What Is a Cron Job: Understanding Cron Syntax and How to Configure Cron Jobs

What Is a Cron Job: Understanding Cron Syntax and How to Configure Cron Jobs

A cron job is a task automated using cron, a scheduler tool on a Unix system like Linux. Creating cron jobs helps improve web development and management efficiency, as you don’t need to execute the same tasks repeatedly.

For example, automating tasks like downloading files for backups or updating packages in a virtual private server is a common cron job use case.

In this article, we will explain the basics of cron jobs, their types, syntax, special strings, and permissions. We will also share cron job best practices and provide command examples to help you understand how to use cron jobs.

A cron job is a task automated using cron, a scheduler tool on a Unix-like operating system. Common cron jobs include creating a backup, updating software, clearing the cache, and monitoring the server.

Creating cron jobs helps reduce human error and save time as you don’t need to repeatedly perform the same tasks.

How Cron Jobs Work

Cron is a daemon – a background process executing non-interactive jobs. In Windows, it works similarly to background processes like Services.

A cron file is a text file that contains commands to run periodically at a specific time. The cron table or crontab configuration file is /etc/crontab by default.

Only system administrators can edit the system crontab file. However, since Unix-like operating systems support multiple admins, users can create their own files to schedule specific jobs.

With cron jobs, users can automate system maintenance, disk space monitoring, and backups at regular intervals. Due to their convenience, cron jobs are ideal for computers that work 24/7, such as a virtual private server.

While cron job scheduling is popular among system administrators, it is also useful for web developers.

For instance, they can set up three cron jobs to automatically back up a site every day at midnight, check for broken links every Monday at midnight, and clear its cache every Friday at noon.

While convenient, there are several limitations of cron jobs:

  • The shortest interval between jobs is 60 seconds. Users can only set the cron job interval settings to one minute or more.
  • Missed jobs need a manual reset. Admins can’t distribute cron jobs to multiple computers on a network. So, if the computer running cron crashes, the scheduled tasks won’t execute. You must restart the missed jobs manually.
  • No auto-retry mechanism. Cron is designed to run at a given schedule. If a task fails, it won’t run until the next scheduled time. This makes cron unsuitable for incremental tasks.
  • No environment variables. Crontab can’t read the environment variables from several files containing configuration data that is required to run some applications properly.

Even with these limitations, cron is an excellent solution for running simple and repetitive tasks at a scheduled time. If you want to automate a one-time job, we recommend using another scheduling method instead.

Pro Tip

Before creating a cron job, ensure your script works. To do that, open the file in your browser by URL or execute it via SSH, depending on the script’s type. If it doesn’t work, contact your hosting provider’s support team for help.

Crontab Syntax

The syntax for crontab command

When preparing for cron jobs, you must understand cron’s syntax and formatting to ensure the script runs properly. The crontab syntax consists of five fields with the following possible values:

  • Minute. The minute of the hour the command will run, ranging from 0-59.
  • Hour. The hour the command will run, ranging from 0-23 in a 24-hour notation.
  • Day of the month. The date of the month the user wants the command to run, ranging from 1-31.
  • Month. The month that the user wants the command to run. It ranges from 1-12, representing January until December.
  • Day of the week. The day of the week for a command to run, ranging from 0-6. The value represents Sunday-Saturday. In some systems, the value 7 represents Sunday.

If you don’t have a specific value, avoid leaving these fields blank and enter an asterisk instead. For example, if you want the cron daemon to run the root/backup.sh script every Friday at 5:37 pm, here’s what the cron command should look like:

37 17 * * 5 root/backup.sh

In the example above, 37 and 17 represent 5:37 pm. Both asterisks for the Date and Month fields signify all possible values. This means the task should run regardless of the date or month. Finally, 5 represents Friday. The task will then follow this outlined schedule.

If you’re unsure about manually writing the cron syntax, use free tools like Crontab Generator or Crontab.guru to generate the exact numbers for the time and date of your command.

In addition to the syntax, you must understand the cron job operators to modify the value in each field. You must properly use these operators in all crontab files to ensure your commands run:

  • Asterisk (*). This operator signifies all possible values in a field. For example, write an asterisk in the Minute field to make the cron job run every minute.
  • Comma (,). An operator for listing multiple values. For example, writing 1,5 in the day-of-week field will schedule the job to run every Monday and Friday.
  • Hyphen (-). Users can determine a range of values. Write 6-9 in the Month field to set up a cron job from June to September.
  • Separator (/). This separator divides a value. If you want to run a script every twelve hours, write */12 in the Hour field.
  • Last (L). Users can use this operator in the day-of-month and day-of-week fields. For example, writing 3L in the day-of-week field means the last Wednesday of the month.
  • Weekday (W). An operator that determines the closest weekday from a given time. For example, if the 1st of a month is a Saturday, writing 1W in the day-of-month field will run the command on Monday the 3rd.
  • Hash (#). An operator for the day-of-week field that determines a specific day of the month, using a number between 1 to 5. For instance, 1#2 means the second Monday of the month.
  • Question mark (?). This operator inputs no specific value for the day-of-month and day-of-week fields. It’s typically replaced with the cron daemon start-up time.

