Building a chmod calculator in Go

One of the things that really irked me as I started to learn more about Linux was using the chmod command.

When I first learned the chmod command in school, we learned to explicity declare the permissions:

$ chmod a+x file.txt

However, whenever running through tutorials or, really, anything that involved chmod, I found that most people like to use the numeric (octal) format instead1:

$ chmod 777 file.txt

I knew there was some kind of math involved with chmod, so I decided it would be fun to try writing a chmod calculator in Go, a language I started learning this summer.

But before I could actually write it, I had to understand how the chmod permissions worked. (If you’re only interested in the Go, skip ahead.)

Understanding Unix permissions2

File permissions can be represented using 9 characters. For example:


Since it’s 9 characters long, we can easily split it into 3 roles: user, group, and others.

  • user: the owner of the file
  • group: the group the file is assigned to
  • others: users that fall into neither of user or group
(user) (group) (others)
 r-x     ---     rwx

Within each role, we then have 3 available slots for actions3:

  1. r: read
  2. w: write 3 x: execute, or
  • -: which means you can’t perform an action

So in our example above, we have:

  • user (owner) may read and execute the file, but not write
  • group cannot read/write/execute the file
  • others may read, write, and execute the file.

Converting permissions to numbers

Looking at our example again:


We know that each slot has only two possibilities: either a letter (r/w/x, depending on which slot it is) or a hyphen (-).

Instead of using letters and hyphens then, we can use binary to show whether an action is allowed for a particular role. For each disallowed action (indicated by the - character), we can set it as a 0 in binary. Otherwise, we can set a 1.

Let’s convert our example permissions:


“Great,” you say. “101000111 converted to decimal is 327, so that’s our magic number, right? We’re done!”

Not quite.

We want to be able to understand the permissions each role has a little better. 327 tells us what all the permissions are, but it’s not very useful for seeing at a glance what each role’s permissions are.

Let’s try converting the binary for each role instead:

r-x --- rwx
101 000 111
  5   0   7

Now, by converting the number role by role, we know each digit will tell us what permissions each role has, with no guessing. If a role has all permissions, it will always have the digit 7, for example.

Coincidentally, converting the number role by role is actually the same as converting it into octal, since there are 3 digits in a role (= 8 possibilities, from 0 to 7). If we run 101000111 through a binary → octal conversion, we can see that it is in fact, 507.

Coding it up

We now know how to properly convert from octal permissions to “symbolic” permissions (the letters) and vice versa.

From octal to symbols:

  1. Convert the octal number to a binary string
  2. Parse the binary string, putting the correct “action” character (i.e. r/w/x) if the current character is a 1, or a - if it’s a 0

To put this into code, we can take advantage of Go’s packages, like strconv. strconv offers a couple very useful functions that we can leverage:

  • ParseInt
  • FormatInt

So to convert from octals to permissions, we can use ParseInt to interpret a command-line arg as an octal number:

octal_num, err := strconv.ParseInt(os.Args[1], 8, 0)

Then, we can use FormatInt to format that number as a binary string4:

binary_str := strconv.FormatInt(octal_num, 2)

Finally, we can iterate through the binary string and construct our symbolic permissions, using a for loop and a switch statement:

var perms string
for i := 0; i < 9; i++ {
    switch {
    case binary_str[i] == '0':
        perms += "-"
    case i%3 == 0:
        perms += "r"
    case i%3 == 1:
        perms += "w"
    case i%3 == 2:
        perms += "x"
        return "", errors.New("unable to parse octal")

And that’s it! When we print out perms, we will have the symbolic permissions that the “magic” octal number represents.

Moving Forward

So far, I’ve coded up taking the octal permissions and converting it to symbols, as well as taking the symbols and converting them to octals.

This was a great way to get me familiar with manipulating strings and numbers of different bases in Go, and there’s probably (? definitely?) more Go-ish ways to do it5.

In the future, I want to take some time to:

  • Understand how the setgid/setuid/sticky bits work!
    • I kind of know how the sticky bit works (only certain people can delete sticky files), but not the other two
  • Understand how Go tests work.
    • There’s a finite number of permutations for the permissions, which means theoretically I can write tests for all of them.
    • I had some experience with go test when practicing on Exercism, but I haven’t had too much time to go back to that so far6.

But for now I’m just happy I have a proper way of translating chmod numbers into readable permissions.

  1. Later on (like - really later on, this year, actually) I discovered that passing -v, or --verbose would show what the explicit permissions are.

    $ chmod -v 555 file.txt
    mode of 'file.txt' changed from 0777 (rwxrwxrwx) to 0555 (r-xr-xr-x)
  2. Julia Evans also has an amazing zine about Unix permissions. She’s also much more succinct than I. ↩︎

  3. There are also the setgid/setuid/sticky actions; however, I’m not going to go into those for now. ↩︎

  4. For extra safety, you may need to pad the beginning of the string with 0s. I did so like this:

    if len(binary_str) < 9 {
        padding := 9 - len(binary_str)
        for i := 0; i < padding; i++ {
            binary_str = "0" + binary_str
  5. Yes, I know I should read Effective Go, but it’s very long and I feel like I should always be taking notes whenever I try reading it… ↩︎

  6. That being said, the Exercism Go track is one of the best-mentored tracks on the site, and I would highly encourage you to work through it. ↩︎