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How To Add Jobs To Cron Under Linux or UNIX

Cron is a powerful tool in Linux and UNIX systems that allows users to schedule tasks to run automatically at specified intervals. Whether you’re a seasoned system administrator or a beginner, understanding how to add jobs to cron is essential for automating repetitive tasks and improving system efficiency.

In the realm of Linux and UNIX systems, automation reigns supreme. Cron, the venerable task scheduler, sits at the heart of this automation, allowing users to execute commands and scripts at predefined intervals. Whether you’re a seasoned system administrator or a burgeoning Linux enthusiast, mastering cron is an essential skill for maintaining a streamlined and efficient workflow. This in-depth guide delves into the intricacies of cron, empowering you to confidently schedule tasks and optimize your system’s operations.

Unveiling the Cron Anatomy: Understanding the Crontab File

Cron interacts with the system through a special file called the crontab. This file serves as a repository for cron jobs, each representing a scheduled task. The crontab stores these jobs in a specific format, dictating the execution time, the command to be run, and optional configurations. Understanding this format is paramount to effectively crafting cron jobs.

The crontab file adheres to a five-field structure, with each field separated by a space:

  • Minute (0-59): Defines the minute within an hour when the job should run. Valid values range from 0 (the beginning of the hour) to 59.
  • Hour (0-23): Specifies the hour in 24-hour format at which the job executes. 0 represents midnight, and 23 signifies 11 pm.
  • Day of Month (1-31): Indicates the day of the month on which the job should run. Valid entries span from 1 to 31, corresponding to the days of the month.
  • Month (1-12): Denotes the month (in numerical format) when the job executes. January is represented by 1, and December by 12.
  • Day of Week (0-6 or SUN-SAT): Specifies the day of the week on which the job should run. 0 or SUN signifies Sunday, and 6 or SAT represents Saturday.

Special Characters in Cron Expressions

The crontab format incorporates special characters to facilitate the scheduling of tasks at regular intervals or on specific patterns. These characters empower you to create flexible cron expressions:

  • Asterisk (*): This wildcard signifies “every.” For instance, an asterisk in the minute field (*) translates to “every minute.”
  • Comma (,): Separates multiple values within a field. For example, 0,15,30 in the minute field denotes execution at the 0th, 15th, and 30th minute of the hour.
  • Slash (/): This character defines a range. 5/2 in the minute field indicates execution every two minutes, starting from the 5th minute (i.e., 5th, 7th, 9th, etc.).
  • Hyphen (-): A hyphen specifies a range of values within a field. 10-15 in the hour field translates to execution between 10 am and 3 pm (inclusive).

Crafting Effective Cron Expressions

By combining these fields and special characters, you can construct cron expressions that precisely define the execution schedule of your tasks. Here are some illustrative examples:

  • Run a script every minute: * * * * * /path/to/
  • Execute a command every 15 minutes: */15 * * * * /usr/bin/command
  • Backup your data daily at midnight: 0 0 * * * /bin/
  • Restart a service every Monday at 3 am: 0 3 * * 1 /etc/init.d/service restart

Editing the Crontab: Accessing and Modifying Scheduled Tasks

There are two primary methods for editing the crontab:

  • crontab -e: This command opens the crontab file in your default text editor, enabling you to directly modify the existing jobs or add new ones. Upon saving the changes, the new cron expressions take effect.
  • crontab -u <username> -e: For editing the crontab of another user, employ this command, specifying the username in place of <username>. This approach necessitates administrative privileges (root access) to modify another user’s crontab.

Essential Precautions: Safeguarding Your Cron Execution

Cron, while immensely valuable for automation, demands a cautious approach to prevent unintended consequences or security vulnerabilities. Here are some critical safeguards to implement:

Syntactic Scrutiny

Cron expressions rely on precise syntax. Even minor errors can lead to tasks not running as intended. Double-check your cron expressions meticulously before saving the crontab. A typo in a minute field could result in a task running incessantly, while an error in the command path could prevent execution altogether.

