The Universe of Discourse
Fri, 05 Jan 2007

ssh-agent, revisited
My recent article about reusing ssh-agent processes attracted a lot of mail, most of it very interesting.

  1. A number of people missed an important piece of context: since the article was filed in 'oops' section of my blog, it was intended as a description of a mistake I had made. The mistake in this case being to work really hard on the first solution I thought of, rather than to back up at early signs of trouble, and scout around for a better and simpler solution. I need to find a way to point out the "oops" label more clearly, and at the top of the article instead of at the bottom.

  2. Several people pointed out other good solutions to my problem. For example, Adam Sampson and Robert Loomans pointed out that versions of ssh-agent support a -a option, which orders the process to use a particular path for its Unix domain socket, rather than making up a path, as it does by default. You can then use something like ssh-agent -a $HOME/.ssh/agent when you first start the agent, and then you always know where to find the socket.

  3. An even simpler solution is as follows: My principal difficulty was in determining the correct value for the SSH_AGENT_PID variable. But it turns out that I don't need this; it is only used for ssh-agent -k, which kills the existing ssh-agent process. For authentication, it is only necessary to have SSH_AUTH_SOCK set. The appropriate value for this variable is readily determined by scanning /tmp, as I noted in the original article. Thanks to Aristotle Pagaltzis and Adam Turoff for pointing this out.

  4. Several people pointed me to the keychain project. This program is a front-end to ssh-agent. It contains functions to check for a running agent, and to start one if there is none yet, and to save the environment settings to a file, as I did manually in my article.

  5. A number of people suggested that I should just run ssh-agent from my X session manager. This suggests that they did not read the article carefully; I already do this. Processes running on my home machine, B, all inherit the ssh-agent settings from the session manager process. The question is what to do when I remote login from a different machine, say A, and want the login shell, which was not started under X, to acquire the same settings.

    Other machines trust B, but not A, so credential forwarding is not the solution here either.

  6. After extracting the ssh-agent process's file descriptor table with ls -l /proc/pid/fd, and getting:

            lrwx------    1 mjd      users          64 Dec 12 23:34 3 -> socket:[711505562]

    I concluded that the identifying information, 711505562, was useless. Aaron Crane corrected me on this; you can find it listed in /proc/net/unix, which gives the pathname in the filesystem:

        % grep 711505562 /proc/net/unix 
        ce030540: 00000002 00000000 00010000 0001 01 711505562 /tmp/ssh-tNT31655/agent.31655

    I had suggested that the kernel probably maintained no direct mapping from the socket i-number to the filesystem path, and that obtaining this information would require difficult grovelling of the kernel data structures. But apparently to whatever extent that is true, it is irrelevant, since the /proc/net/unix driver has already been written to do it.

  7. Saving the socket information in a file solves another problem I had. Suppose I want some automated process, say the cron job that makes my offsite network backups, to get access to SSH credentials. I can store the credentials in an ssh-agent process, and save the variable settings to a file. The backup process can then reinstate the settings from the file, and will thenceforward have the credentials for the remote login.

  8. Finally, I should add that since implementing this scheme for the first time on 21 November, I have started exactly zero new ssh-agent processes, so I consider it a rousing success.
Thanks to everyone who wrote in on this matter.

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