In the past few days I’ve been working in manual mode on multiple linux boxes simultaneously. I have to follow logs, modify configurations and kill/start applications all at once. I got confused pretty fast of what server am I connected to in a certain console pane, and where are my operations. On top of that my ISP had a huge traffic hit these days, and my VPN connection dropped constantly. I dusted off my knowledge about some tools that boosted my productivity.

I usually don’t like to repeat myself, and supposedly I’ll have to do these modifications for many more machines. So as I see something is working, I take a note of the solution and create a script as I go. I have to see that it works manually, in order to automatize it.


SSH provides secure shell connection to a remote machine. You can work in it just like your local machine. There are multiple authentication methods, I found ssh public key auth feasible in my use case.

  • put ssh keys into authorized-keys of the remote user simply, if you already have access to the server
    • ssh-copy-id <connection>
  • sshpass make it easy to use ssh-copy-id in a script
    • sshpass -p $secretpass ssh-copy-id <connection>
  • remember the passphrases of the ssh keys
    • ssh-add -K ${key_location}
  • ssh port forward
    • ssh -N -L LOCAL_PORT:localhost:REMOTE_PORT <connection>
  • copy keys to the server
    • scp ~/.ssh/my_keyprefix_* '<connection>:~/.ssh/'
  • start ssh service
    • sudo systemctl start ssh.service
  • attach to the already existing byobu session (see below):
    • ssh -t byobu

Where <connection> is the data necessary to establish the ssh connection. Most likely an identity file and the server address: -i ~/.ssh/my_keyprefix.pem user@ I think it’s better to use SSH Config. If you specify Host myserver in the config, you can use case myserver for the <connection> part.

SSH Permissions

SSH is picky with the permission settings.

  • The home folder that contains .ssh folder can not have group write permission.
  • .ssh folder should have 700 octal permission
  • .ssh/authorized_keys and public keys should have 644 octal permission
  • .ssh/config should have 600 octal permission
  • private keys under .ssh/ should have 600 octal permission

Permission basics

Octal permissions in linux specify the permissions of the owner, group and others as the numbers respectively.

The permissions can be any combination of: read (4), write (2) and execute (1).

With that in mind: 644 permission means read permission for everyone, and an extra write permission for the owner.

Permissions can be set with chmod command like: chmod $octal_permission filelist.

SSH Config

I think it’s amazing that you can collect ssh configurations under a custom name, and you can use that name to connect to the specified server.

You need to set the necessary data into:~/.ssh/config.

Host server-1
    User customuser
    IdentityFile /var/opt/customdata/.ssh/id_ed25519

I used rsync to keep some code up to date in my systems, and it made the code significantly easier and less error prone to reference the ssh config already set, instead of typing it out.

Rsync does not proide automatic resync out of the box, but a little bash magic can do wonders.

machine="server-1" # this is the Host in .ssh/config
run_rsync() {
  rsync -azuv --no-o --no-g \
    --exclude "logs" \
    --exclude ".git" \
    "${projectpath}" \
run_rsync; fswatch -o "${projectpath}" | \
    while read f; do run_rsync; done

Debug SSH connection problems

You can debug ssh issues with the verbose flag on the client side, e.g: ssh -vvv server-1.

If you need to debug your issues on the server side, you can set the ssh service to print debug logs by setting LogLevel DEBUG in /etc/ssh/sshd_config. You need to restart the sshd service to apply this modification. systemctl restart sshd

View the logs with e.g: journalctl -f -u sshd.

In my case I needed to access a user that had his home folder outside /home AND had his password locked. On top of that their home folder had group write permissions by default. Such a thrill.

Locked password

The locked password made it harder to put out the ssh key, there are 2 simple solutions to choose from

One would be to set a password manually with: passwd customuser as a root user, then use ssh=copy-id as usual, and finally lock the password again with passwd --lock customuser.

The other solution is to append the public key manually to ~customuser/.ssh/authorized_keys.

