Introduction to systemctl

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What is systemctl?

systemctl is a controlling interface and inspection tool for the widely-adopted init system and service manager systemd. This guide will cover how to use systemctl to manage systemd services, work with systemd Targets and extract meaningful information about your system’s overall state.

This guide is written for a non-root user. Commands that require elevated privileges are prefixed with sudo. If you’re not familiar with the sudo command, see the Users and Groups guide.

Managing Services

systemd initializes user space components that run after the Linux kernel has booted, as well as continuously maintaining those components throughout a system’s lifecycle. These tasks are known as units, and each unit has a corresponding unit file. Units might concern mounting storage devices (.mount), configuring hardware (.device), sockets (.socket), or, as will be covered in this guide, managing services (.service).

Starting and Stopping a Service

To start a systemd service in the current session, issue the start command:

sudo systemctl start apache2.service

Conversely, to stop a systemd service, issue the stop command:

sudo systemctl stop apache2.service

In the above example we started and then stopped the Apache service. It is important to note that systemctl does not require the .service extension when working with service units. The following is just as acceptable:

sudo systemctl start apache2

If the service needs to be restarted, such as to reload a configuration file, you can issue the restart command:

sudo systemctl restart apache2

Similarly, if a service does not need to restart to reload it’s configuration, you can issue the reload command:

sudo systemctl reload apache2

Finally, you can use the reload-or-restart command if you are unsure about whether your application needs to be restarted or just reloaded.

sudo systemctl reload-or-restart apache2

Enabling a Service at Boot

The above commands are good for managing a service in a single session, but many services are also required to start at boot. To enable a service at boot:

sudo systemctl enable nginx

To disable the service from starting at boot, issue the disable command:

sudo systemctl disable nginx

The enable command does not start the service in the current session, nor does disable stop the service in the current session. To enable/disable and start/stop a service simultaneously, combine the command with the --now switch:

sudo systemctl enable nginx --now

If the service unit file is not located within one of the known systemd file paths, you can provide a file path to the service unit file you wish to enable:

sudo systemctl enable /path/to/myservice.service

However, this file needs to be accessible by systemd at startup. For example, this means files underneath /home or /var are not allowed, unless those directories are located on the root file system.

Checking a Service’s Status

systemctl allows us to check on the status of individual services:

systemctl status mysql

This will result in a message similar to the output below:

    ● mysql.service - MySQL Community Server
      Loaded: loaded (/lib/systemd/system/mysql.service; enabled; vendor preset: enabled)
      Active: active (running) since Thu 2018-08-30 09:15:35 EDT; 1 day 5h ago
    Main PID: 711 (mysqld)
        Tasks: 31 (limit: 2319)
      CGroup: /system.slice/mysql.service
              └─711 /usr/sbin/mysqld --daemonize --pid-file=/run/mysqld/

You can also use is-active, is-enabled, and is-failed to monitor a service’s status:

systemctl is-enabled mysql

To view which systemd service units are currently active on your system, issue the following list-units command and filter by the service type:

systemctl list-units --type=service
list-units is the default action for the systemctl command, so you can simply enter systemctl to retrieve a list of units.

The generated list includes all currently active service units, service units that have jobs pending, and service units that were active and have failed:

UNIT                            LOAD   ACTIVE SUB       DESCRIPTION
accounts-daemon.service         loaded active running   Accounts Service
apparmor.service                loaded active exited    AppArmor initialization
apport.service                  loaded active exited    LSB: automatic crash report generation
atd.service                     loaded active running   Deferred execution scheduler
blk-availability.service        loaded active exited    Availability of block devices
console-setup.service           loaded active exited    Set console font and keymap
cron.service                    loaded active running   Regular background program processing daemon
dbus.service                    loaded active running   D-Bus System Message Bus
ebtables.service                loaded active exited    ebtables ruleset management

The output provides five pieces of data:

  • UNIT: The name of the unit.
  • LOAD: Was the unit properly loaded?
  • ACTIVE: The general activation state, i.e. a generalization of SUB.
  • SUB: The low-level unit activation state, with values dependent on unit type.
  • DESCRIPTION: The unit’s description.

