Demystifying `root` on macOS, Part 4 —The Authorization Database

Beyond the Shell

sudo allows you to gain super user privileges from the interactive shell. launchd, installer Packages, management systems and other tools will run scripts as root when required. This covers many cases where administrators need to influence the system on macOS.

However, for most users, macOS is exclusively the graphical interface. Users can authorize to perform certain tasks when they are administrators, like unlocking a Preference Pane or running an installer package.

These tasks are not controlled by sudo but by a separate mechanism. The data for that mechanism is stored in the authorization database.

Here there be Dragons!

As mentioned in earlier parts of this series, many pieces of macOS assume users have administrator accounts. This might not be a possible or useful configuration in your environment. But you still need to provide access to some privileges without giving a user full administrator accounts and access.

However, if you find yourself frequently editing the authorization database, you should re-evaluate your approach. Future macOS updates might change privileges or rules and then your heaviliy modified setup will need to be adpated. Small modifications or granting users admin privileges will be the the least fragile configuration going forward with future macOS releases.

What is it?

The active authorization database lives in sqlite3 database files in /var/db/auth.db.

You can use the sqlite3 command or another tool to read the database directly.

$ sudo sqlite3 /var/db/auth.db .dump

You can use this database access to change the settings directly. However, this is not recommended. The only way sanctioned by Apple to access and change the authorization database is through the security authorization command.

This layer of abstraction allows Apple to change the underlying data store, while keeping tools and frameworks that access the data same.

The authorization database is intialized from the property list file /System/Library/Security/authorization.plist. In older versions of macOS administrators could replace this file with a modified version and delete the database files to have the modified property list initialize the database with the new settings. However, in current versions of macOS this file is protected by SIP, so this strategy is no longer useful.

However, the authorization.plist file is still useful to look at the default values and get an idea of how the authorization database is configured and works. Since there is quite a lot of data in this file, it is best to open it in a graphical property list editor such as Xcode or PlistEdit Pro.

The authorization property list consists of two main dictionaries: rights and rules. There are also comment fields distributed all through the file, which provide some context to what the individual elements are for.

rights designate a certain context that permits a certain action, group of actions or access to configure some part of the os. The names of the rights follow a hierarchy and are denoted in reverse DNS notation.

This website has an overview of all the rights and rules from the authorization.plist. More importantly it shows which rights and rules are available in which version of macOS.

How it works

Within the dictionary for a given right you can find the requirements that a user needs to fulfill to gain the right. There are two main classes: user and rule.

(There is also a third possible value for the class: evaluate-mechanisms will test multiple mechanisms in order. This is used for more complex processes such as the login window.)

The user class will verify whether the user asking to gain the right is in a particular user group. Usually this is the admin group. for example you can inspect the configuration of the system.preferences.datetime right with:

$ security authorizationdb read system.preferences.datetime
<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<!DOCTYPE plist PUBLIC "-//Apple//DTD PLIST 1.0//EN" "">
<plist version="1.0">
    <string>Checked by the Admin framework when making changes to the Date &amp; Time preference pane.</string>
YES (0)

(The YES (0) at the end of the command’s output means that retrieving the data was successful.)

You can also look for the system.preferences.datetime entry in the authorization.plist. This tells us that when a user clicks on the lock in the ‘Date & Time’ preference pane the system will ask for authentication (authenticate-user is true) to check if the user a member of the admin group.

Read the right to see an example for a rule based right:

$ security authorizationdb read
<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<!DOCTYPE plist PUBLIC "-//Apple//DTD PLIST 1.0//EN" "">
<plist version="1.0">
    <string>Install user configuration profile with certificate requiring trust change.</string>
YES (0)

Rather than defining the approving criteria in the right itself, this right references the authenticate-session-owner-or-admin rule. This name is already quite self-explanatory. However, we can also read the definition of the rule:

$ security authorizationdb read authenticate-session-owner-or-admin
<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<!DOCTYPE plist PUBLIC "-//Apple//DTD PLIST 1.0//EN" "">
<plist version="1.0">
    <string>Authenticate either as the owner or as an administrator.</string>
YES (0)

Requests to grant a right are logged. When you are unsure what the name of right is you can perform/unlock the right or task in the interface and then read the log with:

$ sudo log show --style syslog --predicate 'subsystem == "" && eventMessage CONTAINS[c] "validating credential"' --last 1h

This will list the rights (and rules) that were requested in the last hour.

(Thanks to Erik Berglund on the MacAdmins Slack for showing me how to do this.)

Changing Behavior

You can use the security authorizationdb command to change rights and rules in the authorization database.

WARNING: you can really mess up your system and make it unusable with the wrong settings in the authorization database. You should not test these commands on your (or anybody else’s) work machine. You should do your experimentation and testing on a virtual machine, where you can quickly revert the system to a known working state. You should only use these commands on production Macs when they have been thoroughly tested.

You need super user privileges to change the authorization db. I will use sudo for the interactive examples.

The easiest way to change behavior is to change the right to a different preset rule. The most permissive rule is allow which allow any user the right and not even prompt for authorization.

When you change the ‘Date & Time’ right with:

$ sudo security authorizationdb write system.preferences.datetime allow
YES (0)

And then open the ‘Date & Time’ preference pane with any user. You will see the pane is unlocked by default.

This may be just a bit too permissive. A more useful rule to use is the authenticate-session-owner-or-admin rule, which will prompt for authentication, and accept the currently logged in user (session-owner) or any admin. This provides for some security so that other people cannot walk up and change the current user’s settings.

$ sudo security authorizationdb write system.preferences.datetime authenticate-session-owner-or-admin
YES (0)

This will allow the any user to unlock the preference pane in their own session. Note that the dialog to unlock does not prefill the user’s name and the text in the dialog still asks for an ‘administrator’s name and password’. So this may be confusing for users. Proper documentation for the user’s affected will help.

Another use case for this rule is to allow administrator account to unlock a locked screen in another user’s session (particularly useful in lab or classroom settings).

$ sudo security authorizationdb write system.login.screensaver authenticate-session-owner-or-admin
YES (0)

Now, any admin user can unlock any other user’s locked screen. This will of course drop them in that user’s login session so the admin’s have to be responsible with this privilege.

When you take a look through the rules, you will notice that some start with authenticate- and other with is-. The difference is that the authenticate- rules will prompt for user name and password, while the is- rules will grant the privilege when the user satisfies the rule with out a prompt.

There are also some rules whose names end in -nonshared. These have the shared key set to false. This means that these rules will not share credentials with other requests for authentication. Shared credentials will not prompt multiple times for the same credentials in a certain time (the timeout, usually 300 seconds/5 minutes). More sensitive settings are usually not shared.

Exporting and importing privileges

Changing the rule is a straightforward and fairly safe way to change a right’s behavior. When a rule fits your requirements, you should probably use a rule.

However, sometimes you need more fine-grained control of a right. For this you can export a right to a property list file, modify this and re-import it.

