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Scheduling Cron Jobs with Crontab

Cron is a scheduling daemon that executes tasks at specified intervals. These tasks are called cron jobs and are mostly used to automate system maintenance or administration.

For example, you could set a cron job to backup your databases or data, update your system with the latest security patches, check your disk space usage, send emails and more. Some applications, such as Drupal or Magento requires cron jobs to perform certain functions.

You can schedule cron jobs to run by minute, hour, day of the month, month, day of the week or any combination of these.

What is Crontab File

Crontab (cron table) is a text file that specifies the schedule of cron jobs. There are two types of crontab files. The system-wide crontab files and individual user crontab files.

Users crontab files are stored by the user’s name and their location varies by operating systems. In Red Hat based system such as CentOS crontab files are stored in the /var/spool/cron directory while on Debian and Ubuntu files are stored in the /var/spool/cron/crontabs directory.

Although you can edit the user crontab files manually, it is recommended to use the crontab command.

/etc/crontab and the files inside the /etc/cron.d directory are system-wide crontab files which can be edited only by the system administrators.

In most Linux distributions you can also put scripts inside the /etc/cron.{hourly,daily,weekly,monthly} directories and the scripts will be executed every hour/day/week/month.

Crontab Syntax and Operators

Each line in the user crontab file contains six fields separated by a space followed by the command to be run.

* * * * * command(s)
- - - - -
| | | | |
| | | | ----- Day of week (0 - 7) (Sunday=0 or 7)
| | | ------- Month (1 - 12)
| | --------- Day of month (1 - 31)
| ----------- Hour (0 - 23)
------------- Minute (0 - 59)

THe first five fields may contain one or more values, separated by a comma or a range of values separated by a hyphen.

  • * -The asterisk operator means any value or always. If you have the asterisk symbol in the Hour field it means the task will be performed each hour.
  • , -The comma operator allows you to specify a list of values for repetition. For example if you have 1,3,5 in the Hour field, the task will run at 1am, 3am and 5am.
  • - -The hyphen operator allows you to specify a range of values. If you have 1-5 in the Day of week field the task will run every weekday (From Monday to Friday).
  • / -The slash operator allows you to specify values that will be repeated over a certain interval between them. For example if you have */4 in the Hour field it means the the action will be performed every four hours. It is same as specifying 0,4,8,12,16,20. Instead of asterisk before the slash operator you can also use a range of values. For example 1-30/10 means the same as 1,11,21.

System-wide Crontab Files

The syntax of system-wide crontab files is slightly different than user crontabs. It contains an additional mandatory user field used to specify which user to run the cron job under.

* * * * * <username> command(s)

Predefined Macros

There are a several special Cron schedule macros used to specify common intervals. You can use this shortcuts in place of the five column date specification.

  • @yearly (or @annually) - Run the specified task once a year at midnight (12:00am) of 1st of January. Equivalent to 0 0 1 1 *.
  • @monthly - Run the specified task once a month at midnight of the first day of the month. Equivalent to 0 0 1 * *.
  • @weekly - Run the specified task nce a week at midnight on Sunday. Equivalent to 0 0 * * 0.
  • @daily - Run the specified task once a day at midnight. Equivalent to 0 0 * * *.
  • @hourly - Run the specified task once an hour at the beginning of the hour. Equivalent to 0 * * * *.
  • @reboot - Run the specified task at the system startup (boot-time).

Linux Crontab Command

The crontab command allows you to install or open a crontab file for editing. You can use the crontab command to view, add, remove or modify cron jobs using the following options:

  • crontab -e - Edit crontab file, or create one if it doesn’t already exist.
  • crontab -l - Display crontab file contents.
  • crontab -r - Remove your current crontab file.
  • crontab -i - Remove your current crontab file with prompt before removal.
  • crontab -u <username> - Edit other use crontab file. Requires system administrator privileges.

The crontab command opens the crontab file using the editor specified by the VISUAL or EDITOR environment variables.

Crontab Variables

The cron daemon automatically sets several environment variables.

  • The default path is set to PATH=/usr/bin:/bin. If the command you are calling is present in the cron specified path you can ether use the absolute path to the command or change the cron $PATH variable. You can’t implicitly append :$PATH as you would do with a normal script.
  • The default shell is set to /bin/sh. You can set a different shell by changing the SHELL variable.
  • Cron invokes the command from the user’s home directory. The HOME variable can be overridden by settings in the crontab.
  • The email notification is sent to the owner of the crontab. To overwrite the default behavior you can use the MAILTO environment variable with a list (comma separated) of all the email addresses you want to receive the email notifications. If MAILTO is defined but empty (MAILTO=""), no mail is sent.

Crontab Restrictions

System administrators can control which users have access to the crontab command by using the /etc/cron.deny and /etc/cron.allow files. The files consist of a list of user names, one user name per line.

By default only the /etc/cron.deny file exists and is empty which means that all users can use the crontab command. If you want deny a user access to the crontab commands add it to this file.

If the /etc/cron.allow file exist only the users who are listed in this file can use the crontab command.

If neither file exists, only the users with administrative privileges can use crontab command.

Cron Jobs Examples

Below are some cron job examples which will show you how to schedule a task to run on different time periods.

  • Run a command at 15:00 on every day from Monday through Friday:

    0 15 * * 1-5 command
  • Run a script every 5 minutes and redirected the standard output to dev null, only the standard error will be sent to the specified e-mail address:

    [email protected]
    */5 * * * * /path/to/ > /dev/null
  • Run two commands every Monday at 3 PM (use the operator && between the commands):

    0 15 * * Mon command1 && command2
  • Run a PHP script every 2 minutes and write the output to a file:

    */2 * * * * /usr/bin/php /path/to/script.php >> /var/log/script.log
  • Run a script every day, every hour, on the hour, from 8 AM through 4 PM:

    00 08-16 * * * /path/to/
  • Run a script on the first Monday of each month, at 7 a.m.

    0 7 1-7 * 1 /path/to/
  • Run the a script at 9:15pm, on the 1st and 15th of every month:

    15 9 1,15 * * /path/to/
  • Set custom HOME, PATH, SHELL and MAILTO variables and run a command every minute.

    [email protected]
    */1 * * * * command


You have learned how to create cron jobs and schedule tasks at a specific date and time.

Feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions.