Crontab Tutorial


What is crontab?

If you've worked with Perl scripts I'm sure you've heard or seen the words "cron", "crontab", or "cron job" before. If not, you'll learn something new today! The crontab command allows you to tell your server to execute a file at a specific time, as often as you want - like once a day or once a minute. Most commonly, crontab is used to execute a cgi script to perform a certain task repeatedly rather than doing it manually. Saves a lot of time!

NOTE: many hosting companies disable crontab on their hosting accounts because it is often abused. Using it to repeatedly execute a file takes up precious cpu time and if misused can slow down a server immensely. However, if you talk to your hosting company and let them know what file you are going to run they more than likely will be happy to enable crontab on your system. If they won't, then you might want to think about getting a dedicated server...

Where do I start?

To use crontab, you have to be able to telnet into your server. This is accomplished in Windows by going to Start->Run and typing in "telnet" and hitting "OK". A new window will pop up and you will have to put in your username and password. If you normally use an FTP client, usually it's the same username and password.

If successful. you will then get a command prompt: $

First, you can see the crontab usage info by typing in "crontab" and hitting return. Here's what it looks like on my server:

usage: crontab [-u user] file
crontab [-u user] { -e | -l | -r }
-e (edit user's crontab)
-l (list user's crontab)
-r (delete user's crontab)

So, if you type:

crontab -l

you will get a list of the crontab jobs already running on your system. Try it out. You probably don't have any running so you will get an empty list...

How do I set up a crontab job?

While you can edit the crontab file directly through telnet, I've found that the easiest way for a beginner to start a crontab job is to create a text file containing your crontab instructions, upload it to your main directory, telnet into your system, and then just type:

crontab myfile.txt

and the crontab job will be created.

So what do I put in the text file? What is the syntax?

This text file will minimally only have to have one line containing the information for your cron job. Here is a run down of the syntax:

0 1 * * * /path/to/cgi-bin/yourscript.cgi
| | | | |
| | | | |________________ day of week
| | | |__________________ month of year
| | |____________________ day of month
| |______________________ hour of day
|________________________ minute of hour

The * in the above example basically means "every". So, in this example the script would execute *every* month, *every* day of the week, *every* day of the month, and then ONLY at hour 1 of the day. So - this script would execute once a day at 1 am in the morning.

Say you wanted to execute it 4 times a day, you would type in:

0 1,7,13,19 * * * /path/to/cgi-bin/autocron.cgi

This executes autocron.cgi four times a day about every 6 hours. Notice that you can use commas to add in more times - but always keep the spaces to delineate the time frames.

Another example, to execute autocron.cgi twice a month:

0 1 1,15 * * /path/to/cgi-bin/autocron.cgi

This line would execute the file on the 1st and 15th of the month at 1AM.

Can I run multiple crontab jobs?

In a nutshell - YES! Just add multiple lines to the text file using the syntax above for every script that you would like to run. Make sure that the paths to the scripts are correct and you've double checked your time settings.

How can I tell that it's working?

Simple, after you have executed the text file with your one line crontab, just type:

crontab -l

At your command prompt and you will see something like this:

# (cronjob.txt installed on Tue Apr 11 21:19:12 2000)
# (Cron version -- $Id: crontab.c,v 2.13 1994/01/17 03:20:37 vixie Exp $)
0 1 * * * /path/to/cgi-bin/yourscript.cgi

All of the running jobs will be listed.

Can I edit my crontab file through telnet?

Yes, however, I prefer to just delete the current crontab file and create a new one with a new text file. Just type:

crontab -e

and your crontab file editor will pop up and you can edit the file. Some telnet clients make it hard to edit this file though - which is why I just delete and recreate my crontab file.

How do I delete a crontab file?

This is easy! At the telnet prompt, type:

crontab -r

and the crontab file will be completely deleted. You can check this by using the "crontab -l" command. And of course, you can recreate your file by typing "crontab myfile.txt". (or whatever you named the text file containing your crontab lines)