For example, say you do not want to grant every user access to a certain right but just a certain group of users even though they are not administrators. Common examples for this would be developers, teachers or lab techs. So, in our example, we create a group named techs:

$ sudo dseditgroup -o create -n . -r "Lab Techs" techs

to be safe we will nest the admin group in the techs group so that members of admin also gain all the rights of techs:

$ sudo dseditgroup -o edit -a admin -t group techs

and add the example user beth

$ sudo dseditgroup -o edit -a beth techs

You can verify that everything worked with:

$ sudo dseditgroup -o read techs
dsAttrTypeStandard:GeneratedUID -
dsAttrTypeStandard:RecordName -
dsAttrTypeStandard:AppleMetaNodeLocation -
dsAttrTypeStandard:GroupMembers -
dsAttrTypeStandard:PrimaryGroupID -
dsAttrTypeStandard:NestedGroups -
dsAttrTypeStandard:RealName -
        Lab Techs
dsAttrTypeStandard:GroupMembership -
dsAttrTypeStandard:RecordType -

Now we can assign this group to a right. Our example will be the system.preferences.energysaver right. First export it to a property list file:

$ security authorizationdb read system.preferences.energysaver > energysaver.plist
YES (0)

Then change the value of the group key in the property list file to techs:

$ /usr/libexec/PlistBuddy -c "set group techs" energysaver.plist

If you want to learn more about working with property list files, I have written a book on it: ‘Property Lists, Preferences and Profiles for Apple Administrators’

And re-import the modified property list to the authorization database:

$ sudo security authorizationdb write system.preferences.energysaver < energysaver.plist

This alone is not sufficient to unlock the Energy Saver preference pane. When you look at the log with command from above, you can see that unlocking the energy saver pane requires the system.preferences right as well. You can modify this the same way:

$ security authorizationdb read system.preferences > system.preferences.plist
YES (0)
$ /usr/libexec/PlistBuddy -c "set group techs" system.preferences.plist
$ security authorizationdb write system.preferences < system.preferences.plist


When scripting this setup you do not have to go through the export/import cycle but can directly import a prepared property list file or here doc:


There are many levels of access privileges in macOS. Most of them are controlled by different users and groups.

The super userroot exists on macOS like any other unix, but logging in as root is disabled by default as a security measure. The sudo command allows for interactive super user privileges in a shell. There are other ways administration scripts can be launched with super user privileges, such as LaunchDaemons, management systems etc.

The authorization database controls access to elevated rights in the macOS UI. You can modify it as an admin, but should do so with care.

Demystifying root on macOS: Conclusion

This ends my series on the super user in macOS. I hope it clarifies some confusing terms and configurations. As admins we have to use these privileges regularly. But, as the saying goes: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Understanding how things work and how they affect the system will help you understand what to do when and how to avoid unexpected consequences.

Demystifying `root` on macOS, Part 3 — `root` and Scripting

sudo is very useful when working interactively in the shell. However, when you are scripting workflows then you don’t want to encounter the interactive prompt for authentication.

sudo in Scripts

You will write scripts that require root privileges to perform their tasks. Many novice scripters will simply add the sudo command to their scripts. For example:



echo "Setting Time Server to: $timeserver"

# note: sudo is superfluous
sudo systemsetup -setnetworktimeserver "$timeserver"
sudo systemsetup -setusingnetworktime on

When you invoke this script from the command line, it will actually work as expected, since the first sudo will prompt the password and the second sudo will use the cached credentials.

In many cases where the script already has root privileges, it will work also, because sudo when run as root will not prompt for authorization again.

However, when this script is sent with Remote Desktop or run in a different context without user interaction to authorize sudo, the script will stall and eventually fail.

In most contexts, the scripts should already be running with root privileges so sudo in the script is not necessary.



echo "Setting Time Server to: $timeserver"

systemsetup -setnetworktimeserver "$timeserver"
systemsetup -setusingnetworktime on

You should not use sudo in your management scripts. When commands inside a script require root privileges, you should invoke the entire script with sudo:

$ sudo ./

or you deploy and execute the script through other methods that provide root privileges. (Remote Desktop: run as user root, installation scripts, LaunchDaemons, management systems, etc.)

Testing for root Privileges in Scripts

When you write scripts that require root privileges, you may want to test whether it is actually running as root early in the script or exit gracefully with an error or warning. As usual with Unix, there are many ways to achieve this, but the recommended one is to check the EUID (effective user id) environment variable. For the root user the EUID is 0.


# test if root
if [[ $EUID -ne 0 ]]; then
    >&2 echo "script requires super user privileges, exiting..."
    exit 1

# continue with important things here
echo "I am root"

Running a Process as Another User

Most administrator scripts are run in a context where they run with super user privileges. Often they require root privileges.

On the other hand, when you need to affect settings or processes in a user’s context or login session, you may need to run commands as a specific user from a script running as root. It’s the opposite problem of gaining root privileges.

You can use sudo -u user command or su user -c command to run a command as a different user. However, the launchd man page warns us:

On Darwin platforms, a user environment includes a specific Mach boot strap subset, audit session and other characteristics not recognized by POSIX. Therefore, making the appropriate setuid(2) and setgid(2) system calls is not sufficient to completely assume the identity for a given user. Running a service as a launchd agent or a per-user XPC service is the only way to run a process with a complete identity of that user.

So it is safest use the Darwin/macOS native mechanism to launch a process as another user. Enter launchctl. You can use the the launchctl asuser verb to execute a script or command as a different user.

uid=$(id -u "$username")
launchctl asuser "$uid" /path/to/command arguments

The launchctl command takes a user’s numerical ID or UID rather than the short name as an argument. You can get a user’s UID with the id -u username command.

Note that launchctl asuser does not launch the command in the context of a new shell environment. You cannot rely on environment variables being set in that context. This is especially relevant for the PATH.

Note also that the asuser verb of launchctl is listed among the deprecated functions of launchctl. However, there is no replacement for the functionality yet.

Getting the Current User

Most of the time you will not know which user you need to run as, when you write a script, but need to run as the ‘currently logged in user’. There are many unix-y ways of determining the current user. However, once again there are edge cases in macOS where some of the traditional methods fail. (Mainly concerning Fast User Switching)

The ‘official’, method is to use the SystemConfiguration framework, and from a script this is easiest from within python:

loggedInUser=$(/usr/bin/python -c 'from SystemConfiguration import SCDynamicStoreCopyConsoleUser; import sys; username = (SCDynamicStoreCopyConsoleUser(None, None, None) or [None])[0]; username = [username,""][username in [u"loginwindow", None, u""]]; sys.stdout.write(username + "\n");')

(Enduring thanks to ‘macmule’ who documented this years ago.)

This will return the currently active user, even when multiple users are logged in with Fast User Switching. When no user is logged and the system is logging in the value returned will be "". Your scripts have to cover this case as well.

You can use this code snippet as a template:

# get the current user
loggedInUser=$(/usr/bin/python -c 'from SystemConfiguration import SCDynamicStoreCopyConsoleUser; import sys; username = (SCDynamicStoreCopyConsoleUser(None, None, None) or [None])[0]; username = [username,""][username in [u"loginwindow", None, u""]]; sys.stdout.write(username + "\n");')

# test if a user is logged in
if [[ $loggedInUser != "" ]]; then
    # get the uid
    uid=$(id -u "$loggedInUser")
    # do what you need to do
    launchctl asuser "$uid" /path/to/command arguments


AppleScript has a special function when invoking shell commands for gaining super user privileges. When you run a shell command from AppleScript with the do shell script command you can add with administrator privileges to have the script prompt for admin user authentication and run the command as root:

do shell script "whoami"
do shell script "whoami" with administrator privileges

Will run like this:

    do shell script "whoami"
       --> "armin"
    do shell script "whoami" with administrator privileges
     --> "root"

Like with sudo the credentials for the first command run with administrator privileges will also be cached, so you will not get mulitple prompts, unless the script runs for a long time.

This is useful for providing tools and workflows from within AppleScript for interactive use. However, as with sudo you have to keep in mind that some contexts in which a script may be run does not allow for user interaction and then you have to find other means of elevating privileges.

AppleScript is often used to communicate with other applications and/or the user interface. However, when run with root privileges AppleScripts are often prohibited from connecting to other process or present user interface, such as dialogs. When you really need to do this, you have to use launchctl asuser to change the user the script is run as:

launchctl asuser "$uid" /usr/bin/osascript -e 'display dialog "Do you really want to do this?"

