Many sysv init scripts used a corresponding file in /etc/default to allow the administrator to configure it. Upstart jobs can be modified using .override files. How do I override or configure systemd units, now that systemd is the default in Ubuntu?

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systemd units need not obey files in /etc/default. systemd is easily configurable, but requires that you know the syntax of systemd unit files.

Packages ship unit files typically in /lib/systemd/system/. These are not to be edited. Instead, systemd allows you to override these files by creating appropriate files in /etc/systemd/system/.

For a given service foo, the package would provide /lib/systemd/system/foo.service. You can check its status using systemctl status foo, or view its logs using journalctl -u foo. To override something in the definition of foo, do:

sudo systemctl edit foo

This creates a directory in /etc/systemd/system named after the unit, and an override.conf file in that directory (/etc/systemd/system/foo.service.d/override.conf). You can add or override settings using this file (or other .conf files in /etc/systemd/system/foo.service.d/).

Overriding command arguments

Take the getty service for example. Say I want to have TTY2 autologin to my user (this is not advisable, but just an example). TTY2 is run by the getty@tty2 service (tty2 being an instance of the template /lib/systemd/system/getty@service). To do this, I have to modify the getty@tty2 service.

$ systemctl cat getty@tty2
# /lib/systemd/system/getty@.service
#  This file is part of systemd.
#
#  systemd is free software; you can redistribute it and/or modify it
#  under the terms of the GNU Lesser General Public License as published by
#  the Free Software Foundation; either version 2.1 of the License, or
#  (at your option) any later version.

[Unit]
Description=Getty on %I
Documentation=man:agetty(8) man:systemd-getty-generator(8)
Documentation=http://0pointer.de/blog/projects/serial-console.html
After=systemd-user-sessions.service plymouth-quit-wait.service
After=rc-local.service

# If additional gettys are spawned during boot then we should make
# sure that this is synchronized before getty.target, even though
# getty.target didn't actually pull it in.
Before=getty.target
IgnoreOnIsolate=yes

# On systems without virtual consoles, don't start any getty. Note
# that serial gettys are covered by serial-getty@.service, not this
# unit.
ConditionPathExists=/dev/tty0

[Service]
# the VT is cleared by TTYVTDisallocate
ExecStart=-/sbin/agetty --noclear %I $TERM
Type=idle
Restart=always
RestartSec=0
UtmpIdentifier=%I
TTYPath=/dev/%I
TTYReset=yes
TTYVHangup=yes
TTYVTDisallocate=yes
KillMode=process
IgnoreSIGPIPE=no
SendSIGHUP=yes

# Unset locale for the console getty since the console has problems
# displaying some internationalized messages.
Environment=LANG= LANGUAGE= LC_CTYPE= LC_NUMERIC= LC_TIME= LC_COLLATE= LC_MONETARY= LC_MESSAGES= LC_PAPER= LC_NAME= LC_ADDRESS= LC_TELEPHONE= LC_MEASUREMENT= LC_IDENTIFICATION=

[Install]
WantedBy=getty.target
DefaultInstance=tty1

In particular, I have to change the ExecStart line, which currently is:

$ systemctl cat getty@tty2 | grep Exec     
ExecStart=-/sbin/agetty --noclear %I $TERM

To override this, do:

sudo systemctl edit getty@tty2

And add:

[Service]
ExecStart=
ExecStart=-/sbin/agetty -a muru --noclear %I $TERM

Note that:

  1. I had to explicitly clear ExecStart before setting it again, as it is an additive setting, similar to After, Environment (as a whole, not per-variable) and EnvironmentFile, and opposed to overriding settings like RestartSec or Type. ExecStart can have multiple entries only for Type=oneshot services.
  2. I had to use the proper section header. In the original file, ExecStart is in the [Service] section, so my override has to put ExecStart in the [Service] section as well. Often, having a look at the actual service file using systemctl cat will tell you what you need to override and which section it is in.

Usually, if you edit a systemd unit file, for it to take effect, you need to run:

sudo systemctl daemon-reload

However, systemctl edit automatically does this for you.

Now:

$ systemctl cat getty@tty2 | grep Exec
ExecStart=-/sbin/agetty --noclear %I $TERM
ExecStart=
ExecStart=-/sbin/agetty -a muru --noclear %I $TERM

$ systemctl show getty@tty2 | grep ExecS
ExecStart={ path=/sbin/agetty ; argv[]=/sbin/agetty -a muru --noclear %I $TERM ; ... }

And if I do:

sudo systemctl restart getty@tty2

and press CtrlAltF2, presto! I'll be logged into my account on that TTY.

As I said before, getty@tty2 is an instance of a template. So, what if I wanted to override all instances of that template? That can be done by editing the template itself (removing the instance identifier - in this case tty2):

systemctl edit getty@

Overriding the environment

A common use case of /etc/default files is setting environment variables. Usually, /etc/default is a shell script, so you could use shell language constructs in it. With systemd, however, this is not the case. You can specify environment variables in two ways:

Via a file

Say you have set the environment variables in a file:

$ cat /path/to/some/file
FOO=bar

Then, you can add to the override:

[Service]
EnvironmentFile=/path/to/some/file

In particular, if your /etc/default/grub contains only assignments and no shell syntax, you could use it as the EnvironmentFile.

Via Environment entries

The above could also be accomplished using the following override:

[Service]
Environment=FOO=bar

However, this can get tricky with multiple variables, spaces, etc. Have a look at one of my other answers for an example of such an instance.

Further Reading

Via this mechanism, it becomes very easy to override systemd units, as well as to undo such changes (by simply removing the override file). These are not the only settings which can be modified.

The following links would be useful:

  • 1
    You have to clear the variable before setting it for services not of the type oneshot. This solved my problem. – Colin Apr 2 '16 at 16:26
  • Can anyone point me to where in the systemd docs I can find information on "clearing" the inherited value with ExecStart= as shown in this answer? – Mark Edington Aug 31 '17 at 4:51
  • 3
    @MarkEdington from the systemd.service(5) manpage, section on ExecStart: "Unless Type= is oneshot, exactly one command must be given. When Type=oneshot is used, zero or more commands may be specified. Commands may be specified by providing multiple command lines in the same directive, or alternatively, this directive may be specified more than once with the same effect. If the empty string is assigned to this option, the list of commands to start is reset, prior assignments of this option will have no effect." – muru Aug 31 '17 at 4:53
  • 1
    @Orient you can sudo rm the override file and then systemctl daemon-reload, or you can systemctl edit and replace everything in the override with comments. Comments in service files begin with #. – muru Jan 19 at 8:26
  • 2
    @Orient systemctl revert foo – Ayell Apr 16 at 5:36

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