Using GNU Screen to manage terminal sessions

29 April 2012 — 1 Comment

Whether you’re using Mac OSX, Windows or Linux, we’re all using a so-called “window manager”. Most are graphical user interfaces; and that’s a good thing 🙂 But as a sysadmin I need to manage many servers. Servers without a graphical user interface. So, how to handle that?

One could just ssh into a server when you need to do work on a given server. Depending on the terminal program you use, you might be able to have multiple sessions at the same time, preferably in tabs. It looks like this when 3 tabs are open:

Although this works well, it has one drawback for me: it only works on one computer. And when you turn off your computer everything is gone and disconnected. Since I’m working on multiple computers (desktop/laptop), multiple OS’es (OSX, Ubuntu) and multiple places (Work, Home), this no longer worked for me and I started looking for a better solution.

GNU Screen to the rescue! GNU Screen is a full-screen window manager, but terminal based. That is, it works in interactive shells such as a ssh session and is able to keep running while disconnected.

Starting a screen is easy:

screen -S screenname

You can attach and detach a session when needed. To detach, press Ctrl+a+d. To reattach enter:

screen -r screenname

This means that no matter on what computer I login, on any place, I always am able to attach a running screen. It looks like this:

Note the bar at the bottom where the tabs are. You can even give them a name!

GNU Screen can be a bit obscure to configure. After googling a lot and some help from co-workers, I have now configured GNU Screen as you can see on the above image. Configuration is read from the .screenrc file in your homedir. In the image above you can see my .screenrc file.

Commands in GNU Screen are all prefixed by a control command, the default is Ctrl+a. This means that all commands you type will be entered in the terminal you’re connected to, except commands followed directly after you press Ctrl+a. In the manual page you’ll find C-a, which is short for Ctrl+a.

When you want to create a new tab, enter Ctrl+a+c. To change from one tab to the other, you press Ctrl+a+2 to go to tab #2. Ctrl+a+spacebar brings you to the next tab. To name that tab, enter Ctrl+a+A, etc. It takes a bit of time to get used to it, but for me it works very well.

GNU Screen is a window manager, so apart from multiple tabs, you can even split the window to host multiple screens next to each other. To split vertically you enter Ctrl+a+|. Ctrl+a+tab brings you to the newly created space. You then create a new tab there, like Ctrl+a+c. It looks like this:

Like I said, Ctrl+a+tab switches between the left and right screen. In each you can call any tab that is below with Ctrl+a+tabnumner, or toggle between them using the spacebar.

Need to go away and want to protect your screens? Enter Ctrl+a+x and you’re screens will be locked. You need to enter the password of the connected user to unlock.

This is just a quick introduction of what is possible with screen. Have a look at the man page:

man screen

or use Google to get some more configuration examples. Have fun!

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Using key-based ssh authentication with ssh-agent and GNU screen « Remi Bergsma's blog - January 23, 2013

    […] this to work with GNU screen There’s a little problem when using this technique with GNU screen. When you reconnect to a running screen session from another location, the environment variable […]

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