Beyond the Shell

sudo allows you to gain super user privileges from the interactive shell. LaunchDaemons, installer Packages, management systems and other tools will run scripts as root when required. This covers many cases where administrators need to influence the system on macOS.

However, for most users, macOS is exclusively the graphical interface. Users can authorize to perform certain tasks when they are administrator users, like unlocking a Preference Pane or running an installer package.

These tasks are not controlled by sudo but by a separate mechanism. The data for that mechanism is stored in the authorization database, which we will cover in the next post.

Demystifying `root` on macOS, Part 2 — The `sudo` Command

As mentioned before, the recommended way of gaining super user privileges from the command line in macOS is the sudo command. The name means ‘super user do’ and will perform the following command with root privileges after verifying the user running sudo has the permission to do so.

How sudo works

sudo allows a user to execute a command with super user privileges, without needing to authenticate as the super user. The user has to authenticate as themself, however, and the sudo will check whether the user is authorized to use sudo.

For example, you want to run a command that requires super user privileges:

$ systemsetup -getremotelogin
You need administrator access to run this tool... exiting!

You can then repeat the command with sudo to run it with temporary super user privileges.

$ sudo systemsetup -getremotelogin
Remote Login: On

On macOS, administator users are allowed to use sudo.

A few notes on sudo:

  • you can type sudo !! as a short cut for ‘repeat the last command with sudo’. More details on this in my post “On Bash History Substitution”.
  • the first time you run sudo with an account on a Mac it will show a longer dialog with a warning or ‘lecture’. (You can change the lecture.)
  • the system will prompt for your password when executing a command with sudo. However, there is a 5 minute (300 seconds) ‘grace period’ where the sudo system caches your credentials and you do not have to re-enter the password. This grace period is limited to a given shell session, so if you open a new Terminal window, you will have to re-enter the password.
  • on macOS sudo will not work if your administrator account’s password is empty: Using the sudo command in Terminal requires an administrator password
  • use of sudo is logged. You can find the log entries in the by searching for process:sudo:
armin : TTY=ttys000 ; PWD=/Users/armin ; USER=root ; COMMAND=/bin/echo "#iamroot"

sudo and the Environment

sudo runs the command in the current shell environment. The user (or effective user ID) the command is run as switches to root:

$ whoami
$ sudo whoami

The sudo environment changes some of the variables, while some will be passed through from your shell. To show this, create a short script:


echo $USER
echo $HOME
echo $EUID

and run it as yourself and then with sudo:

$ chmod +x
$ ./ 
$ sudo ./ 

Some tools might not read environment variables and determine the user environment through different means. This may lead to some tools writing data to root’s home directory instead of the current users when running with sudo.

The defaults command is one example:

$ sudo defaults write LoginHook /path/to/script
~ $ defaults read LoginHook
2018-04-16 15:09:00.378 defaults[69217:3291382] 
The domain/default pair of (, LoginHook) does not exist
~ $ sudo !!
sudo defaults read LoginHook
~ $ sudo plutil -p /var/root/Library/Preferences/
  "LoginHook" => "/path/to/script"

Note: This form of customizing login behavior in macOS is deprecated (but still works as of 10.13). LaunchAgents are the preferred method to run scripts or processes at login. (More info here.) If you find yourself building custom LaunchAgents and LaunchDaemons frequently, you need to check out outset.

You have to be aware that running commands with sudo results in a different environment than when you run them directly.

root Shells

In most cases running a single command with sudo is sufficient. However, sometimes it can be convenient to have an interactive shell that runs with super user privileges.

There are two ways of achieving this withsudo:

When you run sudo -s it will invoke a new shell, running as root. The shell that is run is the default shell of your account. So when you have bash set as your shell (the default on macOS) you will get a bash shell running as root. Most other environment settings will remain the same:

$ sudo -s
# whoami
# echo $HOME
# echo $SHELL
# exit

Usually, the Terminal prompt is set up to change from the $ prompt to # when you are running with super user privileges, to remind you of the power you have right now and the danger you are in.

Note: learn how to configure your shell prompt.

To leave the root shell, just type exit.

Alternatively you can use sudo -i to invoke a root shell. With the -i option, the shell will be chosen from the default shell set for root user (/bin/sh on macOS) and will be set up as if the root user were logging in, ignoring your settings, like profile files etc.

$ sudo -i
Mac:~ root# whoami
Mac:~ root# echo $HOME
Mac:~ root# echo $SHELL

Note that my custom minimal shell prompt changes when I switch to root with sudo -i since it creates the root shell with the root user’s environment.

In most cases sudo -s should serve well. However, when you want to avoid any customization you might have set in your user environment and work in more pristine environment then it is good to know sudo -i exists.

sudo vs su

There is a different command which allows you to change the user: su (short for ‘switch user’). The main difference between these tools is how they verify if you are authorized to switch.

su will ask for credentials of the user you are switching to. So if you run su bob you need to have Bob’s credentials.

When you run su without a username, it assumes root. But since logging in as root is disabled by default on macOS, it will fail.

$ su
su: Sorry

sudo, on the other hand, will check its configuration files to see if your account is authorized to run the command as the given user. It asks for your credentials to verify you. You do not need the credentials of the other user, whether it is root or a different user.

Since the root account login is usually disabled on macOS, you cannot use su root - or su - to get a root shell. Use sudo -s or sudo -i instead.

sudo and Scripting

sudo is very useful when working interactively in the shell. However, when you are scripting workflows then you don’t want to encounter the interactive prompt for authentication.

We will look at strategies for privilege escalation (and the opposite) in scripts in the next post.

Demystifying `root` on macOS, Part 1

As Mac Adminstrators, we often have to deal with user privileges for files and processes. While doing that we will use administrator privileges and sudo without as much as a second thought.

However, a proper understanding of what these privileges and processes actually do and mean, can help prevent many problems when managing Macs.

Some History

macOS is based on BSD Unix, which stems back to a time where large mainframes were so expensive they had to be shared among many users. Users and their access privileges control what any user can read, write, or change in the system. These rules prevent conflicts and data loss or theft. When managing these users and their access privileges, there had to be a first, ‘top’, or ‘super user’ which has access to anything.

In Unix and Unix-like systems this user account is traditionally called root. In macOS this user is often also called ‘System Administrator’.

Classic Mac OS, in contrast, had no concept of multiple users built-in to the system. Any person sitting down at a Mac (and any process launched on that Mac) could access and change anything on that system. There were some attempts at adding multi-user functionality to classic Mac OS, but they were ‘added on, not built-in’ and fairly easy to circumvent when a user knew what to do.

User and process management was one of the main benefits Apple touted for the various ‘next generation’ systems Apple introduced in the 90s to succeed classic Mac OS. When Apple bought NeXT and with it the NeXTStep operating system it inherited the unix model of doing so.

Even though the concept of sharing your computer is now relegated to some classroom labs and supercomputer clusters, this model still is present in every macOS and iOS device today. On iOS it is completly invisible to the user, unless a jailbreak is applied. On macOS, however, users and especially admins have to deal with it every day.

Users on macOS

To create a new user on macOS you have go to the ‘Users & Groups’ Preference Pane in System Preferences. Before you can add a new user, you have to unlock the preference pane by clicking the lock icon in the lower left corner. Then the system will prompt for an username and password with adminstrative privileges.

When the account you are logged in as has admin privileges, its name will be pre-filled. When the account is a standard user the username field will be empty and you can enter another user’s name and password.

Once the pane is unlocked, you can hit the ‘+’ icon under the user and will be offered four choices for a new user (from the popup menu next to ‘New Account’:

  • Administrator
  • Standard (the default)
  • Managed with Parental Controls
  • Sharing Only

There are three types of users not present in the popup list

  • Guest
  • System Administrator
  • system services users

The difference between Administrator and Standard accounts is that Administrator accounts are members of the ‘Administrators’ or admin group. This sound simple, but membership in this group bestows many additional benefits.

