December 4, 2009


This is a translation from this article which is published in Dutch

During our work at Octrooicentrum Nederland somebody came up with the following question. During the night a file was created in a directory and he wanted to know who (which process) was responsible for that. My first reaction was: “Can’t be done”.

However, that evening I thought of inotify which could be of help. With inotify you can watch your file system and get notified when “something” (read, write, create, etc.) happens. For (much) more detailed information look in inotify(7).

You can install the tools with:

% apt-get install inotify-tools

And with that you get two tools inotifywatch and inotifywait.

The inotify framework has a configurable limit on how many directories can be watched at once. To increase this a bit you need to write a value to a file under /proc, like so:

% sudo -s
# echo $((2 ** 16)) > /proc/sys/fs/inotify/max_user_watches 

64K should be enough for everyone.

Using inotifywait works with:

% inotifywait -m  -r --format '%:e %f' ~
Setting up watches.  Beware: since -r was given, this may take a while!
Watches established.
  • -m: keep waiting;
  • --format '%:e %f': change the output (see inotifywait(1));
  • -r: recursive.

Now, I’m going to create a file in my home directory:

% touch bliep

And in my other terminal window I see output scrolling by, among which:

CREATE bliep
OPEN bliep
ATTRIB bliep

As you can see, the file ~/bliep has been created.

Getting the process

Note: the following creates a blatant race condition, so this is not bullet proof.

Lets start inotifywait and let it trigger for the creation of the file bliep. If it is created try to get to the creating process (if possible).

% inotifywait -m  -r --format '%:e %f' ~ | grep -q 'CREATE bliep' && \
lsof -t ~/bliep | xargs pstree -a -h

Which should be fairly obvious to the trained Unix eye. So if I type the following in one terminal:

% touch bliep && tail -f bliep     

Then the inotifywait pipeline will output:

tail -f bliep

Which says: the tail -f is still tailing the file bliep. Note: that touch command is not seen. So we have the culprit – well one of them, at least.

With inotify you can probably imagine other uses. One idea may be that of a realtime backup (this might even be already implemented by someone).

Other usefull tools based on inotify are:

cron-like daemon with support for filesystem events
tail replacement with inotify, probably faster than GNU tail -f

You can find more information in this article, which is authored by the original author of inotify Robert Love.