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What is tar Command in Linux?

Introduction to tar Command in Linux:

The tar command in Linux serves as a powerful tool for combining and compressing files into a single archive. It not only reduces disk space but also facilitates easy sharing of files. Originating from tape archive days, “tar” is a widely-used command for tape drive backups in the Linux/Unix system.

Named after “tape archive,” it efficiently groups files into a compressed archive, commonly known as a tarball. This versatile command supports gzip and bzip algorithms for compression, ensuring efficient storage. Operating on Unix-like systems, it handles creation, modification, and extraction of files in the tar format.

Initially designed for UNIX file backups, tar has evolved into a POSIX-standardized utility, now integral for collecting, distributing, and archiving files. Its capabilities extend to maintaining file system features like permissions, access dates, and directory structures, making it an essential tool for Linux users.

Syntax of tar command

Following is the general way of using the tar command:

tar [-A –catenate -concatenate | c –create | d –diff -compare | –delete | r –append | t –list | –test-label | u –update | x –extract -get ] [options ] [pathname … ]

Now let us have a look at a few useful tar commands in Linux. This covers the above options used in the syntax part.

An example of creating a tar archive file

The below example command will create a tar archive test_ex.tar to get a directory /home/data in the current working directory. See the case command in action.

$ tar -cvf test_ex.tar /home/data/

Let us discuss each option that we’ve used in the preceding command for creating a tar archive.

  • C — Creates a new .tar
  • v – By using this option, you can see the progress of .tar file
  • f — File name type of the archive.
Create tar.gz Archive File

By default, the tar archive isn’t compressed. But if you want you can compress the contents of the archive using gzip and bzip2 algorithm.

To make a compressed gzip archive, we use the alternative as z. for instance the below command will make a compressed MyPictures.tar.gz file to the directory /home/MyPictures. (Note: tar.gz and tgz both are alike).

$ tar cvzf MyPictures.tar.gz /home/MyPictures
The way you may use the options

As you might notice in the option and in the above two commands, we may use the options as shown below. The four commands below produces the same result:

$ tar --create --file=test_ar.tar file1 file2 file3 file4

$ tar -c -f test_ar.tar file1 file2 file3 file4

$ tar -cf test_ar.tar file1 file2 file3 file4

$ tar cf test_ar.tar file1 file2 file3 file4

So, you may single double dash with option name or single dash with the option letter.

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An example of extracting a tar.gz archive

This example shows how to extract a tar.gz file:

The next command shell will help to extract tar files out a tar.gz archive.

$ tar -xvzf test_ar.tar.gz

These options are used with a little explanation:

Option Description
x Extract files
v Verbose, print the file names as they are extracted one by one
Z The document is a “gzipped” document
f Use the following tar archive for the operation
How to extract files to a specific directory or path

We can extract the files into a specified directory using the parameter”-C”.

$ tar -xvzf test_ar.tar.gz -C /test/subtest/
List Content of tar Archive File

To list the contents of the tar archive file, simply run the following command with -t option. The below command will list the content of test_ar.tar.gz file.

$ tar -tvf test_ar.tar.gz

For better screening, we can use less command or grep the pipe output for searching a document. For example,

$ tar -tvz -f test1.tar.gz | grep two.mp3

The verbose option “v” provides more information about each file.

Best Practices for Utilizing the Tar Command in Linux:The tar command in Linux serves as a versatile tool for archiving and compressing files. To harness its power effectively, consider the following best practices:

    1. Create a Tar Archive:
      • Use the -c option to create a new tar archive.
      • Employ the -v option for a verbose output, providing visibility into the archiving process.
      • Specify the file name with the -f option.
      tar -cvf archive.tar files_directory/
  1. Create Compressed Archives:
    • To compress the archive, use options like -z for gzip or -j for bzip2.
    • Enhance compression efficiency while creating archives.
    tar -cvzf archive.tar.gz files_directory/
  2. Consistent Option Usage:
    • Whether using single or double dashes, maintain consistency for better readability.
    tar –create –file=archive.tar files_directory/
  3. Extract from Compressed Archives:
    • Use the -x option for extraction.
    • The -v option provides verbose output during extraction.
    • Specify the compressed format with options like -z for gzip.
    tar -xvzf archive.tar.gz
  4. Extract to a Specific Directory:
    • Utilize the -C option to extract files to a designated directory.
    tar -xvzf archive.tar.gz -C /destination/path/
  5. List Contents of Tar Archive:
    • Employ the -t option to list the contents of a tar archive.
    • Enhance visibility by combining with options like -v for verbose output.
    tar -tvf archive.tar.gz
  6. Search within Archive:
    • Leverage tools like grep to search for specific files within the archive.
    tar -tvz -f archive.tar.gz | grep filename
  7. Maintain Consistency in Naming Conventions:
    • Stick to a consistent naming convention for archive files to streamline identification.
  8. Consider Compression Ratio:
    • Evaluate the trade-off between compression ratios and extraction times based on the nature of the data being archived.
  9. Documentation and Labels:
    • Document the contents and purpose of each archive.
    • Label archives with meaningful names to facilitate easy retrieval.
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Troubleshooting and FAQs for the Tar Command in Linux:

