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Auto initializing SSH Remote Tunnel
SSH is so incredibly useful

I often find SSH tunnels absolutely indispensable in my line of work for multiple reasons including secure proxies (tunneling) over insecure connections and connecting computers and programs together over difficult network setups involving NATs and firewalls.

One such example of this I ran into recently is that I have a server machine (hereby called “the client”) that I wanted to make sure I have access to no matter where it is. For this I created an auto initializing SSH remote port tunnel to a server with a static IP Address (hereby called “the proxy server”) which attempts to keep itself open when there is problems.

The first step of this was to create the following bash script on the client that utilizes the OpenSSH’s client to connect to an OpenSSH server on the proxy server for tunneling:

#!/bin/bash
for ((;;)) #Infinite loop to keep the tunnel open
do
	ssh USERNAME@PROXYSERVER -o ExitOnForwardFailure=yes -o TCPKeepAlive=yes -o ServerAliveCountMax=2 -o ServerAliveInterval=10 -N -R PROXYPORT:localhost:22 &>> TUNNEL_LOG #Create the SSH tunnel
	echo "Restarting: " `date` >> TUNNEL_LOG #Write to the log file "TUNNEL_LOG" whenever a restart is attempted
	sleep 1 #Wait 1 second in between connection attempts
done
The parts of the command that create the SSH tunnel are as follows:
Part of Command Description
ssh The OpenSSH client application
USERNAME@PROXYSERVER The proxy server and username on said server to connect to
-o ExitOnForwardFailure=yes Automatically terminate the SSH session if the remote port forward fails
-o TCPKeepAlive=yes
-o ServerAliveCountMax=2
-o ServerAliveInterval=10
Make sure the SSH connection is working, and if not, reinitialize it. The connection fails if server keepalive packets that are sent every 10 seconds are not received twice in a row, or if TCP protocol keepalive fails
-N “Do not execute a remote command. This is useful for just forwarding ports” (This means no interactive shell is run)
-R PROXYPORT:localhost:22 Establish a port of PROXYPORT on the proxy server that sends all data to port 22 (ssh) on the client (localhost)
&>> TUNNEL_LOG Send all output from both stdin and stderr to the log file “TUNNEL_LOG”

For this to work, you will need to set up public key authentication between the client and utilized user on the proxy server. To do this, you have to run “ssh-keygen” on the client. When it has finished, you must copy the contents of your public key file (most likely at “~/.ssh/id_rsa.pub”) to the “~/.ssh/authorized_keys” file on the user account you are logging into on the proxy server. You will also have to log into this account at least once from the client so the proxy server’s information is in the client’s “known_hosts” file.

For security reasons you may want the user on the proxy server to have a nologin shell set since it is only being used for tunneling, and the above mentioned public key will allow access without a password.

For network access reasons, it might also be worth it to have the proxy port and the ssh port on the proxy server set to commonly accessible ports on all network setups (that a firewall wouldn’t block). Or you may NOT want to have it on common ports for other security reasons :-).

If you want the proxy port on the proxy server accessible from other computers (not only the proxy server), you will have to turn on “GatewayPorts” (set to “yes”) in the proxy server’s sshd config, most likely located at “/etc/ssh/sshd_config”.


The next step is to create a daemon that calls this script. The normal method for this in Linux would be to use inittab. This can be a bit cumbersome though with Linux distributions that use upstart, like Ubuntu, so I just cheated in it and created the following script to initialize a daemon through rc.d:

#!/bin/bash
echo -e '#!/bin/bash\nfor ((;;))\ndo\n  ssh USERNAME@PROXYSERVER -o TCPKeepAlive=yes -o ExitOnForwardFailure=yes -o ServerAliveCountMax=2 -o ServerAliveInterval=10 -N -R PROXYPORT:localhost:22 &>> TUNNEL_LOG\n  echo "Restarting: " `date` >> TUNNEL_LOG\n  sleep 1\ndone' > TUNNEL_SCRIPT_PATH #This creates the above script
echo -e '#!/bin/bash\ncd TUNNEL_SCRIPT_DIRECTORY\n./TUNNEL_SCRIPT_EXECUTABLE &' > /etc/init.d/TUNNEL_SCRIPT_SERVICE_NAME #This creates the init.d daemon script. I have the script set the working path before running the executable so the log file stays in the same directory
chmod u+x TUNNEL_SCRIPT_PATH /etc/init.d/TUNNEL_SCRIPT_SERVICE_NAME #Set all scripts as executable
update-rc.d TUNNEL_SCRIPT_SERVICE_NAME defaults #Set the run levels at which the script runs
WinampRC
When the broad solution won’t cut it, get specific

I wrote earlier about my new entertainment center and how evil it has been. Unfortunately, things have only been getting worse. After trying to play music on it while torrenting or doing other things, I found out it can pretty much only do 1 task at a time, and barely, so I’ve decided to make it now only act as a music station and occasionally watch video through it when the video doesn’t require too much power. I even found an old 256MB stick of PC2700 RAM to put in it (yay for finding random antiquated computer parts around the house!), which did not help, as expected. This regrettably means I will have to keep my current home server at its job, which is a major power hog, and way too powerful for what it does, but ah well.