In day-to-day use Administrator accounts and Standard accounts behave the same. However, there are many situations and workflows on macOS which require authenticating as an Administrator account. As a general rule, a user can affect all the files (and applications) in their home directory and in /Users/Shared, but as soon as you want to change another user, another user’s files or settings that affect all users on a system you need to authenticate as an Administrator account.

The first user created on an unmanaged Mac out of the box will always be an Adminstrator user. Most Mac users use an Administrator account. Many of the workflows built-in to macOS assume an adminstrator account. One example is setting up a new printer.

With an Administrator account you can install third party software. You can also install malicious software. Often malicious software will trick users into installing by masquerading as or hiding in an installer for something useful.

Many consider it a ‘best practice’ to run your everyday work on your Mac with a standard account and only use an administrative account when you have to. However, since you get prompted to authenticate even with an administrative account, the better advice is to take these prompts very seriously and consider what confirming this prompt will really do or install.

The only difference you get when using a standard account is that you need to enter a different username and password in an authentication box instead of just the password. If this helps you pause and consider what you are actually doing, then great! Then this is the proper workflow for you.

However, I suspect that most users would be just as non-considerate of this dialog with a separate username and password as they would otherwise.

macOS Administrator Accounts

The only difference between Adminstrator accounts and Standard accounts is the membership of the admins group.

You can check whether a given user is a member of the admin group with the dseditgroup tool:

$ dseditgroup -o checkmember -u armin admin
yes armin is a member of admin

You can also use this tool to add or remove a user from the admin group:

$ dseditgroup -o edit -n . -a username -t user admin    # add username
$ dseditgroup -o edit -n . -d username -t user admin    # delete username

This membership comes with many privileges. Admin users can (after authentication):

  • unlock System Preferences and change system settings
  • install Apple and third party software and installer packages
  • create, change, and delete files owned by other users
  • change access privileges and ownership of files of folders in Finder
  • run and stop (kill) processes owned by other users
  • use sudo in Terminal

and many things more.

On macOS these privileges are controlled mainly by two mechanisms:

  • sudo and the sudoers file
  • the authorization database

sudo is used to gain root privileges in the shell (Terminal). The authorization database controls access privileges everywhere else.

What root can do

The ‘System Administrator’ or the root account controls the system. Mainly the root account can read, update, delete all local user accounts. It can control file and folder privileges and ownership. It can start system services running in the background and assign system network ports (with a port number lower than 1000). Most of this is managed by a process called launchd which is the first process to run on macOS.

Many commands require to be run as root or with elevated root privileges.

What root cannot do: System Integrity Protection (SIP)

On macOS, however, there are limits to what the root account can do. System Integrity Protection is a mechanism which protects important parts of the OS from mnodification, even with root permissions.

Only certain processes signed by Apple are allowed to modify these protected files and directories. Usually this means Apple signed installer pkgs for software and security updates.

Apple Support: About System Integrity Protection on your Mac

Apple lists a set of top-level directories that are protected. However, the list is a bit more detailed. You can use the -O (capital letter ‘O’, not a zero) to see if a file or directory is protected by SIP:

$ ls -lO /usr/
total 0
drwxr-xr-x  978 root  wheel  restricted 31296 Mar 30 18:21 bin
drwxr-xr-x  294 root  wheel  restricted  9408 Mar 30 18:21 lib
drwxr-xr-x  238 root  wheel  restricted  7616 Mar 30 18:21 libexec
drwxr-xr-x    8 root  wheel  sunlnk       256 Dec 28 13:48 local
drwxr-xr-x  248 root  wheel  restricted  7936 Mar 30 18:21 sbin
drwxr-xr-x   46 root  wheel  restricted  1472 Mar 30 18:21 share
drwxr-xr-x    5 root  wheel  restricted   160 Oct  3  2017 standalone

Files and Folders marked with restricted are protected by SIP. Sometimes folders inside a protected folder may not be protected, as the /usr/local/ directory in this example is.

SIP provides more protection than just certain parts of the file system, it also protects changing the boot volume and some other aspects of the OS.

While these limitations on even the root account can be annoying, they provide a level of security that parts of the OS have not been tampered with or changed by other software.

Enabling (and Disabling) root

On macOS the root account exists with a UID of ‘0’. However, it is set up so you cannot log in to a Mac as ‘System Administrator’ or root. (A terrible bug in early 10.13 provided a brief exeception to that rule.)

Note: login as root is disabled for security purposes. It is highly recommended that you leave the root account disabled on macOS and rely on sudo to gain temporary super user privileges when necessary.

If, for some reason, you do need to log in as root, then you can enable the root and provide it with a password. You can do so in either the ‘Directory Utility’ application. After unlocking with your administrator password, you choose ‘Enable Root User’ from the ‘Edit’ menu. You can also change the root account’s password here or disable it again later.

Apple Support: How to enable the root user on your Mac or change your root password

From the command line, you can also use the dsenableroot command:

$ dsenableroot

will enable and/or update the root account. It will interactively ask for admin credentials and for a new password for the root account. Read the command’s man page for details.

$ dsenableroot -d

will interactively disable the root account again.

Becoming root

Different environments and tools have different means of gaining super user or root privileges. While the sudo command should be the preferred means of gaining temporary super user privileges, it is important to know and understand the other options.


Scripts and tools executed from LaunchDaemons run as root unless a different user is specified in the UserName key in launchd property list.

LaunchAgents on the other hand will be executed as the user logging in.

You can get details on how to set up and use LaunchDaemons here.

Run as root in ARD

When you prepare a ‘UNIX command’ to be sent to remote computers in Apple Remote Desktop, you have the option of running the command as the currently logged in user or as a specific user. When you specify root as the user, the script will execute with super user privileges. Since the ARD agent process runs as root on the client, no extra authentication or enabled root account is necessary.

Management Systems

The agent software of most management systems (Jamf, Munki, etc.) is installed to run with root privileges. Therefore, scripts executed by management systems run with root privileges as well.

Installation Scripts

Installation packages also perform their task with root privileges. They also require administrator authentication to start. Any installation scripts (pre-/postinstall scripts) will also run with root privileges.

set-UID bits

There is a special bit you can set on an executable’s mode (or privileges) which tells the system to run this script as the file owner, no matter who actually runs the executable. If the executable file is owned by root it will run with root privileges.

This flag is the “set-user-ID-on-execution bit”, also called the “Set-User-ID”-bit or just “s-bit”.

In the long ls format or with the stat command the set-user-ID bit is shown as an ‘s’ in place of the user’s x bit. One example is the ps command:

$ stat -l /bin/ps
-rwsr-xr-x 1 root wheel 51200 00:57 /bin/ps

Use chmod's u+s to set the set-user-ID bit and u-s to remove it:

$ chmod +x importantcommand [rwxr-xr-x]
$ chmod u+s importantcommand    [rwsr-xr-x]
$ chmod u-s importantcommand    [rwxr-xr-x]

Warning: Obviously it is very important that this executable is not modifiable by other users. They would be able to replace the command with their own code and execute anything with root privileges. Most system commands that have the s-bit set on macOS are protected with SIP.

The sudo command

As mentioned before, the recommended way of gaining super user privileges from the command line in macOS is the sudo command. The name means ‘super user do’ and will perform the following command with root privileges after verifying the user running sudo has the permission to do so.

We will look at the sudo command in detail in the next post.

Installing and Using Command Line Tools

There are many command line tools and scripts you can download and install that are very useful for Mac Admins.

