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You may not need localtunnel or ngrok

It's become a custom amongst web developers to write »you may not need $insert_tool« posts. Continuing with that tradition, here's my stab at why you might not need and

Today's tool in question:

localtunnel exposes your localhost to the world for easy testing and sharing! No need to mess with DNS or deploy just to have others test out your changes.

As naming things is hard, we have a JavaScript localtunnel via npm, a python localtunnel via ruby gems and a go localtunnel available to us. And there are the prominent services and

When I shared that on Twitter the other day, I got two responses going different directions. On the "positive" side there was Dirk being surprised localtunnel was now on npm and explaining how useful the tool is for conferences and demos. The "negative" side was Tobias, complaining how you don't need any of that, if you'd only understood SSH. What he neglected to mention is that you also need your own server that you can connect to via SSH.

Having my own root servers and dot wanting to die dumb I investigated SSH Reverse Tunneling and with a bit of help from Christian finally figured out what I needed to do.

Configuring sshd

Let's first check if we even need to configure anything at all. Connect to your server ($server) and with privileges (su or sudo) run the following command:

sshd -T | grep -E 'gatewayports|allowtcpforwarding'

the output looks like this (with yes and no depending on your current configuration):

gatewayports no
allowtcpforwarding yes

We need to make sure both values are set to yes in the sshf config file - usually located at /etc/ssh/sshd_config, or /etc/sshd_config if you're on a Mac.

User-Specific sshd Configuration

You can limit the privilege of port forwarding to your own user by using a Match User statement:

# allow reverse tunneling only to the user rrehm
Match User rrehm
  AllowTcpForwarding yes
  GatewayPorts yes

To verify the configuration specific to your user, run the following command providing your username and port to bind. The other options don't really matter, unless you've added more limitations to Match (see Limit access to openssh features with the Match option for inspiration).

sshd -T \
  -C user=${user} \
  -C host=* \
  -C addr=* \
  -C laddr=* \
  -C lport=${port} | grep -E 'gatewayports|allowtcpforwarding'

again, this should output

gatewayports yes
allowtcpforwarding yes

Opening SSH Reverse Tunnels

With sshd configured, all we need to do is tell ssh which port we want mapped:

ssh ${user}@${server} -R ${remotePort}:localhost:${localPort}

If you only want to bind the ports but not actually have a shell opened, add -N:

ssh ${user}@${server} -N -R ${remotePort}:localhost:${localPort}

when you're done, Control C will terminate the SSH connection and your local server will no longer be available remotely.

Making SSH Reverse Tunnels Reconnect Automatically

If you want your tunnel(s) to automatically reconnect (when switching WiFis, for example), have a look at autossh (available via brew install autossh):


# it's usually a good idea to exit upon error
set -e

# your connection parameters

# some stuff autossh needs to know
export AUTOSSH_POLL=30
export AUTOSSH_LOGFILE="/tmp/autossh.log"

# clean up log file on start
rm "${AUTOSSH_LOGFILE}" || true

autossh -f -M 0 \
  -o "ExitOnForwardFailure yes" \
  -o "ServerAliveInterval ${AUTOSSH_SERVER_ALIVE_INTERVAL}" \
  -o "ServerAliveCountMax ${AUTOSSH_SERVER_ALIVE_COUNT}" \
  -A ${user}@${server} \
  -R ${remotePort}:localhost:${localPort}


You can expose local services on your remote servers, given you have a server you can SSH to. Using autossh the tunnel can be re-established automatically when it collapses. While this solves most of my personal problems, it is still inferior to ngrok. The vanilla SSH approach knows nothing about the protocols in use. It simply forwards a port, regardless of the service (HTTP, MySQL, SMTP, …). With a simple ngrok http 8080 you'll have remote access to your local webserver through HTTP and HTTPS - even if your local webserver only sports HTTP.


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