To list all units, including inactive units, append the --all flag:

systemctl list-units --type=service --all

You can filter the list of units by state. Supply a comma-separated list of unit states to output as the value for the --state flag:

systemctl list-units --type=service --all --state=exited,inactive

To retrieve a list of failed units, enter the list-units command with the --failed flag:

systemctl list-units --failed

Working with Unit Files

Each unit has a corresponding unit file. These unit files are usually located in the following directories:

  • The /lib/systemd/system directory holds unit files that are provided by the system or are supplied by installed packages.
  • The /etc/systemd/system directory stores unit files that are user-provided.

Listing Installed Unit Files

Not all unit files are active on a system at any given time. To view all systemd service unit files installed on a system, use the list-unit-files command with the optional --type flag:

systemctl list-unit-files --type=service

The generated list has two columns, UNIT FILE and STATE:

UNIT FILE                              STATE
accounts-daemon.service                enabled
acpid.service                          disabled
apparmor.service                       enabled
apport-forward@.service                static
apt-daily-upgrade.service              static
apt-daily.service                      static

A unit’s STATE can be either enabled, disabled, static, masked, or generated. Unit files with a static state do not contain an Install section and are either meant to be run once or they are a dependency of another unit file and should not be run alone. For more on masking, see Masking a Unit File.

Viewing a Unit File

To view the contents of a unit file, run the cat command:

systemctl cat cron
# /lib/systemd/system/cron.service
Description=Regular background program processing daemon

ExecStart=/usr/sbin/cron -f $EXTRA_OPTS


If there are recent changes to the unit file that have not yet been loaded into systemd, the output of the systemctl cat command may be an older version of the service.

For a low-level view of a unit file, issue the show command:

systemctl show cron

This will generate a list of property key=value pairs for all non-empty properties defined in the unit file:

TimeoutStartUSec=1min 30s
TimeoutStopUSec=1min 30s

To show empty property values, supply the --all flag.

To filter the key=value pairs by property, use the -p flag:

systemctl show cron -p Names

Note that the property name must be capitalized.

Viewing a Unit File’s Dependencies

To display a list of a unit file’s dependencies, use the list-dependencies command:

systemctl list-dependencies cron

The generated output will show a tree of unit dependencies that must run before the service in question runs.

● ├─system.slice
● └─
●   ├─apparmor.service
●   ├─blk-availability.service
●   ├─dev-hugepages.mount
●   ├─dev-mqueue.mount
●   ├─friendly-recovery.service

Recursive dependencies are only listed for .target files. To list all recursive dependencies, pass in the --all flag.

To check which unit files depend on a service unit file, you can run the list-dependencies command with the --reverse flag:

systemctl list-dependencies cron --reverse

Editing a Unit File

While the particulars of unit file contents are beyond the scope of this article, there are a number of good resources online that describe them, such as the RedHat Customer Portal page on Creating and Modifying systemd Unit Files.

There are two ways to edit a unit file using systemctl.

  1. The edit command opens up a blank drop-in snippet file in the system’s default text editor:

    sudo systemctl edit ssh

    When the file is saved, systemctl will create a file called override.conf under a directory at /etc/systemd/system/yourservice.service.d, where yourservice is the name of the service you chose to edit. This command is useful for changing a few properties of the unit file.

  2. The second way is to use the edit command with the --full flag:

    sudo systemctl edit ssh --full

    This command opens a full copy of whatever unit file you chose to edit in a text editor. When the file is saved, systemctl will create a file at /etc/systemd/system/yourservice.service. This is useful if you need to make many changes to an existing unit file.

In general, any unit file in /etc/systemd/system will override the corresponding file in /lib/systemd/system.

