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I understand that the former is loaded prior to the latter, but what is the difference in their purpose and otherwise? Are there any good reasons I should set some variables in one and not the other?

What little I understand is that /etc/environment seems to exist to set up environment for all processes run by the system, while /etc/profile is for setting up environment used and propagated from the login shell, correct?

And regarding the difference, which program traditionally reads /etc/environment? Is it related to POSIX, or just a convention?

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/etc/environment is not part of POSIX, it belongs to PAM (Pluggable Authentication Module), and only programs compiled with PAM support are able to use it (primarily login systems, which subsequently start the shell or user environment). This means it isn't even read by your shell.

You can see the programs using /etc/environment with grep -l pam_env /etc/pam.d/*.

So /etc/environment is used for setting variables for programs which are usually not started from a shell.

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Extract from The Ubuntu help

/etc/environment - This file is specifically meant for system-wide environment variable settings. It is not a script file, but rather consists of assignment expressions, one per line. Specifically, this file stores the system-wide locale and path settings.

/etc/profile - This file gets executed whenever a bash login shell is entered (e.g. when logging in from the console or over ssh), as well as by the DisplayManager when the desktop session loads.

I think all this is just a convention but not far from a standard (I don't know about RedHat like systems ).

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  • It works on RedHat (as of 7.6). The '/etc/environment' is empty was my server and setting VAR=value took effect in a shell (after re-login). May 15, 2019 at 17:37
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    I think one of the most important differences is that /etc/environment is not interpreted by bash - therefore expressions or external system calls just do not work.
    – queeg
    Feb 5, 2022 at 13:51

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