Using Rsync and SSH
Keys, Validating, and Automation
This document covers using cron, ssh, and rsync to backup files over
a local network or the Internet. Part of my goal is to ensure no user
intervention is required when the computer is restarted (for passwords,
keys, or key managers).
I like to backup some logging, mail, and configuration information sometimes
on hosts across the network and Internet, and here is a way I have found to
do it. You'll need these packages installed:
- cron (or vixie-cron)
Please note these instructions may be specific to Red Hat Linux versions
7.3, 9, and Fedora Core 3, but I hope they won't be too hard to adapt to
almost any *NIX type OS. The man pages for 'ssh' and 'rsync' should be
helpful to you if you need to change some things (use the "man ssh" and
"man rsync" commands).
First, I'll define some variables. In my explanation, I will be synchronizing
files (copying only new or changed files) one way, and I will be starting
this process from the host I want to copy things to. In other words, I
will be syncing files from /remote/dir/ on remotehost, as
remoteuser, to /this/dir/ on thishost, as thisuser.
I want to make sure that 'rsync' over 'ssh' works at all before I begin
to automate the process, so I test it first as thisuser
$ rsync -avz -e ssh remoteuser@remotehost:/remote/dir /this/dir/
and type in remoteuser
's password when prompted.
I do need to make sure that remoteuser
has read permissions
to /remote/dir/ on remotehost
, and that thisuser
has write permissions to /this/dir/ on thishost
'rsync' and 'ssh' should be in thisuser
's path (use
"which ssh" and "which rsync"), 'rsync' should be in
's path, and 'sshd' should be running on
If that all worked out, or I eventually made it work, I am ready for the
next step. I need to generate a private/public pair of keys to allow
a 'ssh' connection without asking for a password. This may sound dangerous,
and it is, but it is better than storing a user password (or key password)
as clear text in the script
I can also put limitations on where connections made with this key
can come from, and on what they can do when connected.
Anyway, I generate the key I will
use on thishost
$ ssh-keygen -t rsa -b 2048 -f /home/thisuser/cron/thishost-rsync-key
Generating public/private rsa key pair.
Enter passphrase (empty for no passphrase): [press enter here]
Enter same passphrase again: [press enter here]
Your identification has been saved in /home/thisuser/cron/thishost-rsync-key.
Your public key has been saved in /home/thisuser/cron/thishost-rsync-key.pub.
The key fingerprint is:
and now we have a key with no password in the two files mentioned above
Make sure that no other unauthorized user can read the private key file
(the one without the '.pub' extension).
This key serves no purpose until we put the public portion into the
, specifically the one for remoteuser
I use scp to get the file over to remotehost
$ scp /home/thisuser/cron/thishost-rsync-key.pub remoteuser@remotehost:/home/remoteuser/
and then I can prepare things on remotehost
I 'ssh' over to remotehost
$ ssh remoteuser@remotehost
remoteuser@remotehost's password: [type correct password here]
$ echo I am now $USER at $HOSTNAME
I am now remoteuser at remotehost
to do some work.
I need to make sure I have the directory and files I need to authorize
connections with this key
$ if [ ! -d .ssh ]; then mkdir .ssh ; chmod 700 .ssh ; fi
$ mv thishost-rsync-key.pub .ssh/
$ cd .ssh/
$ if [ ! -f authorized_keys ]; then touch authorized_keys ; chmod 600 authorized_keys ; fi
$ cat thishost-rsync-key.pub >> authorized_keys
Now the key can be used to make connections to this host, but these
connections can be from anywhere (that the ssh daemon on remotehost
allows connections from) and they can do anything (that remoteuser
can do), and I don't want that. I edit the 'authorized_keys' file
(with vi) and modify the line with 'thishost-rsync-key.pub' information
on it. I will only be adding a few things in front of what is
already there, changing the line from this:
from="10.1.1.1",command="/home/remoteuser/cron/validate-rsync" ssh-dss AAAAB3Nza
where "10.1.1.1" is the IP (version 4
address of thishost
"/home/remoteuser/cron/validate-rsync" (which is just one of a few options
, including customization
to enhance security)
is a script that looks something like this
case "$SSH_ORIGINAL_COMMAND" in
has a variable address, or shares its address (via NAT or
something similar) with hosts you do not trust, omit the 'from="10.1.1.1",'
part of the line (including the comma), but leave the 'command' portion.