Creating a Unit File

While systemctl will throw an error if you try to open a unit file that does not exist, you can force systemctl to create a new unit file using the --force flag:

sudo systemctl edit yourservice.service --force

When the file is saved, systemctl will create an override.conf file in the /etc/systemd/system/yourservice.service.d directory, where ‘yourservice’ is the name of the service you chose to create. To create a full unit file instead of just a snippet, use --force in tandem with --full:

sudo systemctl edit yourservice.service --force --full

Masking a Unit File

To prevent a service from ever starting, either manually or automatically, use the mask command to symlink a service to /dev/null:

sudo systemctl mask mysql

Similar to disabling a service, the mask command will not prevent a service from continuing to run. To mask a service and stop the service at the same time, use the --now switch:

sudo systemctl mask mysql --now

To unmask a service, use the unmask command:

sudo systemctl unmask mysql

Removing a Unit File

To remove a unit file snippet that was created with the edit command, remove the directory yourservice.service.d (where ‘yourservice’ is the service you would like to delete), and the override.conf file inside of the directory:

sudo rm -r /etc/systemd/system/yourservice.service.d

To remove a full unit file, run the following command:

sudo rm /etc/systemd/system/yourservice.service

After you issue these commands, reload the systemd daemon so that it no longer tries to reference the deleted service:

sudo systemctl daemon-reload

Working with systemd Targets

Like other init system’s run levels, systemd’s targets help it determine which unit files are necessary to produce a certain system state. systemd targets are represented by target units. Target units end with the .target file extension and their only purpose is to group together other systemd units through a chain of dependencies.

For instance, there is a that denotes when the system’s graphical session is ready. Units that are required to start in order to achieve the necessary state have WantedBy= or RequiredBy= in their configuration. Units that depend on can include Wants=, Requires=, or After= in their configuration to make themselves available at the correct time.

A target can have a corresponding directory whose name has the syntax (e.g., located in /etc/systemd/system. When a symlink to a service file is added to this directory, that service becomes a dependency of the target.

When you enable a service (using systemctl enable), symlinks to the service are created inside the .target.wants directory for each target listed in that service’s WantedBy= configuration. This is actually how the WantedBy= option is implemented.

Getting and Setting the Default Target

To get the default target for your system –the end goal of the chain of dependencies– issue the get-default command:

systemctl get-default

If you would like to change the default target for your system, issue the set-default command:

sudo systemctl set-default

Listing Targets

To retrieve a list of available targets, use the list-unit-files command and filter by target:

systemctl list-unit-files --type=target

To list all currently active targets, use the list-units command and filter by target:

systemctl list-units --type=target

Changing the Active Target

To change the current active target, issue the isolate command. This command starts the isolated target with all dependent units and shuts down all others. For instance, if you wanted to move to a multi-user command line interface and stop the graphical shell, use the following command:

sudo systemctl isolate

However, it is a good idea to first check on the dependencies of the target you wish to isolate so you do not stop anything important. To do this, issue the list-dependencies command:

systemctl list-dependencies

Rescue Mode

When a situation arises where you are unable to proceed with a normal boot, you can place your system in rescue mode. Rescue mode provides a single-user interface used to repair your system. To place your system in rescue mode, enter the following command:

sudo systemctl rescue

This command is similar to systemctl isolate rescue, but will also issue a notice to all other users that the system is entering rescue mode. To prevent this message from being sent, apply the --no-wall flag:

sudo systemctl rescue --no-wall

Emergency Mode

Emergency mode offers the user the most minimal environment possible to salvage a system in need of repair, and is useful if the system cannot enter rescue mode. For a full explanation of emergency mode, refer to the RedHat Customer Portal page. To enter emergency mode, enter the following command:

sudo systemctl emergency

This command is similar to systemctl isolate emergency, but will also issue a notice to all other users that the system is entering emergency mode. To prevent this message, apply the --no-wall flag:

sudo systemctl emergency --no-wall

More Shortcuts

systemctl allows users the ability to halt, shutdown and reboot a system.

To halt a system, issue the following command:

sudo systemctl halt

To shutdown a system, use:

sudo systemctl shutdown

Finally, to reboot a system, enter the following command:

sudo systemctl reboot

Similar to the emergency and rescue commands, these commands will issue a notice to all users that the system state is changing.

More Information

You may wish to consult the following resources for additional information on this topic. While these are provided in the hope that they will be useful, please note that we cannot vouch for the accuracy or timeliness of externally hosted materials.

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This guide is published under a CC BY-ND 4.0 license.