Creating new application on top of SSH

Table of contents

IntroductionBACK TO TOC

As you know, you can use SSH for two things. First, there’s a remote access. You can get access to a command line on a remote computer. Second use is for transferring files. OpenSSH suite comes with a handy tool called scp which allows you to copy files to and from a remote computer over SSH. Files being transferred securely, without exposing their content to someone who may be sniffing our traffic. And of course there’s a WinSCP program that does the same on Windows.

For a long period of time I thought that this is it. OpenSSH comes sewed with two major features: remote access (ssh) and file transfer (scp). Adding a custom feature would require deep understanding of SSH and security, I thought. Apparently I was wrong. It appears that creating a new application that uses SSH as a communication channel is as easy as a pie. Read on.

How scp worksBACK TO TOC

You can run commands on a remote computer using sshBACK TO TOC

One of the neat features of ssh is that it allows you to run commands on a remote computer. To do this, type in ssh command with its arguments as if you were connecting to a remote computer and append to it the command you would like to run. Like this:

alex ~/works/ssh -> ssh alex@ df

This would run df on a remote computer – in our case. Here’s something important. The output of df command will be transferred over SSH to our computer and we will see it as if we were running the command on our local computer.

Same thing will occur if we will run command that requires input on a remote computer. We will type in the arguments here, on our local computer, and ssh will transmit the input over encrypted with SSH channel to the remote computer and feed it to the commands running on the remote computer, as if the input was received from a keyboard on a remote computer. Take a look at the example session that demonstrates this:

alex ~ -> ssh alex@ 'read var; echo ${var} > file.txt'
alex@'s password:
hello world
alex ~ -> ssh alex@ ls
alex@'s password:
alex ~ -> ssh alex@ cat file.txt
alex@'s password:
hello world
alex ~ -> ssh alex@ rm -f file.txt
alex@'s password:
alex ~/works/ssh ->

First command that I’ve entered reads a line of text and saves it in shell variable var. Then it writes the content of the variable into file named file.txt. Second command shows that file.txt was indeed created. Third command shows the content of the file: “hello world” in our case. Finally, the last command deletes the file.

Note that all these commands, their input and output being transferred over SSH, i.e. being encrypted.

Back to scpBACK TO TOC

Apparently, there’s nothing magical about scp. It does not encrypt files before transferring them. In fact it knows nothing about encryption. This is how it works.

It uses ssh to invoke an instance of itself on a remote computer. To let itself know that it is a remote instance, it uses two undocumented command line switches, -f and -t. Then it uses special protocol to communicate with a remote instance of itself. The communication protocol and the actual data, all being transferred over SSH. To make it happen, it uses ssh‘ input/output streams as a transport for sending and receiving data to/from remote computer.

Simple isn’t it? In fact, creating an application that runs on top of SSH and transfers and receives encrypted data, seems to be easier than even creating TCP/IP client-server with sockets. Lets try creating our own application.

Creating our own SSH based applicationBACK TO TOC


Actually, transferring files to a remote computer is a very demonstrative example. So, I will demonstrate an application that sends a file to a remote computer and remote computer saves it on its local disk. I’ve written it in python because it is simpler for me, but you may write it in any programming language. The principles I’ve been using here, which I will explain later in the article, are universal and can be used with any programming language.

As with scp, I’ve created only one program. It has two modes of operation. When invoked without command line arguments, it assumes it is a local instance that should transmit the data. When invoked with command line switch -r, it assumes it is a remote copy and receives data saving it in file.

Lets see the code.



import os
import sys
import popen2

def BeRemote():
	print "Being remote"
	f = open('/home/alex/works/ssh/data2.dat', 'w+b')
	for s in sys.stdin:

def BeLocal():
	print "Being local"
	child = popen2.Popen3('ssh alex@localhost' +
		'/home/alex/works/ssh/ -r')
	f = open('data.dat', 'rb')
	for s in f:
	# Shutting down remote client.
	# By closing its stdin, we're causing it to exit
	# its main loop.

if len(sys.argv) > 1 and sys.argv[1] == '-r':

DiscussionBACK TO TOC

The code starts in line 28 with checking if it has been invoked with command line switches. If it sees -r command line switch, it runs BeRemote() function. Otherwise it runs BeLocal() function.

BeRemote() is rather simple function. It creates a file named data2.dat in directory /home/alex/works/ssh/ (this is where I’ve been developing this project on my computer). Then it enters a loop where it writes everything it reads from standard input into the file (lines 10-11). It will continue saving the data as long as its standard input is open. Once it will be closed, it will close the file and exit (line 12).

BeLocal() is a little more complex. First it spawns ssh connecting to localhost with username alex. Now I know that it is expected to connect to a remote computer, but for the sake of demonstration lets pretend that localhost is a remote computer. It tells ssh to run program named with -r command line swithc. is the name of the script, so in essence it runs itself. -r switch tells it to run in remote mode, that is receiving mode.

It uses popen2 python module to spawn the ssh process. This is similar to using popen() function in C. Basically, it runs a process, opens pipe and redirects process’s input and output through the pipe. Our program sits on the other end of the pipe and uses it to transmit the data over SSH.

Next, the function opens the file (data.dat) we want to transmit and sends it through the pipe (lines 18-21).

Final step is more interesting. It has to tell BeRemote() when it has reached end of file. This could be done with a special communication protocol between remote and local instances of the program – this is what scp does. I did something simlier. Instead of notifying remote that it has reached end of file, I simply close one side of the pipe (line 25). This causes remote side to think it has reached end of file and exit. At the same time, local side waits until remote side will exit (line 26) and then exits itself.

DemonstrationBACK TO TOC

Lets see our little python script in action.

alex ~/works/ssh -> ls -la
total 3836
drwxr-xr-x 2 alex alex    4096 2009-03-22 22:36 ./
drwxr-xr-x 6 alex alex    4096 2009-03-22 00:46 ../
-rw-r--r-- 1 alex alex 4000000 2009-03-22 01:28 data.dat
-rwxr-xr-x 1 alex alex     578 2009-03-22 22:36*
alex ~/works/ssh -> ./
Being local
alex@localhost's password:
alex ~/works/ssh -> ls -la
total 7836
drwxr-xr-x 2 alex alex    4096 2009-03-22 22:36 ./
drwxr-xr-x 6 alex alex    4096 2009-03-22 00:46 ../
-rw-r--r-- 1 alex alex 4000000 2009-03-22 22:36 data2.dat
-rw-r--r-- 1 alex alex 4000000 2009-03-22 01:28 data.dat
-rwxr-xr-x 1 alex alex     578 2009-03-22 22:36*
alex ~/works/ssh -> md5sum data.dat
2e02ecd84be565fa22216e8398ff9b63  data.dat
alex ~/works/ssh -> md5sum data2.dat
2e02ecd84be565fa22216e8398ff9b63  data2.dat
alex ~/works/ssh ->

First I do ls -la to demonstrate that I have only two files in current directory – the data file data.dat and the script. Next I ran ./ It tells us that it is a local side and asks us for a password. Actually, the password request comes from ssh. To avoid being asked for password, you can use identity files as I explained in my SSH crash course.

Then, it transfers the file and exits. After it exits I did ls -la once again and it clearly showed that we now have a new file named data2.dat. We can see that its size is the same as data.dat‘ size. Later I confirmed that this is indeed the same file with md5sum.

ConclusionBACK TO TOC

We saw how easy it is to create encrypted communication channel using SSH and ssh. I hope you’ve found this article useful and interesting. In case you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact me at

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