Commenting for Clarity

Imbue your cron jobs with comments to enhance readability and understanding. This becomes especially important when revisiting your crontab after a period of time, or when collaborating with other system administrators. Clear comments elucidate the purpose of each cron job, simplifying maintenance and troubleshooting.

Restricted File Permissions:

Meticulously manage file permissions for the commands and scripts referenced in your cron expressions. Grant only the minimum level of access required for the task to function. Avoid employing world-writable or group-writable permissions unless absolutely necessary. Such measures help safeguard your system from unauthorized access or potential exploits.

Regular Reviews

Schedule periodic reviews of your crontabs, particularly for those belonging to privileged users like root. Scrutinize the entries for any unauthorized or suspicious tasks. This proactive approach helps to identify potential security risks and maintain system integrity.

By adhering to these essential precautions, you can ensure that your cron-driven automations execute smoothly and securely, optimizing your Linux or UNIX system’s functionality.

Executing Cron Jobs Manually: The cron Command

While the cron daemon executes jobs automatically based on the defined schedules, there might be situations where you require immediate execution of a specific cron job. The cron command itself furnishes this capability. To manually run a cron job, utilize the following syntax:

cron /path/to/crontab

Replace /path/to/crontab with the actual path to your crontab file. For instance, to execute the crontab of the user user1:

cron /var/spool/cron/user1

Verifying Cron Functionality: The crontab -l Command

After making modifications to your crontab, it’s prudent to verify the accuracy of the changes. The crontab -l command serves this purpose, displaying the contents of your crontab file without granting editing privileges. This allows you to review the scheduled tasks and ensure they align with your expectations.

Beyond the Basics: Advanced Cron Techniques

Cron offers a plethora of functionalities that extend beyond fundamental scheduling. Here, we delve into some of these advanced techniques:

Redirecting Output and Errors

By default, cron tasks run silently, and their output isn’t preserved. To capture the output or errors, you can redirect them to files using the > and 2> operators. For example, the following cron expression redirects the standard output and error output of a script to separate files:

* * * * * /path/to/ > /var/log/script.out 2> /var/log/script.err

Environment Variables

Cron expressions permit the inclusion of environment variables within the command to be executed. This can be useful for passing configuration settings or dynamic data to your scripts. To set an environment variable, prefix it with a dollar sign ($) within the cron expression. For instance:

0 0 * * * HOME=/backup /bin/

In this example, the HOME environment variable is set to /backup before executing the /bin/ script.

Running Tasks Based on System Events

Cron can also trigger tasks based on system events beyond time-based scheduling. The use of the @reboot and @shutdown directives exemplifies this functionality. The @reboot directive instructs cron to execute a specified task at system boot, while @shutdown initiates a task upon system shutdown.

Here’s an illustration:

@reboot /sbin/restart_service

This cron expression restarts a service upon system reboot.

Security Considerations with Cron

When employing cron, security is paramount. Here are some best practices to adhere to:

  • Minimize user privileges: Whenever possible, schedule tasks using the least privileged user account that possesses the necessary permissions to execute the desired commands.
  • Secure file permissions: Ensure that cron jobs only access files and directories with appropriate permissions. Avoid granting excessive access rights.
  • Scrutinize crontabs: Regularly review crontabs, especially for root or administrative users, to identify any suspicious or unauthorized entries.

By following these guidelines, you can leverage cron’s power while maintaining a secure system environment.


In conclusion, cron is a cornerstone utility in the Linux and UNIX domain, empowering users to automate tasks and streamline system administration. This comprehensive guide has equipped you with the knowledge to create effective cron expressions, edit the crontab, execute jobs manually, and explore advanced functionalities. Additionally, it’s crucial to consider monitoring cron jobs to ensure they are running as expected. By implementing monitoring mechanisms, such as logging or alerting, you can proactively identify and address any issues with your scheduled tasks, thereby maintaining the reliability and efficiency of your Linux or UNIX systems. By mastering cron and incorporating monitoring practices, you can significantly enhance the efficiency and automation of your systems, ensuring smooth operation and optimal performance.