This way, only the 'rsync' will be possible from connections using this
key. Make certain
that the 'validate-rsync' script is executable
and test it.
PLEASE NOTE: The private key, though now somewhat limited in what
it can do (and hopefully where it can be done from), allows the possessor
to copy any file from remotehost that remoteuser
has access to. This is dangerous, and I should take whatever precautions
I deem necessary to maintain the security and secrecy of this key. Some
possibilities would be ensuring proper file permissions are assigned,
consider using a key caching daemon, and consider if I really need this
process automated verses the risk.
Another security detail to consider is the SSH daemon configuration on
. This example focuses on a user (remoteuser
who is not root
. I recommend not using root
as the remote
user because root
has access to every file on remotehost
That capability alone is very dangerous, and the penalties for a mistake
or misconfiguration can be far steeper than those for a 'normal' user.
If you do not use root
as your remote user (ever), and you make
security decisions for remotehost
, I recommend either:
be included in the '/etc/ssh/sshd_config' file on remotehost
These are global settings, not just related to this connection, so be
sure you do not need the capability these configuration options prohibit.
The 'AllowUsers', 'AllowGroups', 'DenyUsers', and 'DenyGroups' key words can be used to restrict SSH access to particular users and groups. They are documented in the man page for "sshd_config", but I will mention that they all can use '*' and '?' as wildcards to allow and deny access to users and groups that match patterns. 'AllowUsers' and 'DenyUsers' can also restrict by host when the pattern is in USER@HOST form.
Now that I have the key with no password in place and configured, I need
to test it out before putting it in a cron job (which has its own small
set of baggage). I exit from the ssh session to remotehost
$ rsync -avz -e "ssh -i /home/thisuser/cron/thishost-rsync-key" remoteuser@remotehost:/remote/dir /this/dir/
If this doesn't work, I will take off the "command" restriction on the key
and try again. If it asks for a password, I will check permissions on the
private key file (on thishost
, should be 600), on 'authorized_keys'
and (on remotehost
, should be 600), on the '~/.ssh/' directory
(on both hosts, should be 700), and on the home directory ('~/') itself
(on both hosts, should not be writeable by anyone but the user).
If some cryptic 'rsync' protocol error occurs mentioning the
'validate-rsync' script, I will make sure the permissions on
'validate-rsync' (on remotehost
, may be 755 if every
user is trusted) allow remoteuser
to read and execute it.
If things still aren't working out, some useful information may be
found in log files. Log files usually found in the /var/log/
directory on most linux hosts, and in the /var/log/secure
log file on Red Hat-ish linux hosts.
The most useful logfiles in this instance will be found on
, but localhost
may provide some
client side information in its logs
If you can't get to the logs, or are just
impatient, you can tell the 'ssh' executable to provide some
logging with the 'verbose' commands: '-v', '-vv', '-vvv'. The
more v's, the more verbose the output. One is in the command above,
but the one below should provide much more output:
$ rsync -avvvz -e "ssh -i /home/thisuser/cron/thishost-rsync-key" remoteuser@remotehost:/remote/dir /this/dir/
Hopefully, it will always just work flawlessly so I never
have to extend the troubleshooting information listed here
Cron Job Setup
The last step is the cron script. I use something like this:
$RSYNC -az -e "$SSH -i $KEY" $RUSER@$RHOST:$RPATH $LPATH
because it is easy to modify the bits and pieces of the command
line for different hosts and paths. I will usually call it something
like 'rsync-remotehost-backups' if it contains backups. I test the
script too, just in case I carefully inserted an error somewhere.
When I get the script running successfully, I use 'crontab -e' to
insert a line for this new cron job:
0 5 * * * /home/thisuser/cron/rsync-remotehost-backups
for a daily 5 AM sync, or:
0 5 * * 5 /home/thisuser/cron/rsync-remotehost-backups
for a weekly (5 AM on Fridays). Monthly and yearly ones are rarer for me,
so look at "man crontab" or
for advice on those.
