How I Replaced SSH with ZeroMQ and Salt

By Martin Rusev read

SSH has been a constant presence in my daily life for a very long time. Just like everyone who has to deal with Linux servers on a daily basis, SSH is the "status quo", like it or not - this is how things are and there is nothing you can do about that. Before I get started I want to cover what I think about SSH in general.

SSH is functional and it gets the job done. That is if you are single guy with a handful of servers. When you have to connect to multiple servers at the same time, establish inter-server communication, give access to other members of your team SSH becomes a chore.

Establishing a SSH connection is really slow, there is no such thing as - "I just want to quickly check these 3 servers". For me personally this slowness really became an issue in the last year or so with the rise of Docker and containers in general. With Docker we not only have multiple servers, there are also multiple containers running on each one. In the real world that translates to more frequent interactions with our servers - for deploying, debugging and provisioning.

With all that said - My goal is not, to completely replace SSH with some new hyped technology. It is a reliable default and it gets the job done. I just want to reduce the daily interactions I have with it to the absolute minimum. Zero if possible.

ZeroMQ: A viable solution?

I first discovered ZeroMQ in 2011, when I was looking for a non-blocking alternative to http. ZeroMQ is a really good networking library - you can have a fully functional fast server to server communication in 40-50 lines of code.

Back then I created a small library for streaming log data to a centralized server. It was really fast and it worked very well, with one exception - it was not secure. This is the main issue I had with ZeroMQ back then and this issue is still present today.

The basic ZeroMQ patterns are easy to grasp, you can skim through the docs and build something in an afternoon. Building a secure ZeroMQ communication is extremely difficult. There are a several third party libraries, but the documentation and the examples for all these projects is sparse.

To use ZeroMQ you can be a newbie developer, to secure a ZeroMQ connection - you have to be proficient in Cryptography. ZeroMQ could be way more popular if they decide to include the security layer in the core.

ZeroMQ and SaltStack

I discovered Ansible and SaltStack almost at the same time. I was overwhelmed by the complexity in Salt and eventually settled for Ansible. I have been using Ansible ever since. Coming back to the beginning of the post - one of the major issues I have with Ansible is that you have to deal with SSH and and it is slow. Everything takes forever and there is no such thing as real-time debugging in Ansible. Behind the scenes Ansible tries to speed things up bu keeping those connections persistent and forking itself for each server. Memory usage in gigabytes is common, if you use Ansible for a lot of hosts.

For all these reasons I've decided to try Salt once again. My idea right from the start was to try and strip all the complexity and just use the secure ZeroMQ connection between master(s) and minions for real-time debugging.

You can check my full review / experience with SaltStack here. In this section I want to cover what happened after that.

Experiments with SaltStack

The first thing you do in Salt is:

salt "*" shell command

The line above will execute the shell command on all your minions. You can check log files, install packages, restart services, etc.

Thanks to ZeroMQ it is almost instant and it doesn't matter if you want to do this on 1 or 5 servers. Even if this is the only thing you use in Salt, it will be enough to cut the number of the required debugging SSH sessions in half.

salt "webserver" cat /var/log/nginx.error.log
salt "webserver" systemctl nginx reload
# Or you can use the nginx module in Salt
salt 'webserver' nginx.signal reload

Using the Salt modules

Salt comes with over 100 modules for almost every app imaginable. The modules expose system functionality like creating users or modifying IP tables. You can use all these modules directly from the terminal(Everything in the salts.modules section).

salt '*' git.clone /path/to/repo git://
salt 'webserver' nginx.configtest
salt 'dbserver' mysql.db_create 'myproject'
salt '*' docker.get_containers

Editing files

One of the most annoying things you could do on a fresh new server is edit a config file or fix a typo. Usually you can choose between a bare-bone version of vim or nano. I used Vim as a main editor for almost 2 years and even I am not comfortable working in a minimal Vim - you still need to apply a theme, because the default is dark blue on black, to install plugins for highlighting and bracket matching, so you can spot typos easier. Configuring Vim could be added to the provisioning playbooks/states/manifests, but it is an overkill to do so on every server.

With Salt you can get a config file from the server, edit on your own dev machine, add it to your provisioning scripts and then send it back to the server:

salt 'webserver' cp.get_file_str salt://nginx.conf
subl nginx.conf
salt 'webserver' cp.get_file salt://nginx.conf /etc/nginx/nginx.conf
salt "nginx" systemctl restart nginx

I hope that you could see the usefulness in the examples above. They are all nice time savers, but some issues remain. Connecting to your servers from a different machine and giving access to your team. With SSH you can at least in theory copy the private keys or generate new ones (that is not recommended at all, but it is actually a practice among developers). With Salt you cant even do that, your minions connect to a salt-master which is and IP and that doesn't work well if you are on the move or you have a dynamic IP.

To solve this problem I started experimenting in the browser. If you have used any cloud server in the past few years you probably know the "terminal" emulators they all have. These emulators are some kind of a Java or nodejs whatever app and thanks to SSH, they are really slow and you can't connect to more than one server at the same time.

But what if that terminal was based on Salt/ZeroMQ, not SSH. You can see the results below:

It is really awesome for debugging - instant, fluid and best of all, accessible from anywhere. This was all build on the Salt API.The only limitation at the moment is that Salt provides only a client in Python.

But if you can get around that, you have all the power available in a typical web application - precise permissions for your team members, two factor authentication is not that hard to implement, accessible from anywhere - on the beach, on your laptop or phone without creepy mobile SSH terminals and you can disable certain dangerous commands quite easily.

One last thing before I finish this post. Salt could be really intimidating when you are getting started. I wrote a blog post about Salt awhile ago that you can check it out - there is a nice info-graphic explaining how Salt works and there is a Up and running in 5 minutes section.

Thanks for reading and I really hope you enjoyed this post, I am going back to my terminal browser app to add some sweat oh-my-zsh auto-complete goodies. At least for me - at this point, there is no going back.