Ferry Boender

Programmer, DevOpper, Open Source enthusiast.


Re-use existing SSH agent (cygwin et al)

Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

(Please note that this post is not specific to Windows nor Cygwin; it'll work on a remote unix machine just as well)

On my netbook, I use Windows XP in combination with Cygwin (A unix environment for Windows) and Mintty for my Unixy needs. From there, I usually SSH to some unix-like machine somewhere, so I can do systems administration or development.

Unfortunately, the default use of an SSH agent under Cygwin is difficult, since there's no parent process that can run it and put the required information (SSH_AUTH_SOCK) in the environment. On most Linux distribution, the SSH agent is started after you log in to an X11 session, so that every child process (terminals you open, etc) inherits the SSH_AUTH_SOCK environment setting and SSH can contact the ssh-agent to get your keys. Result? You have to start a new SSH agent, load your key and enter your password for each Mintty terminal you open. Quite annoying.

The upside is, it's not very hard to configure your system properly so that you need only one SSH agent running on your system, and thus only have to enter your password once.

The key lies in how ssh-agent creates the environment. When we start ssh-agent in the traditional manner, we do:

$ eval `ssh-agent`
Agent pid 1784

The command starts the SSH agent and sets a bunch of environment variables:

$ set | grep SSH_

The SSH_AUTH_SOCK is how the ssh command knows how to contact the agent. As you can see, the socket filename is generated randomly. That means you can't reuse the socket, since you can't guess the socket filename.

Good thing ssh-agent allows us to specify the socket filename, so we can easily re-use it.

Put the following in your ~/.bashrc:

# If no SSH agent is already running, start one now. Re-use sockets so we never
# have to start more than one session.

export SSH_AUTH_SOCK=/home/fboender/.ssh-socket

ssh-add -l >/dev/null 2>&1
if [ $? = 2 ]; then
   # No ssh-agent running
   rm -rf $SSH_AUTH_SOCK
   # >| allows output redirection to over-write files if no clobber is set
   ssh-agent -a $SSH_AUTH_SOCK >| /tmp/.ssh-script
   source /tmp/.ssh-script
   echo $SSH_AGENT_PID >| ~/.ssh-agent-pid
   rm /tmp/.ssh-script

What the script above does is, it sets the socket filename manually to /home/yourusername/.ssh-socket. It then runs ssh-add, which will attempt to connect to the ssh-agent through the socket. If it fails, it means no ssh-agent is running, so we do some cleanup and start one.

Now, all you have to do is start a single terminal, and load your keys once:

$ ssh-add ~/.ssh/fboender\@electricmonk.rsa
Enter passphrase for .ssh/fboender@electricmonk.rsa: [PASSWORD]
Identity added: .ssh/fboender@electricmonk.rsa (.ssh/fboender@electricmonk.rsa)

Now you can start as many new terminals as you'd like, and they'll all use the same ssh-agent, never requiring you to enter your password for that key more than once per boot.


I've updated the script with suggestions from Anthony Geoghegan. It now also works if noclobber is set.

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