(Just a representative list, certainly not complete.)

Some of these tools provide installer packages that deploy the tool in the proper directory – usually /usr/local/bin so that you and other users can use it. (/usr/local/bin is in the macOS default PATH.)

However, many of these tools, such as munkipkg or my own quickpkg just come as a git project folder, with no or few instructions to get it set up. The assumption is, that when you use these tools you are familiar enough with the shell to make them work.

There are actually several approaches to getting these tools to actually work for you, most with different upsides and downsides. This post will talk about a few of them.

Getting the Tool

Before you can choose a method to run the tool, you need to get it. Many admins share their scripts and tools through a hosted service like Github. My quickpkg tool, for example, is a python script hosted as an open Github repository.When you follow that link you will see the main project page. The page has a menu area up top, a file list in the middle and below an area where an introduction to the project (the ReadMe file) is shown. It is worth to read the ReadMe in case they have special installation instructions.

Download the Release

Git is a version management tool that lets you track changes throughout the coding process. Github is one popular service to host these projects online. Contributors of a project have the option of marking steps of the project as a ‘release.’ Releases are considered a tested and stable stop in between less reliable developmental steps.

Releases will be shown in the project’s ‘releases’ page (link in the middle of the page, above the file list). (quickpkg releases page

On the releases page you will see a list of releases with the newest on top. At the very least each release will have a snapshot of the project’s code as a zip or tar.gz archive. Some projects provide other archives or installers such as dmg or pkg as well.

Download the Current Project

Some projects do not manage releases. (You will see ‘0 releases’ in the tool bar.) Then you can still download the most recent version of the project. There is a large green ‘Clone or download’ button on the right area above the project’s file list for this. When you click that button it will expand to show some more options.

‘Download ZIP’ will simply download an archive of the current state of project, much like the release download would.

When you download the archives, either through the releases page or from the ‘Download ZIP’ button, the resulting project folder will not be connected with the Github project any more. If you just want to use the current version, then that is fine and will serve you well. If you want an updated version in the future you will simply download the newer version and replace the tool you already have.

If you rather use git to download and manage the code, then you can do that here, too. However, that is a topic for another post.

Using the Tool

However you get the project you will now have a directory with the tool and any supporting files. You can already change directory to this folder in Terminal (drag the folder on to the Terminal icon to open a new Terminal already changed to it) and run the tool directly:

$ cd ~/Projects/quickpkg/
$ ./quickpkg
usage: quickpkg [-h] [--scripts SCRIPTS] [--preinstall PREINSTALL]
                [--postinstall POSTINSTALL]
                [--ownership {recommended,preserve,preserve-other}]
                [--output OUTPUT] [--clean] [--no-clean] [--relocatable]
                [--no-relocatable] [--sign SIGN] [--keychain KEYCHAIN]
                [--cert CERT] [-v] [--version]
quickpkg: error: too few arguments
This will do for tools that you use rarely. But for tools that you want to use frequently typing the path to the tool is quite cumbersome.

Put it in the PATH

The PATH environment variable lists the directories where the shell looks for commands. You could add the project directory of the tool you just added to the PATH, but that would be tedious to manage.

An easier solution is to copy the tool to /usr/local/bin. This is the designated directory for custom commands. /usr/local/bin is also in the default macOS PATH.

However, copying the tool has some downsides. When the tool get’s updated you will have to copy the newer version, as well. Also some tools may require additional resources or libraries that reside in its project directory.

Instead of moving the tool, you can create a symbolic link to the tool in /usr/local/bin.

I keep the project folders of tools in ~/Projects so I use the command:

$ sudo ln -s ~/Projects/quickpkg/quickpkg /usr/local/bin
$ ls -al /usr/local/bin/quickpkg 
lrwxr-xr-x  1 root  wheel /usr/local/bin/quickpkg -> /Users/armin/Projects/quickpkg/quickpkg
Since symbolic links use paths, this has the advantage that when you download a newer version of the project to the same location, the link will point to the new version.

Putting links to a tool in /usr/local/bin has a few downsides (or upsides, depending on your perspective):

  • you need to have administrator privileges to change /usr/local/binlinks/tools you add to /usr/local/bin affect all users on that Mac

Set your own PATH

When you want to have the tools only affect your shell environment you need to do a bit more work.

First you need to choose a location where you tools or links should live. I have created a directory ~/bin for that purpose.

$ mkdir ~/bin
When you don’t want anyone else on the Mac to see what you are doing in that directory, you can remove everyone else’s access to it:
$ chmod 700 ~/bin
If you want you can also hide the directory in the Finder:
$ chflags hidden ~/bin
(Use the same command with nohidden to make Finder show it again.)

(To test the following properly, you need to delete the symbolic link we created earlier in /usr/local/bin. If that still exists the shell will use that, since it comes earlier in the PATH.)

You can create a symbolic link to the in ~/bin with

$ ln -s ~/Projects/quickpkg/quickpkg ~/bin
However, these still will not work, since we need to add the ~/bin directory to your personal PATH.

To do that you need to add this line to your ~/.bash_profile or ~/.bashrc:

export PATH=$PATH:~/bin
(Read more about how to create a bash profile here and here. This assumes you are using bash, the default on macOS. Other shells will have other locations where you can change environment variables.)

Then open a new Terminal window or type source ~/.bash_profile so that the new profile is loaded in the current window and try running the command.


Single Brackets vs Double Brackets

In my recent post I mentioned in passing, that you should be using double brackets [[…]] for tests in bash instead of single brackets.

This is the post where I explain why. I also talked about this briefly in my MacSysAdmin session: Scripting Bash

Double Brackets are a bashism

Double brackets were originally introduced in ksh and later adopted by bash and other shells. To use double brackets your shebang should be #!/bin/bash not #!/bin/sh.

Since sh on macOS is bash pretending to be sh, double brackets will still work with the wrong shebang, but then your script might break on other platforms where a different shell might be pretending to be sh. Consistent behavior across platforms is the main point why sh is still around, so don’t use double brackets in sh (or use bash to use double brackets).

I go into detail on why to use bash over sh in this post: On the Shebang

Side note on syntax

In shell scripts you usually use tests in if or while clauses. These are tedious to write in the interactive shell. The ‘and’ operator && will execute the following statement only if the preceding statement returns 0 (success). So you can use && to write simple if … then … clauses in a single line.

if [ -d Documents ]
    echo "found docs"


[ -d Documents ] && echo "found docs"

have the same effect. The second is much shorter, but as soon as the test or the command gets more complex you should revert to the longer syntax.

Alternatively, the ‘or’ operator || will only execute the following statement when the previous statement returns non-zero or fails:

[ -d Documents ] || echo "no docs"

is the same as

if [ ! -d Documents ]
    echo "no docs"

What’s wrong with the single brackets?

The single bracket [ is actually a command. It has the same functionality as the test command, except that the last argument needs to be the closing square bracket ]

$ [ -d Documents && echo "found docs"
-bash: [: missing `]'
~ $ [ -d Documents ] && echo "found docs"
found docs
$ test -d Documents  && echo "found docs"
found docs

Note: in bash on macoS both test and [ are built-in commands, but as usual for built-in commands there are also executables /bin/test and /bin/[.

A single bracket test will fail when one of its arguments is empty and gets substituted to nothing:

$ a="abc"
$ b="xyz"
$ [ $a = $b ] || echo "unequal"
$ unset a
$ [ $a = $b ] || echo "unequal"
-bash: [: =: unary operator expected

You can prevent this error by quoting the variables (always a prudent solution).

$ [ "$a" = "$b" ] || echo "unequal"

Double brackets in bash are not a command but a part of the language syntax. This means they can react more tolerantly to ‘disappearing’ arguments:

$ [[ $a = $b ]] || echo "unequal"

You will also get an error if one of the arguments is substituted with a value with whitespace with single brackets, while double brackets can deal with this.

