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TCP Port Forwarding/Connection Tunneling

"when all you have is a command prompt..."

Tunneling TCP connections with ssh is a great solution for an ad hoc VPN; great, that is, provided the administrator hasn't turned off the ability to forward ports in the sshd configuration file. But if there is one thing we've learned on the Internet, it's that any type of communication can be converted to any other kind. StdioTunnel is one example. If you can get a command prompt (through ssh or otherwise) and can build StdioTunnel at either end of your connection, you should be able to use StdioTunnel to tunnel any connection-oriented protocol (ssh, IMAP, VNC) through that connection.

StdioTunnel is intended for knowledgeable users; if you know enough to know you need it, you probably don't need an explanation of port forwarding. In any case, there are many good explanations on the web. For complete instructions on operating StdioTunnel itself, see the manpage.

Please note that using ANY software, StdioTunnel included, to work-around firewall restrictions may make systems on either side of the firewall more vulnerable to any number of attacks. StdioTunnel may have bugs that make such vulnerabilities even worse. The user takes sole responsibility for any adverse consequences of using this software. It might get you fired. It's almost always better to get the firewall administrator to let you do what you need to do through regular channels.

Obtaining StdioTunnel

StdioTunnel is free software distributed under the GNU General Public License. It currently is available only as a source package. It's been built and tested on Linux, OS/X, cygwin, and FreeBSD; there's a pretty good chance that it will build and run on other Unix-like systems.


Usage Notes

StdioTunnel allows you to tunnel arbitrary TCP connections through any connection that approximates a tty with a clear 8-bit data path. In this sense it provides the same kind of functionality as ppp, but for a limited, fixed set of connections; it doesn't require any routing changes on either end of the connection. It tunnels the connections in much the same way that ssh(1) does, but is useful in particular cases where ssh port-forwarding has been disabled, and it does not require running or changing the configuration of any server processes at either end of the connection.

An example might make things clearer. Suppose you are on machine A and you want to make use of connection-oriented services on machine B. A firewall in the environment of A prohibits any sort of direct connection with B; however, you can access machine X through ssh from A, and you can connect from X to B. You can get a login session on B from A by first ssh'ing to X and then ssh'ing from X to B. You would like to use ssh port-forwarding to access services on B, but the ssh daemon on X, over which you have no control, is configured to disallow port forwarding. It is in this circumstance (however rare it might be) that StdioTunnel is useful. You start the local end of StdioTunnel on A, using the command line to specify the ports you would like to forward when the connection is complete. StdioTunnel starts a process you specify (such as ssh); you use this process to connect to your destination machine. In the example case, you would use ssh to log in to X, and then connect from X to B. Once logged in to B, you would start the remote side of StdioTunnel; the two sides would handshake over the connection you established, and you could commence using the ports forwarded through the tunnel.

Once StdioTunnel handshakes, the connection you used to initiate it is no longer available. The local StdioTunnel process will ignore further input. The connection is shut down when you kill the StdioTunnel process at either end.

All that is required for StdioTunnel to make a connection is that the standard input and output of the remote side appear to be connected through an 8-bit clear channel to the standard input and output of the process started by the local side. ssh with the -e none option to turn off the escape character works quite nicely as the connecting process.

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