When listening to music I have the obvious need to easily pause playback, and the occasional need to skip songs I don’t feel like listening to ATM. I would normally use the multiple remote desktop hack for this, but the computer just can’t handle 2 XP sessions going at once. For this reason, Synergy (a great way to do KVM through software) would normally be the perfect fallback solution, except I’d rather not have to use my TV (which is the computer’s primary video output) just to control music on the surround sound system. That, and I’d rather not have to use the TV at all for the computer, because, as written before, I have to go through 5 minutes of hoops to get video working right on it. So the solution was to find a remote way to control Winamp, the only music player I’ve used since around ’98 :-).

After some searching, I found WinampRC, and it fits the remote control solution perfectly, especially as it is super lightweight! The only real problem I have with it is that its playlist editor is rather underdeveloped, and it’s hard to add music, especially in batches. Another minor problem is that there are no global keyboard shortcuts :-(, but I can fix this later with other software through macros. All in all though, I’m very happy with it :-).


[Edit on 2008-09-03 @ 7:34am]

Unfortunately, one other semi-major problem has crept up with the program, and it will be a hard one, if not impossible, to diagnose. Sometimes a few seconds after switching over to a new song, it automatically skips to the next song on the list. I can only assume this is because it has improperly measured audio playback times and thinks the previous song finished after it already did. This isn’t as bad as it could be though, and is only occasional, so I won’t be looking for another solution just yet.


[Edit on 2008-09-06 @ 4:30pm]

Ok, just using a normal keyboard, with a PS/2 extension cord, hooked up to the computer to issue shortcuts ~.~ . At least I don’t have to keep the TV on still.

Multiple Windows XP Sessions
Making XP act like Windows Server

All of the Windows lines of OSs from XP through Windows Server 2003 (or 2005 or 2007?) are, to my knowledge and IMO, basically the exact same thing, with just some minor tweaks and extra software for the more expensive versions. My version of XP Professional even comes with IIS (Internet Information Services - Microsoft’s web/ftp/mail server suite). One of my favorite XP hacks adds on a desperately needed functionality found only in Windows Server editions, which is allowing multiple user sessions on a machine at once. This basically means allowing multiple people to log onto a machine at the same time through Remote Desktop (Microsoft’s internal Windows VNC client). I find the most useful function by far of this is the “Remote Control” feature, which allows a second logged in user to see exactly what is on the screen of another session, and if permissions are given, to take control of it. This is perfect for those people whom you often have to trouble shoot computer problems for, eliminating the need for a trip to their location or 3rd party software to view their computer.

This hack requires a few registry modifications, a group policy modification, and a DLL replacement. The DLL replacement was provided by Microsoft in early versions of XP SP2 when they were tinkering with allowing this feature in XP. I found the information for all this here a number of years ago and it has provided itself invaluable since. Unfortunately, this does not work on XP Home edition, just XP Professional. I tried adapting it once and wasted a lot of time :-\. The following is the text from where I got this hack.

Concurrent Remote Desktop Sessions in Windows XP SP2

I mentioned before that Windows XP does not allow concurrent sessions for its Remote Desktop feature. What this means is that if a user is logged on at the local console, a remote user has to kick him off (and ironically, this can be done even without his permission) before starting work on the box. This is irritating and removes much of the productivity that Remote Desktop brings to Windows. Read on to learn how to remove that limitation in Windows XP SP2

A much touted feature in SP2 (Service Pack 2) since then removed was the ability to do just this, have a user logged on locally while another connects to the terminal remotely. Microsoft however removed the feature in the final build. The reason probably is that the EULA (End User License Agreement) allows only a single user to use a computer at a time. This is (IMHO) a silly reason to curtail Remote Desktop’s functionality, so we’ll have a workaround.

Microsoft did try out the feature in earlier builds of Service Pack 2 and it is this that we’re going to exploit here. We’re going to replace termsrv.dll (The Terminal Server) with one from an earlier build (2055).

