions change on /bin. I got a
call from an Oracle DBA that the $ORACLE_HOME/bin no longer belonged to
oracle:dba. We never found out how that happened. I logged in to change the
permissions. I accidentally typed cd /oracle.... /bin (note the space
before /bin), then cheerfully entered the following command:

#chown -R oracle:dba ./*

The command did not climb up to root fortunately, but it really made a mess.
We ended up restoring /bin from a backup taken the previous evening.

Jeff Scott
Darwin Partners/EMC

Cal S.


crontab -r when I wanted to do crontab -e. See letters e and r are side by
side on the keyboard. I had 2 pages of crontab and had no backup on the
machine !

Jeff Scott:

I've seen the rm -fr effect before. There were no entries in any crontab.
Before switching to sudo, the company used a homegrown utility to grant
things root access. The server accepted ETLs from other databases, acting as
a data warehouse. This utility logged locally, instead of logging via
syslogd with local and remote logging. So, when the system was erased, there
really was no way to determine the actual cause. Most of the interactive
users shared a set of group accounts, instead of enforcing individual
accounts and using su - or sudo. The outage cost the company $8 million USD
due to lost labor that had to be repeated. Clearly, it was caused by a
cleanup script, but it is anyone's guess which one.

Technically, this was not a sysadmin blunder, but it underscores the need
for individual accounts and for remote logging of ALL uses of group
accounts, including those performed by scripts.

It also underscores the absolute requirement that all scripts have error
trapping mechanisms. In this case, the rm -fr was likely preceded by a cd to
a nonexistent directory. Since this was performed as root, the script cd'd
to / instead. The rm -fr then removed everything. The other possibility is
that it applied itself to another directory, but, again, root privileges
allowed it to climb up the directory tree to root.

Creative uses of rm

See also Syaadmin Horror Stories

There's an interesting thread on the CentOS mailing list on sys admin horror stories. Amusing read.

[Ilugc] [OT] sys admin horror stories

I once had a vendor sys admin run an "rm -rf ./project/ subdir" and
delete the entire ./project folder and 2 months of live data. Same
vendor had also not noticed that automated backups had failed for
many weeks and we were running without any backup for a long
time. A penalty of Rs 2 lakhs was enforced, all because of one
extra space in the command.

- Raja

Greatest blunders

IT Resource Center

Christian Gebhardt

As a newby in UNIX I had an Oracle Testinstallion on a production system
productiv directory: /u01/...
test directory: /test/u01/...

deleting the test installation:
cd /test
rm /u01

OOPS ...

After several bdf commands I noticed that the wrong lvol shrinks and stops the delete command with Ctrl'C

The database still worked without the most binaries and libraries and after a restore from tape without stopping and starting the database all was ok.

I love oracle ;-)


harry d brown jr

Learning hpux? Naw, that's not it....maybe it was learning to spell aix?? sco?? osf?? Nope, none of those.

The biggest blunder:

One morning I came in at my usual time of 6am, and had an operator ask me what was wrong with one of our production servers (servicing 6 banks). Well nothing worked at the console (it was already logged in as root). Even a "cat *" produced nothing but another shell prompt. I stopped and restarted the machine and when it attempted to come back up it didn't have any OS to run. Major issue, but we got our backup tapes from that night and restored the machine back to normal. I was clueless (sort of like today)

The next morning, the same operator caught me again, and this time I was getting angry (imagine that). Same crap, different day. Nothing was on any disk. This of course was before we had raid availble (not that that would have helped). So we restored the system from that nights backups and by 8am the banks have their systems up.

So now I have to fix this issue, but where the hell to start? I knew that production batch processing was done by 9PM, and that the backups started right after that. The backups completed around 1am, which were good backups, because we never lost a single transaction. But around 6am the stuff hit the fan. So I had a time frame: 1am-6am, something was clobbering the system. I went though the crons, but nothing really stood out, so I had to really dive into them. This is the code (well almost) I found in the script:

cd /tmp/uniplex/trash/garbage
rm -rf *

As soon as I saw those two lines, I realized that I was the one that had caused the system to crap out every morning. See, I needed some disk space, and I was doing some house cleaning, and I deleted the sub-directory "garbage" from the /tmp/uniplex/trash" directory. Of course the script is run by root, which attempted to "CD" to a non-existent directory, which failed, and cron was still cd'd to "/", it then proceeded to "rm -rf *" my system!

live free or die

Bill Hassell

I guess my blunder sets the record for "most clobbered machines" in one day:

I created an inventory script to be used in the Response Center to track all the systems across the United States (about 320 systems). These are all test and problem replication machines but necessary for the R/C engineers to replicate customer problems.

