In this quick tip, I will share my SSH workflow and how I manage things when it comes to working with multiple remote machines. Unlike “the old days” when we used to have Apache installed locally on our machines — I see you Mamp Server users — now, with the rise of cloud providers like Amazon, Digital Ocean or Microsoft Azure, and products such as Docker, we are working more and more on systems that are spread accross multiple machines, instances, containers, you name it.

Part of my daily routine is working on certain machines that are usually accessible via SSH and my biggest problem, currently, is remembering the ip addresses of the machines I want to connect to, or at least part of the ip addresses so I can do a quick reverse-i-search (CTRL+R on any machine using bash, zsh).
You’re probably thinking: “Maybe you should just use the fish shell and rely on its awesome command completion functionality”, and you are right, but not even the almighty fish shell can save me, so I’ve developed a habit of using my ssh config as much as possible.
The normal way you would connect to a server through SSH would be to issue the following command: ssh user@, insert your password and you’re done.

The approach above makes four false assumptions about me:

  1. I know/remember the username(ok for 1-2 machines, not ok for 10-15)
  2. I know/remember the IP address
  3. I know/remember the password
  4. I am able to type my password correctly

Honestly, I am able to remember everything I mentioned above,for 1-2 servers, but I have to work with 5+ servers, and no two configurations are the same. For this, I have a solution that is called ssh_config. It usually resides on your machine, in your $HOME/.ssh/ directory (assuming you have openssh installed on your machine). To check whether or not you already have the file available on your system, run the first command from the snippet below, and see if your output is similar to mine, and if not, follow the instructions to create it.

# List all information about the config file, under the ssh/ directory
adrian@zen ~/D/blog> ls -al ~/.ssh/config
-rw-r--r--  1 adrian  staff  210 Mar  1 13:59 /Users/adrian/.ssh/config

# If you get "No such file or directory [...]", run the command below
adrian@zen ~/D/blog> touch ~/.ssh/config

# Check again, to see if the file has been properly created
adrian@zen ~/D/blog> ls -al ~/.ssh/config
-rw-r--r--  1 adrian  staff  0 Mar  1 17:12 /Users/adrian/.ssh/config

Now that you’ve created the config file, let’s add stuff to it. A typical configuration, would contain things like the alias you would like to give to your server, your username on that machine, your preferred authentication method, and by putting it all together, you get something similar to the snippet below.

Host remote-machine                       # The shorter name you will use with the ssh command
  HostName                  # The machine's IP address or hostname
  User adrian                             # Your username on the machine
  IdentityFile ~/.ssh/remote_machine.key  # If you don't want to type the password every time, get one of these
  RemoteForward 5858 5858                 # Port forwarding (for tunnelling) - I use it for NodeJS remote debug
  ForwardAgent yes                        # Forward the ssh key to machines that you connect to from the remote machine

A short explanation for each line has been added for each line in the configuration but in order to reap all the benefits that an ssh config file has to offer, I encourage you to go through the documentation for ssh_config, or type man ssh_config in your preferred terminal emulator.

To get a better idea on how a full ssh_config file would look like, you can take a look at the snippet below, that shows a multi-machine config with all the bells and whistles.

# This is my git server
Host git
  User adrian
  IdentityFile ~/.ssh/git_server.key

# I use this to connect to other machines on the same network
# hence, I'm forwarding my connection to the authentication agent
Host manager
  User root
  IdentityFile ~/.ssh/manager.key
  ForwardAgent yes

# Forwarding port 5858 to localhost for remote debugging  
Host nodejs
  User adrian
  IdentityFile ~/.ssh/nodejs.key
  RemoteForward 5858 5858
Host db
  User root
  IdentityFile ~/.ssh/db.key

In order to connect to any of those machines, I just need to run ssh <Host>, so, if I would like to connect to my manager instance, all I need to do is run ssh manager. Would you prefer to ssh root@ and then having to type your password, every time? Didn’t think so.
I really hope you enjoyed this short article and that the knowledge you get from it helps you spend less time on the mundane tasks and more on the creative side of our jobs.

Photo credits:
BMizProductivity - this is working from home…