Scheduled Tasks with Systemd Timers

October 31st, 2020 Linux
Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash
Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

Use a Linux system long enough and eventually you'll need to schedule a recurring task. Of course the defacto scheduler is cron (and there's nothing inherently wrong with it) but I've grown to like the flexibility and features of systemd timers. Some of the benefits they provide over cron include:

  • Easily enable/disable/run individual tasks
  • Logging included (with journalctl)
  • The ability to run a "missed" tasks at next boot
  • Easily configured randomized delays
  • And more...

Scheduling tasks with systemd is a little more verbose than cron but still relatively easy. In order to show you an example let's take a look at a use-case I had recently: updating my globally-installed Composer packages on a schedule.

Preface

For those unfamilliar, systemd is composed of "units". A unit is composed of one or more files that define what they do and how they behave. Systemd units cand be either a "system" unit or a "user" unit. Both work exactly the same, however there are some important difference.

System units

  • Live in /etc/sytemd/system/
  • Are configured globally
  • Run as the root user
  • Run all the time

User units

  • Live in /etc/systemd/user/
  • Are configured per-user
  • Run as the currently logged in user
  • Run only when the user is logged in

Also, working with systemd is primarily done via the systemctl (system control) command which we'll be using here. By default the systemctl command operates in the system context. If we wish to work in the user context we must pass the --user flag with our systemctl commands.

Creating a Task

To get started, the first thing we need to do is create our service file that will do the actual work. For this task we will be configuring our service as a user service which, as we learned, lives in /etc/systemd/user/ so let's create it there.

/etc/systemd/user/composer-update.service

[Unit]
Description=Update global composer packages

[Service]
Type=oneshot
ExecStart=composer global update --no-interaction --verbose

This file defines our systemd unit, in this case a service (defined by the .service file extension). It's here we will put the command we want to run.

First we add a description to the [Unit] section explaining what this service does.

Then, we set the command to run in the [Service] section with the ExecStart option. In this case we're running composer global update with some arguments.

We will also set the Type option to oneshot. This tells systemd to run our command and consider it successful after a successful run (that is when it exits with an exit code of 0) and not to worry about it after that since it's not a persistent service.

See the systemd.service documentation for additional information on services.

Let's check on the status of our service now.

$ systemctl --user status composer-update.service

You should see something like the following.

● composer-update.service - Update global composer packages
     Loaded: loaded (/etc/xdg/systemd/user/composer-update.service; static; vendor preset: enabled)
     Active: inactive (dead)

Here we can see the name of our service and it's description at the top. Below that it shows us that the service is loaded and inactive.

Now let's test our service to make sure it works. To test it we can manually run it with systemctl start.

$ systemctl --user start composer-update.service

Now if we check the status status again we should see the same info as before followed by the last few lines of output from the command.

● composer-update.service - Update global composer packages
     Loaded: loaded (/etc/xdg/systemd/user/composer-update.service; static; vendor preset: enabled)
     Active: inactive (dead)

Oct 31 08:56:17 Starscream composer[38204]:   0/10 [>---------------------------]   0% < 1 sec
Oct 31 08:56:18 Starscream composer[38204]:  10/10 [============================] 100% < 1 secPackage padraic/phar-updater is abandoned, you should avoid using it. No replacement was suggest>
Oct 31 08:56:18 Starscream composer[38204]: Generating autoload files
Oct 31 08:56:18 Starscream composer[38204]: > post-autoload-dump: PackageVersions\Installer->dumpVersionsClass
Oct 31 08:56:18 Starscream composer[38202]: composer/package-versions-deprecated: Generating version class...
Oct 31 08:56:18 Starscream composer[38202]: composer/package-versions-deprecated: ...done generating version class
Oct 31 08:56:18 Starscream composer[38204]: 68 packages you are using are looking for funding.
Oct 31 08:56:18 Starscream composer[38204]: Use the `composer fund` command to find out more!
Oct 31 08:56:18 Starscream systemd[6614]: composer-update.service: Succeeded.
Oct 31 08:56:18 Starscream systemd[6614]: Finished Update global composer packages.

Great, we know our command worked! However, if we wish to see the full output we can use journalctl to see the complete history log.

$ journalctl --user --unit composer-update.service

Scheduling the Task

Now that we have a systemd service to do the work let's create a unit to run our service periodically. To do this we create a systemd timer. The timer file must have the same base name as our service file but with the .timer file extension instead.

/etc/systemd/user/composer-update.timer

[Unit]
Description=Run composer-update.service

[Install]
WantedBy=timers.target

[Timer]
OnCalendar=weekly
Persistent=true

Again we'll start by adding a Description.

Next, in order for systemd to configure our timers on boot we need to add the WantedBy=timers.target line to the [Install] section. This is an important piece so don't forget it.

We can then define when to run the task with the OnCalendar=weekly option in the [Timer] section. This, as the name implies, will run our task once per week.

Lastly, let's use the Persistent=true option to have our task run as soon as possible if a scheduled run was missed. This is useful if your system doesn't run 24/7 and might be off during a previously scheduled run.

See the systemd.timer documentation for additional information on timers.

Enable the Schedule

At this point we have our service to do the work and our timer that defines when to do the work but if we stop here it will never run. If we run systemctl --user list-timers right now we'll see a list of your currently enabled timers, however, our newly created timer is not in this list. Let's enable the timer now.

$ systemctl --user enable composer-update.timer

Running systemctl enable tells systemd to automatically start the timer on boot. Since our system is already running it hasn't been started yet. We could reboot to get the timer running but let's just manually start it instead.

$ systemctl --user start composer-update.timer

Now if we view our timers again we should see now see our timer in the list.

NEXT                        LEFT        LAST                        PASSED    UNIT                  ACTIVATES              
Mon 2020-11-02 00:00:00 MST 2 days left n/a                         n/a       composer-update.timer composer-update.service

And that's it! We now have our scheduled task running and it will work in the background automatically.

For additional information about systemd check out the man pages.