Pro Tip

In Vixie cron, you can combine separators with ranges to specify step values, such as 1-2/12. To learn more about operator usage, read the cron manual.

Cron Syntax Examples

After understanding cron jobs, you are now ready to implement them in your tasks. In this section, we’ll provide some examples of cron job applications.

Note that cron automatically sends the output to your local email account. If you want to stop receiving emails, you can add >/dev/null 2>&1 to a command similar to the following example:

0 5 * * * /root/backup.sh &gt;/dev/<strong>null</strong> 2&gt;&amp;1

To send the cron output to a specific email account, add MAILTO and the desired email address. Here is an example:

MAILTO="inbox@domain.tld"
0 3 * * * /root/backup.sh >/dev/null 2>&1

To help you better understand the cron syntax, here’s a list of sample commands to conduct system management with cron jobs:

ExampleExplanation
0 0 * * 0 /root/backup.shPerform a backup every Sunday at midnight.
0 * * * 1 /root/clearcache.shClear the cache every hour on Mondays.
0 6,18 * * * /root/backup.shBackup data twice a day at 6 am and 6 pm.
*/10 * * * * /scripts/monitor.shPerform monitoring every 10 minutes
*/15 * * * * /root/backup.shPerform a backup every 15 minutes.
* * 20 7 * /root/backup.shPerform a backup every minute on July 20.
0 0 * * 2 * /root/backup.shPerform a backup at midnight every Tuesday.
* * * 1,2,5 * /scripts/monitor.shPerform monitoring every minute in January, February, and May.
10-59/10 5 * * * /root/clearcache.shClear the cache every 10 minutes at 5 am, starting from 5:10 am.
0 8 1 */3 * /home/user/script.shMake the task run quarterly on the first day of the month at 8 am.
0 * * * * /root/backup.shCreate a backup every hour.
* * * * * /scripts/script.sh; /scripts/scrit2.shInclude multiple tasks in a single cron job. This is useful for scheduling multiple tasks to run at the same time.
@reboot /root/clearcache.shClear the server cache every time you turn on the system.
0 8 1-7 * 1 /scripts/script.shRun a script on the first Monday of each month at 8 am.
5 4 * * 0 /root/backup.shCreate a backup every Sunday morning at 4:05 am.
15 9 1,20 * * /scripts/monitor.shPerform monitoring at 9:15 pm on the 1st and 20th of every month.
@hourly /scripts/monitor.shPerform monitoring every hour.
0 0 1,15 * 3 /scripts/script.shRun a script at midnight every Wednesday between the 1st and 15th of every month.
15 14 1 * * /root/clearcache.shClear the cache on the first day of every month at 2:15 pm.
15 6 1 1 * /root/backup.shPerform a backup every January 1st at 6:15 am.
0 0 * * * /scripts/monitor.shRun the monitoring script once a day at midnight.
0 0 15 * * /root/clearcache.shClear the cache at midnight on the 15th of every month.

Cron Job Special Strings

Special strings are used to schedule cron jobs at certain time intervals without specifying the exact values. To use them, write a simple phrase starting with an @. Here are some useful special strings to use in commands:

  • @hourly. The job will run once an hour.
  • @daily or @midnight. These strings will run the task every day at midnight.
  • @weekly. A string for scheduling tasks once a week at midnight on Sunday.
  • @monthly. This special string runs a command once on the first day of every month.
  • @yearly. Use this string to run a task once a year at midnight on January 1st.
  • @reboot. This string runs the cron job once during a system startup.

Important! Be careful when scheduling cron jobs for different time zones, and make sure your configuration is correct.

Cron Permissions

Ensure to set proper permissions for your system’s cron files to allow the jobs to run. You can create or edit two files to set the permissions – cron.allow and cron.deny.

If /etc/cron.allow exists, it should contain a username permitted to run the cron job automation. However, if your system has /etc/cron.deny containing a username, that account can’t use cron.

How to Run Cron Jobs

In this section, we will show you how to schedule cron jobs by inputting commands into a shell program on a Linux-based system, such as Hostinger’s VPS hosting.

