The wheel group is, perhaps, not widely used today, or is seen as “archaic” and irrelevant. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The wheel group is a group which limits the number of people who are able to su to root. This usually consists of a group named “wheel” and a set of users that are permitted to use the utility ‘su’ in order to change to root.

Many systems, especially either commercial systems or Linux systems, come without wheel groups configured and implemented. At least one Linux distribution, comes with wheel groups preconfigured but not active. However, all or nearly all BSD based systems will come with the wheel group installed and set up.

However, at its simplest, a wheel group implementation requires no special set up. The basic set up, as it was in the beginning, was to do the following:

  1. Create a “wheel” group in /etc/groups
  2. Change the permissions of the “su” command so that only those in the “wheel” group may run it.

That’s all there is to it. Many su implementations, however, added internal support for the wheel group, perhaps with logs kept and a more informative refusal message explaining why su would not run (for those not in the wheel group).

Perhaps one reason that the wheel group is not widely used may have something to do with the GNU project. The GNU implementation of su has this in its info page:

Why GNU `su' does not support the `wheel' group

   (This section is by Richard Stallman.)

   Sometimes a few of the users try to hold total power over all the
rest.  For example, in 1984, a few users at the MIT AI lab decided to
seize power by changing the operator password on the Twenex system and
keeping it secret from everyone else.  (I was able to thwart this coup
and give power back to the users by patching the kernel, but I wouldn't
know how to do that in Unix.)

   However, occasionally the rulers do tell someone.  Under the usual
`su' mechanism, once someone learns the root password who sympathizes
with the ordinary users, he or she can tell the rest.  The "wheel
group" feature would make this impossible, and thus cement the power of
the rulers.

   I'm on the side of the masses, not that of the rulers.  If you are
used to supporting the bosses and sysadmins in whatever they do, you
might find this idea strange at first.

Is it any wonder that GNU/Linux systems don’t enable the wheel group by default? FreeBSD, however, does use the wheel group by default – as does OpenBSD and NetBSD.