Tackling service management with Linux systemd

Linux sytemd is the new sheriff in town for service management. Here's how to configure it and some main features.

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Systemd is a radical change from the old method of Linux service management. It provides a generic interface not just for services, but also for hardware management.

Until the launch of Linux Upstart a few years ago, Linux used an init-based startup procedure. Upstart was designed to make Linux startup more efficient, but it had a very short life. It was barely off the drawing board when systemd came along and replaced it on major Linux distributions as the method for service startup and management.

IT admins accustomed to finding service scripts in the /etc/[rc.d/]init.d directory of their favorite Linux distribution will notice they aren't there anymore. All that remains are a limited number of services that don't have a systemd startup script yet. On a Fedora system, the systemd services are in the /etc/system/system directory that contain symbolic links to the real location of the service scripts in usr/lib/system/system. In this directory, a subdirectory named multi-user.target.wants contains service scripts for the services that a system has installed.

In Linux systemd, the concept of runlevels was dropped. While booting, the computer goes through a series of phases, which are referred to as wants. The definition of a want is not as strict as the definition of a runlevel, so you will see differences here between the different Linux distributions. On a Fedora 17 system, for instance, you'll find the following important wants:

  • sysinit.target.wants: contains scripts that have to be started at a very early stage
  • basic.target.wants: more scripts that have to be started at a very early stage
  • multi-user.target.wants: normal services that you typically need to have an operational system

In addition to these generic wants, there are some specific ones. You may find, for instance, the bluetooth.target.wants (to start Bluetooth) and the getty.target.wants used to initialize the ttys for users. In these wants you'll find the service scripts themselves. But again, you'll notice there are differences between the distributions, as every distribution can create its required wants.

The startup scripts themselves aren't really startup scripts anymore. In the old startup procedure, bash shell scripts were used to launch services. Now you'll find startup scripts that pass parameters required by systemd to start the services, which makes it very easy to understand how a service is started (see Example 1). 

Example 1: A system-style init script for Linux systemd.

[root@IAD multi-user.target.wants]# cat sshd.service
Description=OpenSSH server daemon
After=syslog.target network.target auditd.service

ExecStart=/usr/sbin/sshd -D $OPTIONS
ExecReload=/bin/kill -HUP $MAINPID


This very clean service script defines variables that systemd uses. All of the service scripts follow more or less the same syntax, which makes managing them a lot easier compared to the diverse init scripts.

Not only does systemd take care of items that were considered services in an init-based startup, it also handles part of hardware management. So when looking into the services system manages, administrators will see network devices, ttys and more.

Using systemctl to manage Linux services

The systemctl command, used for managing services, replaces old commands like service and chkconfig, which you'll only have to use to manage old services that don't have a systemd-compatible script. Start by typing systemctl by itself. This shows a list of all services Linux systemd manages as well as their current statuses (see Example 2).  

Example 2: Use systemctl to show a list of services 

mdmonito...keover.service loaded active exited Software RAID Monitor Takeover
mysqld.service loaded active running MySQL database server
NetworkManager.service loaded active running Network Manager
nfs-idmap.service loaded active running NFSv4 ID-name mapping daemon
nfs-lock.service loaded active running NFS file locking service.
nfs-mountd.service loaded active running NFS Mount Daemon
nfs-rquotad.service loaded active running NFS Remote Quota Server
nfs-server.service loaded active exited NFS Server
ovirt-engine.service loaded active running oVirt Engine
postgresql.service loaded active running PostgreSQL database server
prefdm.service loaded active running Display Manager
rpcbind.service loaded active running RPC bind service
rsyslog.service loaded active running System Logging Service
rtkit-daemon.service loaded active running RealtimeKit Scheduling Policy Service
sendmail.service loaded active running Sendmail Mail Transport Agent
sm-client.service loaded active running Sendmail Mail Transport Client
smartd.service loaded active running Self Monitoring and Reporting Technology (SMART) Daemon
spice-vdagentd.service loaded active exited LSB: Agent daemon for Spice guests
sshd.service loaded active running OpenSSH server daemon
system-s...yboard.service loaded active running System Setup Keyboard
systemd-journald.service loaded active running Journal Service
systemd-logind.service loaded active running Login Service
systemd-...ollect.service loaded active exited Collect Read-Ahead Data

For status information about a specific service, use systemctl show followed by the name of the service. The service name typically includes the suffix .service, so use systemctl status sshd.service and not systemctl show sshd.

Systemctl has other useful display options as well, such as systemctl show servicename.service, which lists the current configuration of a particular service.

Example 3: Use systemctl status servicename.service to see the current status of a service

[root@IAD ~]# systemctl status sshd.service

sshd.service - OpenSSH server daemon          
        Loaded: loaded (/usr/lib/systemd/system/sshd.service; enabled)
         Active: active (running) since Wed, 06 Mar 2013 07:44:53 +0100; 6h ago         
        Process: 1043 ExecStartPre=/usr/sbin/sshd-keygen (code=exited, status=0/SUCCESS)        
        Main PID: 1085 (sshd)          
           CGroup: name=systemd:/system/sshd.service                  
                  â 1085 /usr/sbin/sshd -D

Mar 06 13:42:32 IAD.example.com sshd[4590]: Connection closed by [preauth]
Mar 06 13:43:32 IAD.example.com sshd[4602]: Connection closed by [preauth]
Mar 06 13:44:32 IAD.example.com sshd[4610]: Connection closed by [preauth]
Mar 06 13:45:32 IAD.example.com sshd[4618]: Connection closed by [preauth]
Mar 06 13:46:32 IAD.example.com sshd[4630]: Connection closed by [preauth]
Mar 06 13:47:32 IAD.example.com sshd[4639]: Connection closed by [preauth]
Mar 06 13:48:32 IAD.example.com sshd[4651]: Connection closed by [preauth]
Mar 06 13:49:32 IAD.example.com sshd[4660]: Connection closed by [preauth]
Mar 06 13:50:32 IAD.example.com sshd[4670]: Connection closed by [preauth]
Mar 06 13:51:32 IAD.example.com sshd[4686]: Connection closed by [preauth]

To start a service for the first time, use systemctl start servicename.service; to stop that service, use systemctl stop servicename.service. These allow you to start or stop a service once. If you want a service to start every time your computer boots, use systemctl enable servicename.service. If you don't want the service on your computer at all, use systemctl disable servicename.service.

About the author:
Sander van Vugt is an independent trainer and consultant based in the Netherlands. He is an expert in Linux high availability, virtualization and performance. He has authored many books on Linux topics, including Beginning the Linux Command LineBeginning Ubuntu LTS Server Administration and Pro Ubuntu Server Administration.


This was first published in September 2013

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