One of the biggest benefits to virtual private server/VPS hosting and dedicated hosting is that you get root access. But what does that mean? The root user is the person/account that automatically gets all the files and inputs all the commands that have to do with the operating system (OS). Basically, you’re the CEO, head honcho, judge/jury/executioner of your server and thus the website. You might also hear it called “superuser” or referred to as the root account.
Ultimately, the amount of control you have is nearly limitless, but the vast majority of people don’t want or need all the perks of root access. It’s why so many people choose a managed VPS plan, or hire someone to manage their dedicated server. When you have “root privileges,” that’s comprised of all the powers the root account has. It’s by far the most privileged and you have total control over commands, files, etc. In other words, it’s a powerful tool. You can change the system however you like, give and revoke permissions to read/modify files, and it’s only the root user who can control what other users can and can’t do.
In a Unix operating system or similar, by default the root user is the only one who has access. This stops ordinary users from accessing vulnerable parts of the system. It’s incredibly simple to damage a system on Unix if you have root access, often by mistake. One wrong move and you could open a huge can of worms. However, for those who know what they’re doing, you have all the flexibility you need to totally customize your system. In some cases, this is a must, which is why the root user has full power.
With great power, of course, comes great responsibility (as every Superhero in a graphic novel, comic book, and movie has shown us). In Unix systems, it’s assumed that the root user is a pro at what they’re doing. It’s also assumed that anyone without these abilities won’t be given access. As such, you have no safety net. If you accidentally delete or corrupt a key system file, you can render the whole system useless. Even for professionals, this makes backups of directories and files paramount.
The Root of Problems
Also by default, any process that’s begun by a root user also comes with root privileges. That doesn’t seem like a huge deal, except for the fact that every single application program has programming errors. With so much code, even the most detailed of testing can’t ensure 100 percent perfection. This means a good cybercriminal can identify and take advantage of these errors, gaining control of the system when root privileges are present. A savvy enough hacker can do so without being identified for long periods.
To stay safe, only use the root access when you absolutely need to. Even the most advanced systems administrators can make mistakes. If you use the “su command” when logging in, this will help ensure that you only use your root privileges on an “as needed” basis. You really don’t need root privileges very often—mostly when moving directories and files into/out of system directories, when giving or revoking user privileges, for some repairs, and when copying some files into directories.