Shell scripts are a common topic in Linux interview questions. Beside mastering the art of Bash scripting, it is enlightening to understand how the kernel treats a script - any kind of interpreter script - differently than, say, an ordinary ELF executable.

Definitions, first!

A script is an executable file that begins with a line (starting with the #! characters) specifying a path to a script interpreter.

#! /path/to/interpreter [ args ]

On most Unix implementations, the space after the #! is optional.

How the kernel executes a script

What happens when you execute a Python script like this one?


print "Hello World"

If you strace the script to intercept syscalls, this is what you should see:

$ strace -e trace=open,execve,write ./ 
execve("./", ["./"], [/* 59 vars */]) = 0
open("/etc/", O_RDONLY|O_CLOEXEC) = 3
open("/lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/", O_RDONLY|O_CLOEXEC) = 3
open("/lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/", O_RDONLY|O_CLOEXEC) = 3
open("/lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/", O_RDONLY|O_CLOEXEC) = 3
open("/lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/", O_RDONLY|O_CLOEXEC) = 3
open("/lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/", O_RDONLY|O_CLOEXEC) = 3
open("/lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/", O_RDONLY|O_CLOEXEC) = 3
open("/usr/lib/python2.7/", O_RDONLY) = -1 ENOENT (No such file or directory)
open("./", O_RDONLY)             = 3
write(1, "Hello World\n", 12Hello World
)           = 12
+++ exited with 0 +++

There is exactly one execve() call, with the script filename as first argument: no Python interpreter is being executed here!

Well, what happens under the hood is the kernel recognizing such executable file as an interpreter script, given it starts with the sha-bang magic numbers (0x23 0x21). The whole first line of the file is then split into an interpreter path and (optional) args. The interpreter is located on the filesystem and invoked with the script path as first argument.

In the example above, any syscall after the execve() is actually issued by the Python interpreter binary, although you can’t directly see it being executed.

Interpreter and script’s arguments

The first line of a script file specifies the interpreter path and optional arguments for the interpreter itself. Any other command line argument is appended after the script path. Let’s explain this with an example:

$ cat 
#!/home/cristian/myecho interp_arg1 interp_arg2

The myecho interpreter is a little C program that outputs argv:

#include <stdio.h>

int main(int argc, char* argv[]) {
  for (int i = 0; i < argc; i++) {
    printf("%d -> %s\n", i, argv[i]);

When executing with additional command line arguments, output is:

$ ./ cli_arg1 cli_arg2
0 -> /home/cristian/myecho
1 -> interp_arg1 interp_arg2
2 -> ./
3 -> cli_arg1
4 -> cli_arg2

Here you see that inside execve() the arguments are re-arranged in this manner:

interpreter-path interpreter-args script-path script-args

On Linux, the interpreter args are parsed as a single line (this explains why interp_arg1 interp_arg2 are printed as a single argv entry), and this may be the source of portability issues. You should also be aware that, on Linux, the total length of the first line of a script (i.e. sha-bang + interpreter-path + interpreter-args) cannot be longer than 128 characters (including newline).

The problem with PATH

The interpreter path is usually an absolute path (although a relative path can still be used). In fact, the $PATH mechanism of your shell is meaningless in kernel space (remember everything we’re discussing here happens inside an execve() syscall). The interpreter path must be the exact location of an executable file.

For the sake of portability, the env(1) utility is often used as a workaround. Assuming that env is commonly installed under the standard /usr/bin/env path, this small executable is then used as a trampoline to start the real interpreter, which then needs to be located somewhere in the user’s PATH.

#!/usr/bin/env python

print "Hello World"

In other words, #!/usr/bin/env python executes env as an interpreter, passing python as an interpreter-arg. env itself is usually implemented with an execvp(3) call - a C library call - that searches for the given executable in PATH.

Nesting the interpreter

Some UNIX implementations permit the interpreter of a script to itself be a script. On Linux, this kind of “executable search” is recursive up to an hardcoded limit of four recursions.

$ cat 

$ ./ 
bash: ./ / bad interpreter: Too many levels of symbolic links

The setuid bit is ignored

On Linux, and in other Unix implementations, the setuid bit on scripts in ignored for security reasons.

We can prepare a small test program:

#include <unistd.h>
#include <stdio.h>

int main() {
  printf("real=%d effective=%d\n", getuid(), geteuid());

The setuid permission on the binary executable works as expected:

$ ./test-setuid 
real=1000 effective=1000

$ sudo chown root test-setuid && sudo chmod +s test-setuid 

$ ./test-setuid 
real=1000 effective=0

If we do the same job on a script, the setuid bit is ignored instead:

$ cat 

id -u

$ ./ 

$ sudo chown root && sudo chmod +s 

$ ./ 

Further reading

In the description above, I’ve mentioned a few times that some details are very Linux-specific. This is because, unfortunately, the #! mechanism is not officially part of any Unix specification. Here are described more in-depth details about the differences between existing Unix flavours and how they evolved over time.