To schedule it, connect to your VPS using Terminal or an SSH client like PuTTY. Alternatively, Hostinger VPS users can access the command line interface (CLI) on their web browser via hPanel.

Pro Tip

In addition to VPS, Hostinger’s managed hosting plans also support cron jobs. For example, the Business web hosting plan lets you schedule unlimited jobs.

After accessing hPanel, navigate to the VPS menu on the top bar and select your plan. Then, click on Browser terminal.

The VPS information page on hPanel. The Browser terminal window is highlighted

Cron is commonly pre-installed by default in all Linux distributions. Otherwise, run the installation command according to your package manager. Here’s the command for Ubuntu with apt:

sudo apt install cron

Before proceeding with the basic cron job operations, you must understand the configuration files – the system crontab and user crontab.

The system crontab is used to schedule system-wide essential jobs that are only editable by those with root privileges. Meanwhile, leverage the user crontab to create and edit jobs that only apply at the user level.

To edit the system crontab, ensure the current user has root privileges. Read on to learn several basic operations that cron can perform.

A basic cron job operation

Using a Cron Job to Create a Crontab File

Enter the snippet below into the command line to edit an existing crontab file. If your system doesn’t have it, the command will automatically create a new one.

crontab -e

When entering crontab -e for the first time, it will ask you to choose which text editor you want to edit the file with, such as nano or vi. In the text editor, you can add other commands or edit existing ones.

Using Cron Job to Display a List of Active Scheduled Tasks

To see a list of active, scheduled tasks in your system, enter the following command:

crontab -l

If your system has multiple users, you can view their crontab file lists by entering the command below as a superuser:

crontab -u username -l

Using Cron Jobs to Grant Yourself Root Access

Due to user privilege restrictions, some commands can only run using root permissions. To give yourself root privileges, attach sudo su to the beginning of the command.

For example, you need sudo su to run a crontab command that edits other users’ scheduled jobs:

sudo su crontab -u username -e

In addition, you can add cron jobs to the etc/cron.d directory to store automatic installation and update scripts. To add them to this directory, you must have root access and conform to run-parts naming conventions.

Alternatively, a root user can move their cron job scripts into the following directories to schedule their execution:

  • /etc/cron.hourly/. Run the script once an hour.
  • /etc/cron.daily/. Run it once a day.
  • /etc/cron.weekly/. Run it once a week.
  • /etc/cron.monthly/. Run it once a month.

Using a Cron Job to Delete Scheduled Tasks

To delete all scheduled tasks in the crontab entries and start from the beginning, type the following command:

crontab -r

Alternatively, use the crontab -i command. It is similar to the previous one, except you will get a confirmation option before removing the crontab:

crontab -i

Conclusion

Cron daemon is a service in a Unix-based system that lets you create automation scripts for scheduling tasks. Meanwhile, cron jobs are the tasks automated using this tool, such as updating, installing, or monitoring a system.

To automate tasks, write the crontab command in your system’s cron file. The command contains the script for execution and five asterisks referring to the cron job’s execution time. Change the value of these asterisks and use the operators to modify the time.

To run a cron job, connect to your Linux operating system using Terminal, an SSH client, or another CLI application with root permission. Then, create a crontab file and add the script using a text editor like Nano.

Cron Job FAQ

In this section, we will answer several commonly asked questions about cron jobs to help you understand the tool better.

What Does a Cron Job Do?

Cron jobs are Linux commands for automating repetitive tasks on your server. It lets you schedule tasks for your system like updating, installing, or monitoring with a single command.

What Is the Use of * * * * * In Cron?

* * * * * is a cron schedule expression wildcard, meaning your cron job should run every minute, regardless of the hour, day, date, or month.

How Do I Run a Cron Job?

Log in to your server as the root user via SSH using PuTTY, Terminal, or Hostinger’s built-in Browser terminal. Then, create a file using the crontab -e command.

Choose an editor to view the file and add your cron job script to the blank crontab file. Save the file once you are done to enable the automation.

Author
The author

Linas L.

Linas started as a customer success agent and is now a full-stack web developer and Technical Team Lead at Hostinger. He is passionate about presenting people with top-notch technical solutions, but as much as he enjoys coding, he secretly dreams of becoming a rock star.

Author
The Co-author

Aris B.

Aris is a Content Writer specializing in Linux and WordPress development. He has a passion for networking, front-end web development, and server administration. By combining his IT and writing experience, Aris creates content that helps people easily understand complex technical topics to start their online journey. Follow him on LinkedIn.