$ a="a"
$ b="a space"
$ [ $a = $b ] || echo "unequal"
-bash: [: too many arguments
$ [[ $a = $b ]] || echo "unequal"

Note: the = operator in sh and bash is for string comparison. To compare numerical values you need to use the -eq (equals), -ne (not equals), -gt (greater than), -ge (greater than or equal), -lt (less than), -le (less than or equal) operators. With double brackets you can also use two equals characters == for a more C like syntax. (or, better, use ((…)) syntax for arithmetic expressions)

Also, when using the = to assign variables, you cannot have spaces before and after the =, while the spaces are required for the comparison operator (both with single and double brackets):

a="a"           # no spaces
b="b"           # no spaces
[ "$a" = "$b" ] # spaces!
[[ $a = $b ]]   # spaces!

Since the single bracket is a command, many characters it uses for its arguments need to be escaped to work properly:

$ [ ( "$a" = "$b" ) -o ( "$a" = "$c" ) ]
-bash: syntax error near unexpected token `"$a"'
$ [ \( "$a" = "$b" \) -o \( "$a" = "$c" \) ]

You could alternatively split this example into two tests: [ "$a" = "$b" ] || [ "$a" = "$c" ].

Double brackets interpret these characters properly. You can also use the (again more C like) && and || operators instead of -a and -o.

 [[ ( $a = $b ) || ( $a = $c ) ]]

In general, you can work around most of the issues with single bracket syntax, but the double bracket syntax is more straight forward and hence more legible and easier to type.

Double bracket features

Aside from the cleaner syntax, there are a few ‘bonus’ features you gain with double brackets.

With double brackets you can compare to * and ? wildcards, and bracket globbing […]:

$ a="Documents"
$ [[ $a = D* ]] && echo match
$ a=hat
$ [[ $a = ?at ]] && echo match
$ [[ $a = [chrp]at ]] && echo match

You can also use < and > to compare strings lexicographically:

$ a=cat
$ b=hat
$ [[ $a < $b ]] && echo sorted

And you get an operator =~ for regular expressions:

$ a=cat
$ b="the cat in the hat"
$ [[ $a =~ ^.at ]] && echo match
$ [[ $b =~ ^.at ]] && echo match

Note that you should not quote the globbing patterns or the regex pattern.


  • you should use bash for shell scripting on macOS
  • when using bash, you should use double brackets instead of single brackets
  • double brackets are safer, easier to type and read, and also add few neat features

On the macOS Version

In many administration scripts, you need to check the version of macOS, to make sure you don’t try to access features that are not present on other versions.

Getting the Version

On macOS you can get details on the version of the currently running system with the sw_vers command:

$ sw_vers
ProductName:    Mac OS X
ProductVersion: 10.13.1
BuildVersion:   17B48

You can add the -productVersion argument to get just the product version number:

$ sw_vers -productVersion

The first part of the version number (“major” version) is always 10 (so far). The second part (“minor” version) denotes the version of macOS (11: El Capitan, 12: Sierra, 13: High Sierra, etc.) and the third (“patch” or update version) the update number. (Useful list of macOS versions and names on Wikipedia.)

Note: because the first part of the version for macOS is always 10, some call the second number the major version of macOS and the third the minor version. It does not really matter as long as you are explicit what you mean and remain consistent. Documentation in code helps avoid confusion.

You can test for a specific version with string comparison:

if [[ $(sw_vers -productName) == "10.12.6" ]]; then
    echo "Sierra"

This will get tedious when you need to check for many patch versions. The [[ operator let’s you use the asterisk * as a wildcard in string comparisons:

os_ver=$(sw_vers -productVersion)
if [[ "$os_ver" == 10.13.* ]]; then
    echo "macOS High Sierra"
elif [[ "$os_ver" == 10.12.* ]]; then
    echo "macOS Sierra"
    echo "(Mac) OS X something"

But even that can get tedious when you have a range of minor versions. Often you want to check for the minor version to be higher than a certain number (i.e. “Mavericks and later”)

Splitting the Version

You could split the version into its parts with awk:

echo "minor version:" $(sw_vers -productVersion | awk -F. '{ print $2; }')
echo "patch version:" $(sw_vers -productVersion | awk -F. '{ print $3; }')

This works well, but is a bit unwieldly.

You can also split the version string into a bash array:

os_ver=$(sw_vers -productVersion)

IFS='.' read -r -a ver <<< "$os_ver"

echo "minor version: ${ver[1]}"
echo "patch version: ${ver[2]}"

The read command splits the string into a bash array with the periods as a separator. There is a lot going in this command, so let’s have a look at the pieces.

First we assign the ‘.’ to the IFS environment variable. Characters in the IFS (“Internal Field Separator”) variable are used by bash to split strings into their pieces. The normal IFS variable consists of the whitespace characters: space, tab and newline. However, we want to change this so that the read command splits at the periods in our version string. This syntax with the variable assignment directly followed by the command without a separator tells bash to change the IFS variable just for the next command. This way the standard IFS variable is not affected.

The read command splits the input into an array and assigns it to the ver variable. Then we can get the elements in the ver array using the ${ver[index]} notation. (bash arrays are zero-indexed, so the first element ${ver[0]} will always be 10.

Once you have split out the parts of the version string, you can then use them for numerical comparisons:

if [[ "${ver[1]}" -ge 9 ]]; then
    echo "somewhere in California"
elif [[ "${ver[1]}" -ge 2 ]]; then
    echo "officially a feline"
    echo "secretly a feline"

Get the macOS version from other Volumes

The sw_vers command only show the version for the currently booted system. System administrators often need to know the version of the OS installed on a different volume. Usually this happens in the context of installations. In installation scripts the installer system will pass the path to the target volume as the third argument $3.

Learn all about installer packages and installation scripts, read my book “Packaging for Apple Administrators

On macOS the system version information is also stored in a property list file in /System/Library/CoreServices.plist. In an installation script (postinstall or preinstall you can get the target system with:

/usr/libexec/PlistBuddy -c "print :ProductVersion" "$3"/System/Library/CoreServices/SystemVersion.plist

Learn all about PlistBuddy and Property Lists in my book “Property Lists, Preferences and Profiles for Apple Administrators

macOS Installer applications have the version of macOS that will be installed in yet a different file. Tim Sutton has already documented this here.

Other Application’s versions

Obviously, you can use this approach on other version numbers as long as they follow the scheme of “numbers separated by dots.” (Not all applications do.)

To get the version of a macOS application you can read the CFBundleShortVersionString from the Info.plist file in the app bundle:

/usr/libexec/PlistBuddy -c "print :CFBundleShortVersionString" /Applications/

Some applications do not have a CFBundleShortVersionString and then you should fall back to the CFBundleVersion key.

appVersion=$(/usr/libexec/PlistBuddy -c "print :CFBundleShortVersionString" "$infoPath")
if [[ -z "$appVersion" ]]; then
    appVersion=$(/usr/libexec/PlistBuddy -c "print :CFBundleVersion" "$infoPath")

Build Number

Note: update this section, because I got few things wrong. Thanks to the participants of this Slack discussion.

Aside from the numerical version number or product version, macOS also has a build number, which follows a different schema. The first part is a number which matches the “Darwin version” of macOS. Mac OS X 10.0 had a Darwin version of 4 and that number has increased with every version of Mac OS X. Currently, macOS High Sierra 10.13 has a Darwin version of 17. Then follows a single capital letter, with A being the first release of a version (i.e the 10.x.0 version), B is the first patch update (10.x.1) and so on.).