The script was written about 1992 to handle version 7.0 and higher. About 1995, I had a number of useful scripts that it seemed reasonable to drop these into all 300 machines as a part of the inventory process (so far, so good). Then about that time, 10.01 was released and I made a few changes to the script. One was to change the useful script location from /usr/local/bin to /usr/contrib/bin because of bad directory permissions. I considered 'fixing' the bad permissions but since these systems must represent the customer environment, I decided to move everything.

Enter the shell option -u. I did not use that option in my scripts and due to a spelling error, an environment variable was used in rm -r which was null, thus removing the entire /usr/local directory on 320 machines overnight.

Needless to say, I never write scripts without set -u at the top of the script.

Dave Johnson

Here is my worst.
We us BC's on our XP512. We stop the application, resync the BC, split the BC, start the application, mount the BC on same server, start backup to tape from BC. Well I had to add a LUN to the primary and BC. I recreated the BC. I forgot to change the script that mounts the BC to include the new LUN. The error message vgimport when you do not include all the LUN's is just a warning and it makes the volume group available. The backups seemed to be working just fine.
Well 2 months go by. I did not have enough available disk space to test my backups. (That has been changed). Then I decided to be proactive about deleted old files. So I wrote a script:
cd /the/directory/I/want/to/thin/out
find . -mtime +30 -exec rm {} \;

Well that was scheduled on cron to run just before backups one night. The next morning I get the call the system is not responding. (I guessed later the cd command had failed and the find ran from /).
After a reboot I find lots of files are missing from /etc /var /usr /stand and so on. No problem, just rebuild from the make_recovery tape created 2 nights before then restore the rest from backup.
Well step 1 was fine, but the backup tape was bad. The database was incomplete. It took 3 days (that is 24 hours per day) to find the most recient tape with a valid database. Then we had to reload all the data. After the 3rd day I was able to turn over recovery to the developers. It took about a week to get the application back on-line.
I have sent a request to HP to have the vgimport command changed so a vgimport that does not specify all the LUN's will fail unless some new command line param is used. They have not yet provided this "enhancement" as of the last time I checked a couple of months ago. I now test for this condition and send mail to root as well as fail the BC mount if it does.

Life lesson: TEST YOUR BACKUPS!!


Well I was very very new to HP-UX. Wanted to set up PPP connection with a password borrowed from a friend so that I could browse the net.

Did not worry that the remote support modem can not dial out from remote support port.
Went through all documents available, created device files dozen times, but never worked. In anguish did

rm -fr `ltr|tail -4|Awk '{print $9}'

(That to pacify myself that I know complex commands)

But alas, I was /sbin/rc3.d.

Thought this is not going to work and left that.
Other colleage not aware of this rebooted the system for Veritas netbackup problem.

Within next two hours HP engineer was on-site. Was called by colleague.

Was watching whole recovery process, repeatedly saying "I want to learn, I want to learn"

Then came to know that can not be done.


Ramkumar Devanathan

I deleted /etc/* once. (just a few config files, eh?? nope, had to reinstall the OS);-)


Got a page once at 4:00AM about a filesystem almost full. Got up and started working on it without checking if someone else was in the system. I was recalling my commands using ESC-k but my supervisor was removing files in a different directory using rm -r *. The rest is history.

Gary Cantwell

A trainee student of one of my customers deleted /sbin on a HP-UX 11 system and copied it back in from a HP-UX 10.20 system and tried to deny it...

He's no longer a trainee student :-)



got another one;

Trying to be helpful....I use a find . -name *.log -exec rm -f {} \; to rid all unused log files in apps temp and log dir. but I got a bit creative and put this in root cronjobs and guess what!! the next day, some very angry DBA come banging...cos it removed all Oracle database re-do log files.

Spend the rest of the weekend restoring database....:(


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