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hpr1672 :: Systemd for Learner Drivers

How to drive systemd, without crashing the vehicle through arguing with your passenger.

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Hosted by Steve Smethurst on 2014-12-30 is flagged as Clean and is released under a CC-BY-SA license.
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systemd For Learner Drivers

A graphic to help out:

This is a subject that attracts controversy, but I am not today going to be controversial, I hope. Many Linux systems are moving away from SysV Init and adopting systemd instead; both Linuxes that I use, Fedora and Mint have adopted systemd, and I understand that Debian has now forked to allow both sides of the argument to have their way. I am not going to get into the debate here. My personal stance is that I see both sides of the argument and I will continue to perch on top of the fence until systemd either proves itself or fails to do so.

In this HPR I am going to try to fill a gap that I have seen in the systemd discussion; that is - how to operate it. I am not an expert on systemd, I have just tried to work it, and in doing so I have fished around in my file system and in the documentation. If you want to know what I found, then keep on listening. By way of opening I will remind myself, and you also, what systemd is replacing.

SysV initd works with runlevels, the most common being

  • 5 for graphical multiuser networked
  • 3 for cli multiuser networked
  • 1 for single user
  • 6 for reboot
  • 0 for halt

In moving to a runlevel, unwanted services are shut down and wanted services are started up. For most users on most systems the most appropriate default runlevel is 5 giving multiuser, GUI & networking. Services can be started and stopped on demand by inetd.

systemd works differently. It has target units. For most users on most systems the most appropriate default target is the, which does a similar thing to runlevel 5 . Units are configured by unit configuration files. These files may start other units and stop other units. They can impose sequence and dependancies. There is a lot of cascading going on, with unit launching unit launching unit. Units also can be started and stopped on demand by systemd.


The term Unit refers to a resource that systemd is taking under its control. There are 12 different types of Unit.

that starts/stops daemons
activates network connections
activates kernel devices
controls mount points
provides on-demand mounting of file systems
does for swap what systemd.mount does for filesystems
starts/stops external processes
groups of services akin to init level 3, init level 5
saves/restores the momentary state of other units
triggers units based on date/time
trigger units based on changes in file system objects
organises units in a hierarchical tree of cgroups, for resource management purposes

Units files called by systemd live in /etc/systemd/system. But these are symbolic links to the real ones stored in /usr/lib/systemd/system

There is a parallel /etc/systemd/user structure which does not seem to do anything on my computers, so I work for now like its not there.

There is also a /run/systemd/system structure which appears to contain runtime configuration files with names like session-xxxx.scope. These are the unit type for external processes.

Table 1. Directory structure for systemd
Path Description
/etc/systemd/system Local configuration
/etc/systemd/user User configuration
/run/systemd/system Runtime units
/usr/lib/systemd/system Units of installed packages


The next thing we need is Directives.

The unit configuration files contain directives to start/stop a unit, and directives that cascade to other unit configuration files that start/stop dependant units. Directives may impose conditions on whether or when to call a unit. There are a whole bunch of different directives listed in man systemd.unit. These are a few.

  • Requires= list of units to start. If any required units fail then abort this one
  • Conflicts= list of units to stop
  • After= the order in which units will start
  • Before= the order in which units will start
  • Wants= list of units to start. If any fail just continue anyway

As well wanted units listed by the WANTS directive, there may also be a 'wants' directory below the unit directory. So the unit conf file /etc/systemd/system/ will cause two further unit conf files to be read in from the /etc/systemd/system/ directory.

Each required unit and wanted unit from the directives, as well as those in the wants directory are added to a job queue. If directives cascade to other unit files containing more directives then all of these dependences are also added to the job queue. A directive may start or stop another unit, or that change the detail of a job already in the queue. All directives ultimately cascade down to starting or stopping one of the base units in /usr/lib/systemd/system.

To get a feel for how this all pans out in practice I will walk us through the cascade of unit files from bootup.