  1. Q: I’m unable to create a tar archive. What could be the issue?
    • A: Ensure that you have the necessary permissions to access the files and create archives in the specified directory. Use the ls command to check file permissions.
  2. Q: My tar.gz extraction is giving errors. How can I troubleshoot this?
    • A: Verify the integrity of the tar.gz file using the -t option. If the file is corrupted, consider re-downloading it.
  3. Q: I forgot the options for creating a tar archive. What should I do?
    • A: Use the tar --help command to display a summary of available options and their usage.
  4. Q: Can I create a tar archive with a different compression format?
    • A: Yes, you can use different compression algorithms such as bzip2. Replace the z option with j for bzip2.
  5. Q: How can I extract a tar archive to a specific directory?
    • A: Use the -C option followed by the target directory path. For example, tar -xvzf archive.tar.gz -C /target/directory/
  6. Q: The extraction is taking too long. Any tips to speed it up?
    • A: Extraction time can vary based on file size. Consider using compression formats with faster decompression speeds, like gzip.
  7. Q: I accidentally omitted the file path while creating a tar archive. Can I add files later?
    • A: Yes, use the -r option followed by the file paths to append additional files to an existing archive.
  8. Q: How can I troubleshoot permission issues during extraction?
    • A: Ensure that you have the necessary permissions to write to the extraction directory. Use the chmod command to modify permissions if needed.
  9. Q: What if I want to exclude specific files during the archiving process?
    • A: Use the --exclude option followed by the file pattern to exclude specific files or directories during archiving.
  10. Q: Is it possible to create a tar archive without using compression?
    • A: Yes, simply omit the compression options like -z or -j to create an uncompressed tar archive.
  11. Q: I encountered errors related to symbolic links during extraction. How can I handle this?
    • A: Use the --dereference option to follow symbolic links during extraction and avoid errors related to broken links.
  12. Q: Can I use wildcards to include/exclude files during archiving?
    • A: Yes, wildcards like * can be used to include/exclude files. However, ensure proper shell quoting to avoid unexpected behavior.
  13. Q: What if the tar command is not recognized?
    • A: Install the tar utility using your package manager. For example, on Debian/Ubuntu, use sudo apt install tar.


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In conclusion, the tar command in Linux is a versatile tool designed for archiving, compressing, and managing files efficiently. Originating from the early days of UNIX, it has evolved into a fundamental utility that plays a pivotal role in file organization, backup procedures, and data distribution on Unix-like systems.

The term “tar” itself stands for tape archive, reflecting its initial purpose of backing up files to tape-based storage devices. Over time, it has become a standard part of the POSIX specification, ensuring its widespread adoption and consistent functionality across Unix-like operating systems.

The syntax of the tar command allows users to perform a variety of operations, including creating, extracting, and updating archives. The ability to compress files using algorithms like gzip or bzip2 enhances its utility, making it a preferred choice for creating compressed archive files.

Whether it’s creating a simple tar archive, compressing files into tarballs, or extracting specific files to a designated directory, the tar command offers flexibility and ease of use. The option to include or exclude files, along with the capability to list archive contents, adds to its versatility.

In summary, the tar command stands as a reliable and time-tested tool, essential for system administrators, developers, and users alike. Its integration with file system features, maintenance of permissions, access dates, and directory structures make it an indispensable asset in the Linux/Unix environment.

As users explore the diverse applications of the tar command, from basic archiving to more advanced operations, they gain a powerful ally in managing and manipulating files efficiently on their Linux systems.