Finally the last number is the build number. The build number usually incremented during Apple internal development. You can see the build number increasing during beta releases.

However, sometimes Apple will release hardware specific versions of macOS which usually have four digit build numbers (usually starting with a 2). Also security updates and other “unexpected updates” can change the build number (usually to four digits starting with a 1) without changing the numerical version number.

Sometimes there might be an a appended to the build number. This means that there was an update to the installer, but not the code inside the installer. This frequently (but not exclusively) happens during the beta phase.

Thanks to Elliot Jordan we have a great info graphic!

Because of this it can also be useful to parse the build number out of the build version. Since the first two parts of the build version are directly mapped to the numerical version, we are only interested in the number:

build_ver=$(sw_vers -buildVersion)
if [[ "${ver[1]}" -le 5 ]]; then # 10.5 was darwin 9, 10.6 darwin 10
    build_number="${build_ver:3}" # ignore first two characters
    build_number="${build_ver:4}" # ignore first three characters

if [[ ${build_number: -1} == 'a' ]]; then 

echo "build number: $build_number"

You can get all this code in a sample script I posted on gist.

On the Shebang

Every script you want to run from the command line should have a shebang as the first line.

Note: I talked about this in my MacSysAdmin talk. I wanted to go into more detail here.

You can have scripts without the shebang. In this case the shell that you launch the script from will be used to interpret the script. This can, obviously, lead to complications, on other systems or with other users.

A shebang looks like this:


The eponymous first two characters of the shebang are #! (hashbang or shebang). These two characters form a ‘magic number.’ Files are usually identified by certain codes (i.e. magic numbers) in the first few bytes of data. The hex code 23 21 converts to the ascii characters #! and tells the system that a file is script.

After the shebang comes the command that should interpret the script (the interpreter). This is either a shell, as in #!/bin/sh or #!/bin/bash or another interpreter, for example #!/usr/bin/python or #!/usr/bin/osascript. Generally, any command that can interpret text files or streams can be used in the shebang.

Since the status or value of the PATH variable is not guaranteed or certain in many contexts that scripts can be run in, the path after the shebang needs to be absolute.

The env shebang

There are environments where you cannot predict the absolute path of a given tool. For example the bash v3.2 shell on macOS is installed by default in /bin/bash. Users can also download and install bash version 4.4 onto their computers. The location for the the bash 4 binary is usually at /usr/local/bin/bash (this might be different depending on the installation method you used). Since /usr/local/bin is the first item of the default PATH on macOS the newer bash 4 will be chosen before the built-in bash 3.2 when the user types bash into their shell.

When you use the absoute path to /bin/bash in a shebang, you are ensuring that the macOS provided built-in version of bash will be used. For macOS system administrators, this should be the preferred shebang, since it provides a known, certain environment.

However, there are cases where you want scripts to be run with the user’s preferred tool, rather than a set path. You may also want your script to be able to on multiple different unix (and unix-like) systems where the location of the bash binary can be unpredictable. In this case you can use the /usr/bin/env tool as the shebang with bash (or another interpreter) as the parameter:

#!/usr/bin/env bash

This shebang means: “determine the preferred bash tool in the user’s environment and use that to interpret the script.”

Note: obviously this also presumes the absolute path to the /usr/bin/env. However, most unix and unix-like system seem to agree here.

Shebang Arguments

The shebang line can take a single argument. For weird syntactic reasons the entire line after the interpreter path is passed as a single argument to the interpreter tool.

So a shebang line that looks like this:

#!/bin/bash -x

will be executed like this:

/bin/bash "-x" /path/to/script

But if you added another variable to the shebang:

#!/bin/bash -x -e

then it would be executed as

/bin/bash/ "-x -e" /path/to/script

where "-x -e" is a single argument, making bash choke.

Some tools (like env) that are regularly used in shebangs are able to split the single argument. bash is not one of them. Read a tool’s man page and documentation and test. In general it is considered bad style to add arguments or options to the shebang.

Note: with bash you can also set these options in the script with the set command:

set -x
set -e

bash versus sh

Many Unix and unix-like systems have sh as well as bash and other shells available. sh goes back to the very early UNIX shells in the seventies. sh has survived because it serves as the lowest common standard for shell scripting. These standards are defined in the POSIX specification, though POSIX defines more than just shell scripting.

When you have to build scripts that need to run across many different flavors and versions of Unix and Linux, where you cannot rely on bash being present, then conforming to POSIX and sh might be necessary.

Note: bash is also POSIX compliant, but it has more features. When you script against sh you ensure you don’t use any of those additional features.

However, as macOS administrators, we can rely on a larger ‘common’ set. bash has been present on macOS since Mac OS X 10.0 (and earlier incarnations in NeXTSTEP). bash gives you several extra features over plain sh such as better testing with the double square bracket, ‘here documents’, parameter substitution and arrays.

As a macOS system administrator you should leverage these and always choose /bin/bash over /bin/sh.

bash versus Other Shells

The argument that bash is better than sh works for other shells as well. You can make a very good argument that other shells are better than bash, or at the very least bash version 3 included in macOS. I often hear this with zsh, so I will be using zsh as an example, but the arguments work with other shells as well.

(You can find a very good comparison of different shells here.)

zsh and other shells have many features that bash 3 (and even 4) lacks. There are two main reasons I would still recommend bash for scripting:

  • most script examples and shared code is written in bash so you need to be proficient in bash anyway (and know the quirks of bash)
  • the zsh is not included on the macOS Recovery System or other macOS installation environments, so you cannot write post-installation scripts for these contexts in zshwhen you do reach the limitations of bash for scripting, other languages such as Python and Swift are even more useful and powerful on macOS than zsh, so the step up from bash should not be another shell, but a different scripting language entirely

Interactive shell versus shell scripting

While I argue that that other shells don’t have that much edge on bash for scripting, they certainly do have an edge on bash in some of their interactive and customization features.

Two of the more interesting interactive shells for macOS are zsh and fish.

The good news here is that you can set one shell for interactive use, and still continue using and writing bash scripts and get the best of both worlds.

The default interactive shell is set in your user record, you can change this in the ‘Advanced Options’ in the Users & Groups preference pane, or with chsh command:

$ chsh -s /bin/zsh
Changing shell for armin.
Password for armin: 
The shell that interprets a script is, of course, set with the shebang.


  • the first line in a shell script starts with a shebang #! and tells the system which tool interprets the script
  • env should only be used in the shebang when the script needs to run in environments where you cannot predict the location of the actual interpreter. For admins this introduces an extra level of uncertainty
  • macOS administrators should use /bin/bash as the shebang
  • the ‘step up’ from bash scripting should be a more complex language with native macOS API access such as Python or Swift
  • you can use one shell for interactive Terminal work and another for scripting

On Distribution Packages

Distribution packages are a special format of installer packages. Distribution packages can contain one or more normal or component packages. They can also contain extra resources to customize and control the user interface in the Installer application.

In most cases administrators prefer component packages since they are easier to create and maintain. However, there are a few cases where distribution packages are necessary:

  • add a package to a custom installation in NetInstall, AutoDMG or a system installer created with createOSXinstallPkg
  • combine multiple component pkgs into a single installer
  • restrict hardware and system requirements
  • modify the interface presented in
  • push the package with MDM’s InstallApplication command

Building Distribution Packages

You can easily convert an existing component package, built with pkgbuild to a distribution package with the productbuild command:

$ productbuild --package component.pkg dist.pkg

You can also combine multiple components into a single distribution package:

$ productbuild --package A.pkg --package B.pkg combined.pkg

You can add the --sign option to the productbuild command when the distribution package needs to be signed:

$ productbuild --sign "Installer: Armin" --package component.pkg dist.pkg

You can find valid identities with

$ security find-identity -p basic -v

The string you pass with the --sign parameter can be a partial match to the full identity name.