From Bootup

First, the default.taget is activated, which on my system is just a link to

Description=Graphical Interface

Cascades to

  • start
  • start display-manager.service
  • stop

Also we have a wants directory /etc/systemd/system/ that

  • starts accounts-daemon.service (for logging)
  • starts rtkit-daemon.service (for realtime scheduling)

graphical target cascaded to

Description=Multi-User System
Conflicts=rescue.service rescue.service

Cascades to

  • start
  • stop rescue.service
  • stop (again)

Also we have a wants directory /etc/systemd/system/ that

- abrt-ccpp.service
- abrtd.service
- abrt-oops.service
- abrt-vmcore.service
- abrt-xorg.service
- atd.service
- auditd.service
- avahi-daemon.service
- chronyd.service
- crond.service
- cups.path
- irqbalance.service
- libvirtd.service
- mcelog.service
- mdmonitor.service
- NetworkManager.service
- rngd.service
- rpcbind.service
- rsyslog.service
- smartd.service
- vmtoolsd.service

display-manager.service also cascaded to display-manager.service which is not present on F20 so I guess we don't need it.

So cascaded to, which itself cascades to

- firewalld.service cascaded to which itself cascades to

- dmraid-activation.service
- iscsi.service
- lvm2-monitor.service
- multipathd.service ( which looks like all the file system daemons) also cascaded to which itself cascades to

- avahi-daemon.socket
- cups.socket
- dm-event.socket
- iscsid.socket
- iscsiuio.socket
- lvm2-lvmetad.socket
- rpcbind.socket

End point

Now we start reaching the end-points of this trail at

- systemd.sockets
- systemd.timer
- systemd.path
- systemd.slice
- systemd-fstab-generator

By the time all of that has finished, if I type the command

# systemctl list-units --type service

I see that 58 services are listed as running

Running and Configuring Services

If we are going to work with systemd we will have to give it instructions. In systemd parlance

  • active = running, currently in use
  • loaded = enabled, available for use

These terms crop up in the output from commands

Many instructions are given to systemd by the systemctl command.

Now to compare line up some common SysV init tasks with their systemd equivalent

Table 2. SysV init commands and their systemd equivalents
command SysV Init systemd
Check status # service bluetooth status # systemctl status bluetooth
Start # service bluetooth start # systemctl start bluetooth
Stop # service bluetooth stop # systemctl stop bluetooth
Enable # chkconfig --level 35 ntpd on # systemctl enable ntpd
Disable # chkconfig --level 35 ntpd off # systemctl disable ntpd

Journalctl Logging

Much has been said about the desirability or otherwise of binary logs, but systemd gives us these so we had better know what to do with them.

Journal instructions are given to systemd by the journalctl command

To view all log entries in one go. This is verbose, mine came out at ~9000 lines
# journalctl
To view from a specific date
# journalctl --since="2014-05-07"
To view kernel logs
# journalctl -k
To follow a log in realtime ... and then to close
# journalctl -f
# ctl-c
To view log entries associated with a given PID
# journalctl _PID=1
To view log entries associated with a given service
# journatlctl -u bluetooth

Interrogating the system

More systemd information

Get/Set system information. Works like uname, but is more verbose
# hostnamectl
Get/Set timezone & timedate info
# timedatectl
Table 3. SysV init information and their systemd equivalents
SysV Init Info SysV Init command systemd info systemd command
What services are available for init.d to manage # ls /etc/init.d What service units are available for systemd to run # systemctl list-units --type service --all
What services are configured to be run by init.d for each run level # chkconfig --list What service units are currently active # systemctl list-units --type service



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Comment #1 posted on 2015-01-04T12:31:12Z by Steve Smethurst


In the podcast I wrongly stated that both my computers use systemd. Of course, Mint 17.1 installed on my laptop uses init. The podcast is based on Fedora 20 installed on my desktop. Sorry for any confusion.

Comment #2 posted on 2015-01-04T15:54:48Z by Alison Chaiken

Thanks for informative episode

I'm giving a talk this week (Jan 2015) on systemd and have made some slides that reinforce and complement yours:

I've also posted the files for my demos, which I've recorded.

Thanks for your hard work,
Alison Chaiken

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