Cron is a time-based job scheduling service in Unix-like operating systems. Users can schedule jobs (commands or scripts) to run at specific times, dates, or intervals. This feature is particularly useful for automating system maintenance tasks, running scripts, or even sending emails at specified intervals.

The Anatomy of a Cron Job

Understanding the structure of a Cron job is crucial. A Cron job is a single line in a crontab (Cron table) file representing a command scheduled to run at specific intervals. A crontab entry has six fields:

  1. Minutes (0 – 59)
  2. Hours (0 – 23)
  3. Day of the month (1 – 31)
  4. Month (1 – 12)
  5. Day of the week (0 – 7, where both 0 and 7 represent Sunday)
  6. Command to execute

Setting up a Cron Job

To schedule a Cron job, you need to edit the crontab file. You can do this using the crontab -e command, which opens the crontab file in a text editor. Here’s a quick walkthrough:

  1. Opening the Crontab: Run the crontab -e command. This opens the crontab file in your default editor.
  2. Adding a Cron Job: On a new line, specify the scheduling parameters (minutes, hours, etc.) followed by the command.
  3. Saving and Exiting: Save the changes and exit the editor.

Common Cron Job Examples

Cron’s versatility can be demonstrated through its vast array of use-cases. Here are a few examples:

  • Backup a directory daily: You can schedule a Cron job to backup a particular directory daily. Assume the directory is /home/username/documents, and you want the backup at 2 AM every day.0 2 * * * tar -zcf /var/backups/home.tgz /home/username/documents
  • Running a script every minute: If you have a script (say, located at /home/username/, you can schedule it to run every minute.* * * * * /home/username/
  • Sending an email every Monday: Let’s say you have a mail.txt file, and you wish to email its contents every Monday at 5 PM. You can use the mail command in conjunction with Cron.0 17 * * MON cat /home/username/mail.txt | mail -s "Weekly Update" [email protected]

Advanced Cron Tips and Tricks

While Cron is powerful and flexible, there are a few tips and tricks that can help you optimize its usage:

  • Setting PATH: While scheduling tasks, you can set the PATH environment variable at the top of the crontab file to ensure that all commands are found without specifying absolute paths.
  • Output Redirection: By default, Cron sends an email to the user account executing the cronjob. If this is not required, you can redirect the output to /dev/null.
  • Logging Cron Jobs: To keep track of a cron job, you can redirect the output to a log file instead.

Limitations and Alternatives to Cron

Despite its advantages, Cron is not without limitations. It lacks features such as job dependencies, job chaining, and detailed reporting, found in more advanced task schedulers.

There are several powerful alternatives to Cron, including:

  1. Anacron: Ideal for systems that don’t run continuously.
  2. Fcron: Combines the functionality of both Cron and Anacron, with enhanced features.
  3. Systemd Timers: A modern replacement for Cron in Systemd-based Linux distributions.

Further Learning

With the power of Cron, you can automate almost any task that you would otherwise run manually. Its simple structure and flexible scheduling options make it a staple in any Unix-like system administrator’s toolkit.


You can view your Cron jobs by using the crontab -l command.

To remove a Cron job, use the crontab -e command to open the crontab file, delete the line of the job you want to remove, then save and exit.

Yes, by default, Cron sends a mail to the user account with the output of the job. Alternatively, you can set up your Cron job to write output to a log file to check if the job was run.

Yes, every user can have their own crontab to schedule jobs.

Check your mailbox as Cron sends job outputs there. If output redirection is set up, check the respective file. Additionally, check your Cron job’s command and timing fields and ensure correct syntax.

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