What (really) happens when you type ls -l in the shell

To understand what (really) happens when you type ls -l in the shell, you have to understand what the shell is, in relation to the kernel.

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The kernel is the central, most fundamental part of a computer operating system. It’s a program that controls all other programs on the computer, talking to the hardware and software, highly involved in resource management.

The shell is an application, one of the two major ways of controlling a computer (GUI the other). It is the way a user talks to the kernel, by typing commands into the command line (why it’s known as the command line interpreter).

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On the superficial level, typing ls -l displays all the files and directories in the current working directory, along with respective permissions, owners, and created date and time.

On the deeper level, this is what happens when you type “ls -l” and “enter” in the shell:

First and foremost, the shell prints the prompt, prompting the user to enter a command. The shell reads the command ls -l from the getline() function’s STDIN, parsing the command line into arguments that it is passing to the program it is executing.

The shell checks if ls is an alias. If it is, the alias replaces ls with its value.

If ls isn’t an alias, the shell checks if the word of a command is a built-in.

The environment is copied and passed to the new process

Then, the shell looks for a program file called lswhere all the executable files are in the system — in the shell’s environment (an array of strings), specifically in the $PATH variable. The $PATH variable is a list of directories the shell searches every time a command is entered. $PATH, one of the environment variables, is parsed using the ‘=’ as a delimiter. Once the $PATH is identified, all the directories in $PATH are tokenized, parsed further using ‘:’ as a delimiter.

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The ls binary executable file will be located [in one of the major subdirectories of the ‘/usr’ directory] in the file ‘/usr/bin/ls’ — ‘/usr/bin’ contains most of the executable files (ie. ready-to-run programs).

(For performance’s sake, ls could either be [a shell] built-in or hashed.)

To execute ls, three system calls are made:

fork / execve / wait

(System calls are calls to the Kernel code to do something.)

To create new processes (to run commands) in Unix, the system call fork() is made to duplicate the (Shell) parent process, creating a child process of the (Shell) parent process.

The system call execve() is made and does three things: the operating system (OS) stops the duplicated process (of the parent), loads up the new program (in this casels), and starts (the new program ls). execve() replaces defining parts of the current process’ memory stack with the new stuff loaded from the ls executable file.

The input to execve (for ls -l) will be:

execve(“/bin/ls”, {“ls” or “/bin/ls”, “-l”, NULL}, NULL);

Say you have your shell, in the beginning you will have to use `/bin/ls` and not just ls, so you have:

$ /bin/ls -l

Tokenize this line into stuff = {“/bin/ls”, “-l”, NULL}

Then do execve(stuff[0], stuff, NULL).


the parent process continues to do other things, keeping track of its children as well, using the system call wait().

If the executable binary (ls) file does not exist, an error will be printed.


After ls -l is executed, the shell executes shutdown commands, frees up memory, exits, and re-prompts the user for input.

About the Author


Umair Akbar | Cloud Engineer

Umair Akbar is a Senior Information Security Engineer with over 5 years of experience leading the development and daily management of InfoSec systems.

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