Note: munkipkg has a flag to build a distribitution package instead of a component package.

Extracting Component Installers from Distribution Packages

Sometimes you may want to extract a component installer pkg from a distribution package.

First you need to expand the distribution pkg with pkgutil:

$ pkgutil --expand dist.pkg dist_expanded

When you use the --expand option on a distribution package, components will also be expanded into subfolders that end in .pkg. Because of this Finder will erroneously display them as installer bundle files. This is misleading, since the components are not functional in this form.

When you want to use the component package without any modifications, you can quickly recompress or ‘flatten’ the expanded component:

$ pkgutil --flatten dist_expanded/component.pkg component.pkg

The process of expanding and flattening a component will of course remove any signature the original pkg might have had. You can re-sign the flattened package with productsign:

$ productsign --sign "Installer: Armin" component.pkg component_signed.pkg

Note: Obviously, when you are tearing a distribution package apart you need to know what you are doing. Components in a distribution package may depend on other components or on scripts and tools in other components. As always: test, test, test.

Packaging Book

You can learn more on building installer packages in my book: “Packaging for Apple Administrators”

Terminal Primer – Part 6 – Symbolic Links

Symbolic Links

When you get a detailed list of the file system root / you will see a few interesting entries: (output abbreviated)

$ ls -l /
lrwxr-xr-x@    1 root  wheel    etc -> private/etc
lrwxr-xr-x@    1 root  wheel    tmp -> private/tmp
lrwxr-xr-x@    1 root  wheel    var -> private/var

These are symbolic link files. Symbolic links are identified by the first character l on a long ls. Symbolic links are redirections to other files or directories. /etc, /tmp and /var are standard directories for certain kinds of files in Unix systems, but in this case these directories are actually located in /private.

Note: The reason for this is historical and goes back to NeXTStep. This setup could allow the /private folder to be mounted from another disk or file share separate from the rest of the system. This is not used in macOS anymore, but the directory structure remains.

Aside from the long ls you can use the readlink command to determine where a symbolic links points to:

$ readlink /etc

or the stat -l command:

$ stat -l /etc
lrwxr-xr-x 1 root wheel 11 Nov 17 07:50:53 2016 /etc -> private/etc

A symbolic link contains a path pointing to the original file or directory. Most operations such as reading or changing are directed to the original, rather than the symbolic link. ls /tmp and ls /private/tmp will show you both the contents of the original /private/tmp.

An example for a symbolic link to a file is the file /usr/share/dict/words (a list of english words, which can be surprisingly useful to have around) which points to a file web2 in the same directory. Symbolic links can be used as a means to ‘switch’ between files without having to change around filenames and configuration files.

When you read the file /usr/share/dict/words the read command will be redirected to /usr/share/dict/web2:

$ cat /usr/share/dict/words | wc 
  235886  235886 2493109
$ cat /usr/share/dict/web2 | wc 
  235886  235886 2493109

Note: the wc command counts words, lines and bytes in a file.

Symbolic links can be relative or absolute. However, most of the time they are relative, since you do not want them pointing to different files, depending on which volumes the system is booted from. Relative paths are resolved relative to the link itself, not the current working directory. The above link for /etc points to the relative path private/etc so to the sub-directory etc in the directory private in the same location as the symbolic link itself.

To create a symbolic link use the ln -s command.

$ mkdir directory
$ touch directory/file
$ ln -s directory/file
$ readlink file

This series of commands will create a directory, and en empty file in directory and then a link to that file in the current working directory. When you want the symbolic link to have a different name, you can give that as a second argument:

$ ln -s directory/file second_link
$ readlink second_link 

The first argument is not really the path to a file or directory, but the path the symbolic link points to. When this path is relative it will be resolved relative to the location of the symbolic link. So if you wrote:

$ ln -s directory/file directory/link_to_file

A symbolic link named link_to_file will be created in directory but it will point to directory/directory/file instead of the file next to it. When you try to read from the symbolic link pointing to nowhere, you will get an error:

$ cat directory/link_to_file 
cat: directory/link_to_file: No such file or directory

The reference you pass when creating the symbolic link has to be relative to the where the symbolic link is created. The correct command would have been:

$ ln -s file directory/link_to_file

When the second argument is a directory itself, a link named the same as the file it refers to will be created:

$ mkdir another_dir
$ ln -s ../directory/file another_dir

will create a link named file pointing to ../directory/file. Since you have to give the path to the target relative to the where the link is created you have to add the ../ to ‘go up a level’ out of the another_dir directory and then back into directory.

Note: you can create a symbolic link that points to non-exiting path. Also when the original file or directory gets deleted, a ‘dangling’ symbolic link will remain.

When you use rm or mv on a symbolic link, only the link will be affected, not the original item.

When you run cp on a symbolic link to a file, the contents of the original will be copied:

$ cp another_dir/file filecopy
 $ stat -l filecopy
-rw-r--r-- 1 armin staff 0 Sep  4 14:51:44 2017 filecopy

However, when you recursively copy a directory tree containing symbolic links, they will be copied as symbolic links:

$ cp -R another_dir/ copy_dir
$ ls -l copy_dir/
total 8
lrw-r--r--  1 armin  staff  17 Sep  4 14:52 file -> ../directory/file

Usually the destination of a copy will be in a vastly different location and this will break the links:

$ cp -R another_dir/ /Users/Shared/copy_dir
$ ls -l /Users/Shared/copy_dir
total 8
lrwxr-xr-x  1 armin  wheel  17 Sep  4 15:19 file -> ../directory/file
$ cat /Users/Shared/copy_dir/file 
cat: /Users/Shared/copy_dir/file: No such file or directory

You can use cp‘s -L option to make the copy process resolve symbolic links and copy their contents instead:

$ cp -RL another_dir/ /Users/Shared/another_dir
$ ls -l /Users/Shared/another_dir
total 8
-rwxr-xr-x  1 armin  wheel  17 Sep  4 15:19 file

Other commands will have similar options to control the behavior when encountering symbolic links. However, their names are not standardized in anyway and you will have to consult the man page to find out the details.

Symbolic Links vs Finder Aliases

In macOS Finder, you can create aliases with the menu item ‘Make Alias’ from the ‘File’ or context menu. Finder Aliases have much the same role as symbolic links, but a few significant differences in behavior:

  • the shell and most command line tools cannot resolve Finder Aliases and treat them as files
  • Finder Aliases will ‘follow’ the original when it is moved or renamed.
  • However, when the original is deleted and replaced by an item of the same name, a Finder Alias will resolve to the new item.
  • When a Finder alias points to an item on a file share, double clicking the alias in Finder will attempt to connect to the file share, if it not already connected.

Finder will display Aliases and symbolic links with a small arrow in the corner of the icon. Both symbolic links and Finder Aliases have a ‘Show Original’ menu item in the ‘File’ menu or context menu.

There are no commands to create or resolve Finder aliases in Terminal, but you can use AppleScript with the osascript command:

$ osascript -e 'tell app "Finder" to make new alias to posix file "/Users/armin/Documents" at posix file "/Users/armin/Desktop"'

This will create a new Finder alias to ‘Documents’ in the ‘Desktop’ folder. The user who is running this command has to be logged in to the Mac, so that osascript can connect to the Finder to run this command.

To find out the original of a Finder alias, you can use:

$ osascript -e 'tell application "Finder" to get POSIX path of ( (original item of (POSIX file "/Users/armin/Desktop/Documents" as alias) ) as alias)'

Note: there is a lot of type casting (as alias) in this command. To further confuse matters the data type alias in AppleScript is not the same as a Finder alias. It is a special data type in AppleScript that references a file or folder.