Stupid SSH Tricks: Some Essentials


Any of us who are familiar with OpenSSH assume that everyone who wants to use it knows how to. But every day, there is some new thing about it that we learn and there are plenty of people who know little about it. I am hoping to share some of what I consider to be essential knowledge about the OpenSSH client as well as dispel some misunderstandings. It is quite a powerful tool when you really delve deeply into it.

Q1. Isn’t OpenSSH just an encrypted telnet program?
A1. Short answer, no. The more complete answer is that it’s a suite of programs that provide:
-remote shell access (ie. like telnet)
-remote execution of programs (both text and gui)
-remote data pipes for programs that use standard in/out
-data compression
-TCP tunneling
-ftp-like file transfers
-rcp-like file copying
-public key encryption (of all data passed between client and server)/authentication (no need for passwords)
-GUI login prompt for remote execution of X applications with ‘gnome-ssh-askpass’
-More recently, VPN functionality by way of the Linux tun/tap virtual network device driver

And I’m sure there’s more… I’m kind of an intermediate user of OpenSSH.

Q2. Setting up tunnels is a pain. What’s up with this Local/Remote Forward stuff?
A2. Actually, ‘man ssh_config’ is your friend. If you become familiar with the ~/.ssh/config file, you will find yourself not needing to type much to make connections with OpenSSH. Nearly every command line option for the ssh client can be controlled in this file. For example, I’ve set up some parameters in my ~/.ssh/config file and called the profile “home”. Now I just type: ‘ssh home’ and I’m in with all the client options in place. The following is an example of some useful things to put in your ~/.ssh/config file:

-Assume that I am connecting from internally at my home (
- is my web server at home
- is my workstation at home
-We’ll pretend my workstation at work has TCP port 5022 accessible on the internet for it’s OpenSSH server and that it’s internet routeable address is (which we know is in private address space. Just pretend…)

Example ‘~/.ssh/config’:

# My ‘webserver’ connection profile. All I
# need to do to ssh into the web server now
# is type ‘ssh webserver’. I am automatically
# prompted for the password for ‘george’.
host webserver
User george

# My ‘work’ connection profile with non
# standard port for ssh (5022).
# I’ve also included one LocalForward line to
# forward port 80 from a web server at work to
# port 4080 on my workstation in front of me.
# So… if I connect with ‘ssh work’ and log in,
# and point my browser here at home to
#, I see the internal web site
# at work here at home.
# The RemoteForward line works in reverse. It
# sends specified TCP ports from my workstation
# in front of me at home to my workstation at work. In
# this case, OpenSSH is pushing port 5900 (vnc)
# from (here at home) to my
# workstation at work. If I leave this connection
# up and go to work. I can run ‘vncviewer
#’ in my office at work and log into my workstation at home
# with vnc if needed.
host work
port 5022
User george
RemoteForward 5900:

Q3. Yeah… but I use Windows and I don’t have time to mess with Linux. So how does this help me?

A3. The best way to get OpenSSH (client and server) going under Windows and enjoy all the benefits is to install and use Cygwin (click here to download the installer). It’s pretty straightforward if you aren’t the sort who is afraid to get into a little *nix command line on your Windows box. You have the option of either installing a full Cygwin environment or just installing the needed base components, OpenSSL, OpenSSH, and some admin utilities to run OpenSSH as a Windows service. There are a few sets of instructions on the Internet to get you started, this being one of the better ones. At one point there was a Windows installer for OpenSSH, but it is no longer maintained and so is too out of date to consider at this point. The recommended path is Cygwin. Finally, if you’re the kind of person who uses Windows and Linux and you compile stuff from source, that is also an option with Cygwin. Just make sure you have the GNU tool chain installed in Cygwin.

Q4. Why are the docs about OpenSSH on the net so hard to understand?
A4. It took me a good deal of digging to try and find some useful info for tunneling and Public Key info for OpenSSH when I was first starting out. So, yes, the documentation could use some major improvements for people who are a little less technically inclined. To be honest, I think a nice GUI framework around OpenSSH would go a long way to getting more people to use it. There is PuTTY for Windows and it can be made to work in the context of what we’re talking about here, but it has the problem of just presenting itself as a telnet-like client and immediately turning people off who don’t need “telnet”. For example, “I never use shells or command line, why would I need an ssh telnet client”? Trying to convey the fact that telnet and OpenSSH are not the same thing, is difficult. If there was just an OpenSSH standalone “Tunneling” GUI app, I think more interest in OpenSSH would grow on the Windows side. Still, when it comes to the basics of OpenSSH on Unix, the man pages are currently the best resource. The best places to look are:

‘man sshd_config’ – Tweak your ssh server to do exactly what you need
‘man ssh_config’ – Find out what else you can do with ~/.ssh/config to minimize your command strings
‘man scp’ – Learn how to copy files AND directories using ‘scp’
‘man sftp’ – A command line FTP-like interface for putting and getting files viw OpenSSH (I used to use this all the time, but have since moved to ‘scp’.)
‘man ssh’ – Check out the less frequently used options.

Q5. Someone mentioned that I can use ‘ssh’ in combination with ‘tar’ or ‘rsync‘ for remote backup. Is that true?
A5. More or less, depending on what you consider a useful backup. I’ve used ssh and tar for “imaging” Linux boxes. It works well, but has expected limitations. A quick example of using ssh, tar, and gzip to “image” BoxA to BoxB. Assume that we have set up ~/.ssh/config to include all needed info for username and hostname:

Backing up ‘/’ on BoxA to BoxB, intitiated from BoxB:
ssh BoxA “tar -cf – / –exclude=/proc/* –exclude=/var/tmp/*” | gzip -c > /home/admin/images/BoxA.tar.gz

Restoring ‘/’ to BoxC from the archive on BoxB, intiated from BoxC:
ssh BoxB “gunzip -c /home/admin/images/BoxA.tar.gz” | (cd / ; tar -xvf -)

You can also use the excellent ‘rsync’ command to synchronize two directories on two different machines and with the ‘-e ssh’ option tunnel it all through OpenSSH for encryption. I use this method to backup the family photos from the file server at home to a file server at my parent’s house on a nightly basis.

Using ‘rsync’:
rsync -auvlxHS -e “ssh george@remoteserver:/remotedirectory /localdirectory
Remember ‘man rsync’ is your friend…

Q6. Did you say something about VPN?

A6. Yes. With a big note saying that I’ve not tried this yet: As of version 4.3 of OpenSSH, when used in combination with the Linux kernel (or the Windows TAP/TUN Win-32 driver) tap/tun module allows for real IP tunnels between both endpoints. These tunnels are capable of relaying TCP, UDP, ICMP traffic. This is not port forwarding as discussed above, but instead true VPN. I will likely post some more info once I do try it out. I’ve been using the OpenSSL based OpenVPN for my VPN needs and have been fairly happy with it. However, it might be nice to standardize on OpenSSH for VPN.

Well… that’s it for now. There’s more to come. I know that there are people more equipped to discuss this than I am, but I am hoping to attract the curious who haven’t had the time or energy to try. I encourage anyone who is curious to give it a try no matter what platform you’re on. In the long run it’s quite a valuable tool.


2 Responses to “Stupid SSH Tricks: Some Essentials”

  1. FYI, there is still an active Windows installer that makes it easy to install SSH:

  1. 1 The things that are better left unspoken : Remotely managing your Server Core using SSH

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