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One thing that has been puzzling me for some time is this:

% which halt
% file /sbin/halt
/sbin/halt: symbolic link to `reboot'

However, executing sudo halt does, of course, not reboot the system. Why is that?

There are several other programs working that way, for example pdflatex.

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up vote 12 down vote accepted

Every program can see the full command line that was used to run it (except for wildcards and variables, which the shell expands).

In a C program, the command line is stored in argv, which is short for argument vector.
The progam's name is the first element of argv, i.e. argv[0].

Clearly in the case of halt and reboot, the program is changing its behavior based on argv[0].

From bash, you can see the full command line used to run a program using ps -p <pid> -o cmd or cat /proc/<pid>/cmdline.

Note that there is another type of link called a hard link that will have the same effect. On my system for example, sudo and sudoedit are the same file with two different names, and different behaviors.

ls -i can help you find those commands, e.g.:

$ ls -il | awk '$3 != 1 { print }'
total 156872
2491111 -rwsr-xr-x 2 root   root     127560 2011-01-20 05:03 sudo
2491111 -rwsr-xr-x 2 root   root     127560 2011-01-20 05:03 sudoedit

See man ln for more details about hard links if you're not familiar with them.

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Interesting, I didn't know symlinks behaved that way. – Legate Feb 2 '11 at 10:58
@legate, symlinks don't, applications can. the best example of a program that uses it's name to define how it executes is busybox. symlinks are just the number one way of defining the 0th argument to an application. simply renaming a file would also suffice. – xenoterracide Feb 2 '11 at 12:50
I failed to parse this one: Note that there is also called a hard link that will have the same effect. – Tshepang Feb 4 '11 at 9:01
I have re-written that sentence. Hopefully it is clearer now. – Mikel Feb 4 '11 at 9:09

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