Home folder outside /home

In my case selinux did not know that this folder can be used as an ssh_home folder. These few lines permanently fixed it.

sudo semanage fcontext -a -t ssh_home_t ~customuser/.ssh/authorized_keys
sudo semanage fcontext -a -t ssh_home_t ~customuser/.ssh
sudo restorecon -R -v ~customuser/.ssh/
chmod g-w ~customuser

Welcome message

When I log in to a box, I found it beneficial to print a huge unique identifier of where I logged in exactly. It made it easier to keep track of what’s happening.

I found a great tool called FIGlet, that can generate ASCII art like text from ordinary text. As a small practice project, in my free time I put together a simple webapp to showcase an already existing JS renderer.

  ____   _____  ____ __     __ _____  ____            _
 / ___| | ____||  _ \\ \   / /| ____||  _ \          / |
 \___ \ |  _|  | |_) |\ \ / / |  _|  | |_) |  _____  | |
  ___) || |___ |  _ <  \ V /  | |___ |  _ <  |_____| | |
 |____/ |_____||_| \_\  \_/   |_____||_| \_\         |_|

But of course I could have just used cowsay.

< Welcome to St. James Ballroom! >
        \   ^__^
         \  (oo)\_______
            (__)\       )\/\
                ||----w |
                ||     ||

Set SSH banner

SSH banner prints a message when an ssh session connects, before the used logs in.

I aimed for a simple banner, centos have a wiki page that explains the simple steps to achieve it, but since it’s ssh config it should work similarly in other distributions.

  1. Create a /etc/ file and fill it with the desired plaintext context
  2. Edit /etc/ssh/sshd_config, to have this line: Banner /etc/
  3. Restart sshd: systemctl restart sshd

In linux you can specify welcome messages, when you log in, it’s called Message Of The Day or MOTD for short. That opens up after the user has logged in, and before the shell started up. It can be cpntrolled usually in /etc/motd.

Terminal multiplexers

Terminal multiplexers make it easy to manage long running processes in remote machines. They’re especially useful if you have an unreliable network connection, you can start up a session in the remote machine, and when you log in to the machine the next time, you can connect to the same session.

They let you create multiple windows/panes, thus provide a better experience than forward/background jobs.

You can have multiple sessions in a machine at a given time, multiple users can log in to them.

You can use it in your local machine as well, and log in to it from multiple shell emulators if that’s what you need.

Screen and tmux

GNU screen is there since 1987, widely available.

screen -S sessionName       # create session with a name
screen -r sessionName       # reconnect to named session
screen -ls                  # list current sessions
screen -XS sessionName quit # terminate session
screen -r -d                # reconnect to the last session
screen -xr                  # share screen

tmux is newer, created in 2007, has a huge community around it. They operate with key chords, both have a meta character that marks the actions for the multiplexer.

tmux new -s session_name            # create session with a name
tmux attach-session -t session_name # reconnect to named session
tmux ls                             # list current sessions
tmux kill-session -t session_name   # terminate session
tmux new -As0              # attach to default session if exists

tmux layout


My favourite is byobu, it’s a config layer over the other two above. It provides a simple interface for their functionalities. Byobu maps its functionality to the F1-F12 keys.

You can use the key chords that you’re used to, even select the underlying backend on start.

byobu-screen  # any tmux options can be given
byobu-tmux    # any screen options can be given

Basic Keybinding comparison

CTRL+bCTRL-adefault meta
shift+F1meta ?meta ?help
F6meta dmeta ddetach from session
F2meta cmeta CTRL-Ccreate new tab
meta wmeta "choose tab from a list
F3meta nmeta CTRL-Nnext tab
F4meta pmeta CTRL-Pprev tab
meta 0meta CTRL-0switch to tab (0 can be any number)
shift+F2meta "meta SHIFT-ssplit horizontally
CTRL+F2meta %meta |split vertically
meta ometa TABswitch to pane
meta xmeta SHIFT-xclose the pane that has focus
F8meta ,meta SHIFT-arename tab
F7meta [meta ESCstart scroll mode
meta qshow pane numbers if you press a number the cursor will jump to it
meta ;toggle between prev/current pane
meta SPACEtoggle between layouts
meta ztoggle zoom to pane

Note that Byobu can use the underlying backend’s keybindings as well.

Happy coding!

Cover Photo by Kevin Ku from Pexels