A Weird Imagination

SSH multiplexing options

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In my previous post on SSH multiplexing, I gave the following to add to your ~/.ssh/config file without explaining what it actually means:

Host *
ControlMaster auto
ControlPath ~/.ssh/connections/%r_%h_%p

The documentation for ~/.ssh/config can be found at ssh_config(5). Four options are relevant to this post:

Host
The config file is broken up in to sections based on which hosts the configuration options apply to. Host * means these options apply to all connections. If you wanted the options to apply only when connecting to example.com, you could change that line to Host example.com.
Actually, you can also limit configuration options by things other than just the host using the Match directive. For example, this configuration has options for connecting with the username git, presumably due to having multiple git servers that use that username.
ControlMaster
Tells ssh to use multiplexing. Specifically, the default is no, which means it will look for an already open master connection. To actually open a master connection, yes or ask can be used, the latter means that a password prompt will appear when connecting to that master connection. The more useful options for a config file are the auto and autoask options which will use an already open connection if exists, but fall back to acting like yes and ask respectively otherwise.
ControlPath
In order to connect to the master connection, ssh needs a way to communicate with it. This is handled by the master creating a Unix socket which future ssh instances look for. Unix sockets are an IPC mechanism which allows two processes on the same machine to communicate via a connection initiated by one process creating a socket identified by a filename and another using that special file to connect. In comparison with TCP, every server needs its own port number that the client needs to know and any client can connect as long as it knows the port number.
Unix sockets are identified by filenames and ControlPath specifies the filename to use for the socket The %r, %h, %p parts mean the filename should include the remote username, hostname, and port number in order to identify which ssh session is which.
This should usually be enough, but if your home directory is shared among multiple computers, as is common in some university and other large organization setups, then you will also need %l to identify which host you are connecting from. Otherwise ssh may get confused by master connections created by a different host. Luckily, ssh provides a shortcut, which is the %C option which is a hash of all 4 (although it is not available on older versions of ssh):
ControlPath ~/.ssh/connections/%C

or, if you are a disto which does not have %C yet like the latest Ubuntu LTS:

ControlPath ~/.ssh/connections/%L_%h_%p_%r

I used %L for the short version of the local hostname (for example, if %l is foo.example.com, %L would be just foo) because when I used %l, my system complained the filename was too long.

Keep in mind that the socket file is security critical because it is used to piggyback on your existing ssh sessions without authenticating (unless you use the ask or autoask options for ControlMaster), so make sure your ~/.ssh/connections/ directory is readable only by you:

chmod 700 ~/.ssh/connections
ControlPersist
Not used above, the ControlPersist option lets you control when the master connection actually closed. When set to no, it closes with the initial connect. When set to yes it stays open until explicitly closed with ssh -O exit. It can also be set to a length of time to stay open after the last connection is closed.
While the default of ControlPersist is not clearly stated in the documentation, I checked the source code to confirm it does default to no: the default value is set to 0 here if it is still set to its initial value of -1, which is the same value it is given if the configuration file says no.

SSH multiplexing

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The problem

If you are making a lot of SSH connections, starting each connection can add noticeable overhead. Even worse, a firewall might start blocking the connections as many SSH connections from the same source looks a lot like an attacker trying to guess a password, as one of my officemates discovered recently.

The solution

SSH has a feature called multiplexing, which is described in this blog post, along with a few other useful SSH tips. Here's the relevant excerpt:

In a shell:

$ mkdir -p ~/.ssh/connections
$ chmod 700 ~/.ssh/connections

Add this to your ~/.ssh/config file:

Host *
ControlMaster auto
ControlPath ~/.ssh/connections/%r_%h_%p

The details

While ssh is often used as just a secure version of telnet, it's actually closer to being a VPN system, supporting many channels of communication over the same encrypted link, which is how port forwarding over SSH is implemented.

Normally SSH makes a connection and opens a single channel for the terminal. Multiplexing merely means keeping that connection open for additional terminal channels. The settings described tell SSH to keep track of open connections in ~/.ssh/connections/ and automatically reuse an open connection whenever possible.

The firewall

The firewall which caused this post to get written was keeping track of how many new SSH connections were made to a host and only allow a maximum of 3 new connections each minute. As the firewall was not paying attention to whether the connections were accepted, my officemate's script which performed multiple copies and remote commands was getting blocked.