Alright! Except for the everyday "keeping up with patches" thing,
the insidious "hidden configuration flaws" part, and the unforgettable
"total failure of human logic" set of problems, my work here is done.
The reason behind choosing a SSH key with no password, over options
, is that the automated process will survive a reboot of the host
machine and execute at the next scheduled time without any
intervention on my part (not all machines so automated are always
accessable). If you do not have those requirements, these other
options may lend your implementation more security.
only has SSH1 installed, you may need to use
another key type. Instead of 'rsa' you will need to use 'rsa1'.
You can use 'dsa' instead of 'rsa', but it will still only be
useful for a SSH2 connection (and key length may be an issue
-- thank you
SSH2 connections are more secure than SSH1 connections, but you'll have
to look elsewhere for the details on that ("man ssh-keygen" and
Also, the key creation can be done with the command (
ssh-keygen -b 2048 -f keyfile -t rsa -N '' )
to automate the "no key password part", or (
ssh-keygen -b 2048 -f keyfile -q -t rsa -N '' )
to eliminate any output from the command.
Some configurations use the file 'authorized_keys2' instead of
'authorized_keys'. Look for "AuthorizedKeysFile" in '/etc/ssh/sshd_config'.
If you use a shell other than 'bash' (or other bourne compatible shell), like
'csh' or 'tcsh', the commands listed may not work. Before executing them,
start up a 'bash' (or 'sh', or 'ksh', or 'zsh') shell using the 'bash'
(or 'sh', or 'ksh', or 'zsh') command. After completing the commands,
you will have to exit the 'bash' shell, and then exit the shell your
host spawns normally.
Remember not to insert any newlines into the "authorized_keys" file. The
key information, and the inserted commands associated with that key, should
all be on one line. The key you generate (the nonsensical stuff on the
key line) will be different from the one here.
I have seen one host ignore a properly presented IPv4 address and
instead see the incoming connection as a IPv6-ish sort of address
("::fff:10.1.1.1"). I found the address in '/var/log/messages' on
a Fedora Core 3 Linux host, and it does allow connections from that
host with the IPv6-ish version in the 'authorized_keys' file.
By the time the 'validate-rsync' script runs, a SSH connection has been
made with the SSH key you associated with this command in the
'authorized_keys' file. This example script basically tries to return
'Rejected' to anything other than a command that starts with "rsync --server",
which is what rsync over ssh does on the other end of the connection.
I found this out by running 'ps auxw | grep rsync' on the remote end
of the connection after initializing a long running rsync job, but
an rsync pro said you can add '-v -v -n' to your command line options for
rsync and it will display the command it will use on the server end,
so use that to make your script command more specific if you wish.
The first six 'Rejected' lines try to elimate shell symbols that will
allow a person to execute more than one command within a session
(for example, a short rsync and some naughty command you don't want
running remotely). You can also force the transfer to be read only by
changing the command to "rsync --server --sender*" (thanks David Fred).
"PermitRootLogin no" does what it says: the root
user is not
allowed to login via SSH. "PermitRootLogin forced-commands-only" requires
that all connections, via SSH as root
, need to use public key
authentication (with a key like 'thishost-rsync-key.pub') and
that a command be associated with that key (like 'validate-rsync').
For more explanation, use the "man sshd_config" command. If you are
using Ubuntu, please make sure the package 'openssh-server' is installed
(it is not installed by default).
All kinds of SSH command line switches can be included (quoted) within
the Rsync '-e' command line switch, like non-standard SSH server port
connections (for example: "-p 2222" if SSH listens on port 2222), in
addition to the private key ("-i identity_file") switch. (Per Funke
suggested this and referenced
You can find out what log file SSH will be writing to by looking in
two files: '/etc/ssh/sshd_config' and '/etc/syslog.conf'. 'sshd_config'
contains the parameter "SyslogFacility", which by default is set to
"AUTH", but Red Hat typically sets it to "AUTHPRIV". Whichever it is,
remember the setting and look for it in the 'syslog.conf' file. Usually
you will find a line with 'authpriv.*' followed by some tabs and then
the log file you are searching for. Pay no attention to lines with
'authpriv.none' in them, as they are probaby taking in a many kinds
of messages, but disallowing those from the 'authpriv' syslog facility.
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