To get Concurrent Sessions in Remote Desktop working, follow the steps below exactly:

  1. Download the termsrv.zip file and extract it somewhere.
  2. Reboot into Safe Mode. This is necessary to remove Windows File Protection. [Dakusan: I use unlocker for this, which I install on all my machines as it always proves itself useful, and then usually have to do a “shutdown -a” from command line when XP notices the DLL changed.]
  3. Copy the termsrv.dll in the zip to %windir%\System32 and %windir%\ServicePackFiles\i386. If the second folder doesn’t exist, don’t copy it there. Delete termsrv.dll from the dllcache folder: %windir%\system32\dllcache
  4. Merge the contents of Concurrent Sessions SP2.reg file into the registry. [Dakusan: Just run the .reg file and tell XP to allow the action.]
  5. Make sure Fast User Switching is turned on. Go Control Panel -> User Accounts -> Change the way users log on or off and turn on Fast User Switching.
  6. Open up the Group Policy Editor: Start Menu > Run > ‘gpedit.msc’. Navigate to Computer Configuration > Administrative Templates > Windows Components > Terminal Services. Enable ‘Limit Number of Connections’ and set the number of connections to 3 (or more). This enables you to have more than one person remotely logged on.
  7. Now reboot back into normal Windows and try out whether Concurrent Sessions in Remote Desktop works. It should!

If anything goes wrong, the termsrv_sp2.dll is the original file you replaced. Just rename it to termsrv.dll, reboot into safe mode and copy it back.

The termsrv.dl_ file is provided in the zip is for you slipstreamers out there. Just replace that file with the corresponding file in the Windows installation disks.



I have included an old copy of the above web page, from when I first started distributing this, with the information in the hack’s zip file I provide.

If you want to Remote Control another session, I think the user needs to be part of the “Administrators” group, and don’t forget to add any users that you want to be able to remotely log on to the “Remote Desktop Users” group.

This is all actually part of an “Enhanced Windows XP Install” document I made years ago that I never ended up releasing because I hadn’t finished cleaning it up. :-\ One of these days I’ll get it up here. Some of the information pertaining to this hack from that document is as follows:

  • Any computer techy out there that has tried to troubleshoot over the phone knows how much of a problem/pain in the anatomy it is, and for this reason, I install this hack which makes it painless to automatically connect to a users computer through remote desktop, which can then be remotely viewed or controlled via their displayed console session.
  • I often use this hack myself when I am running computers without keyboards/mice, like my entertainment computer. For a permanent solution for something like this though, I recommend a KM (Keyboard/Mouse) solution like synergy, which allows manipulating one computer via a keyboard and mouse on another.
  • Your user account password must also not be blank. Blank passwords often cause problems with remote services.
  • The security risk for this is a port is opened for someone to connect to like telnet or SSH on Unix, which is a minimal risk unless someone has your username+password.
  • You have to have a second username to log into, which can be done under Control Panel > User Accounts, or Control panel > Administrative Tools > Computer Management > System Tools > Local users and Groups.
  • If you want the second user to be able to log in remotely, make sure to add them under Control Panel > System > Remote > Select Remote users, and also check “allow users to connect remotely to this computer”.
  • You also need to know the IP address of the user’s computer you want to connect to, and unfortunately, they are not always static. If you run into this, you may want to use a DDNS service like mine.
  • You may also run into the unfortunate circumstance of NAT/Firewalled networks, which is beyond the scope of this document. Long story short, you need to open up port 3389 in the firewall and forward it through the router/NAT (this is the port for both remote desktop and remote assistance).
  • You may also want to change the port number to something else so a port scanner will not pick it up. To connect to a different port, on the client computer, in remote desktop, you connect to COMPUTERIP:PORT like www.mycomputer.com:5050.
    • Registry Key: HKLM\System\CurrentControlSet\Control\TerminalServer\WinStations\RDP-Tcp\PortNumber - Set as your new port number
    • This requires a reboot to work.
    • Make sure you don’t provide a port that’s already used on the computer, and you probably shouldn’t make it a standard port either [21 [ftp], 25 [smtp], 80 [http], etc])
  • You can also log into their current console session by going to the task manager (ctrl+shift+esc in full screen, or right click taskbar and go to “task manager”) > Users > Right click username > Remote control
    • This will ask the user at the computer if they want to accept this. To have it NOT ask them, do the following:
      • Start > Run > gpedit.msc [enter] > computer configuration > administrative templates > windows components > terminal services
      • Double click the option “Sets rules for remote control of terminal services user sessions”
      • Enable it, and for the “Options” setting, set “Full control without users permission”
  • If the ability for you to access a client’s computer without their immediate permission or knowledge is too “dangerous” for their taste, you may suggest/use Remote Assistance, which is more troublesome, but much more “secure” sounding.