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Editing remote files with Emacs, comfortably

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Tags: [ emacs ssh ]

It took me a long time to collect all the bits and pieces I needed to make editing remote files with Emacs work the way I want, with a simple command that works via SSH. I hope I can save you some time by stitching it here together into a tutorial. I assume you use use-package in my examples.

Emacs server & TRAMP

We start with Emacs’s good old inbuilt server. The default is to use an UNIX domain socket; We have to change that to TCP to be able to receive input from our remote hosts. The server will bind to Pick a strong password that is exactly 64 characters long and a port above 1023. I chose 51313 because if we substitute the digits for letters in the Latin alphabet, we get E M A C. The server will create the file ~/.emacs.d/server/server with the IP, port and password in it. This file needs to be distributed to every host that should be able to access the server.

;; Run server if:
;; - Our EUID is not 0,
;; - We are not logged in via SSH,
;; - It is not already running.
(unless (equal (user-real-uid) 0)
  (unless (getenv "SSH_CONNECTION")
    (use-package server
      (setq server-use-tcp t
            server-port 51313
            server-auth-key ; 64 chars, saved in ~/.emacs.d/server/server.
      (unless (eq (server-running-p) t) ; Run server if not t.

The server expects filenames as input, we can’t just feed it the file. The package TRAMP allow us to use remote file paths with Emacs with the help of SSH. I have modified tramp-password-prompt-regexp to look for verification code prompts from the Google Authenticator PAM module.

My modification overwrites the original value of tramp-password-prompt-regexp, which has a bunch of localized variants of “password” in it. You can view the original value with C-h v tramp-password-prompt-regexp.
(use-package tramp
  (tramp-use-ssh-controlmaster-options nil) ; Don't override SSH config.
  (tramp-default-method "ssh")    ; ssh is faster than scp and supports ports.
  (tramp-password-prompt-regexp   ; Add verification code support.
     '("passphrase" "Passphrase"
       "password" "Password"
       "Verification code")
    ".*:\0? *")))


In order to avoid having to enter our password again and again, we can edit our SSH configuration to reuse existing connections. The following configuration will create an UNIX domain socket per host and re-use that for all further connections to this host. It will also forward the Emacs server port, that we picked earlier, to every host we connect to. We will have to create ~/.ssh/sockets/ before we use the new configuration.

These sockets allow for unauthenticated access to every host you are connected to. While this is very convenient, it is also a security risk. The sockets are only usable by your user and root (file mode 0600).
Everyone on the remote host can connect to the port you forward. They will still need the password, but you might not want to do this if you don’t trust the other users.
Host fc??:* fd??:* 192.168.*
    # Reuse connections.
    ControlMaster auto
    # Close socket 600s after after last connection closes.
    ControlPersist 600
    # Set path for sockets.
    ControlPath ~/.ssh/sockets/%r@%h-%p
    # Forward Emacs-server port.

Wrapper for emacsclient

Using file paths in TRAMP notation gets annoying really quick. Thankfully Andy Skelton created a wrapper script; I extended it with the ability to become root using sudo and an option to use it with local servers. This file needs to be distributed to every host that should be able to access the server.

# Open file on a remote Emacs server.
# with added sudo.


for p in "${@}"; do
    if [[ "${p}" == "-n" ]]; then
        params+=( "${p}" )
    elif [[ "${p:0:1}" == "+" ]]; then
        params+=( "${p}" )
    elif [[ "${p}" == "--sudo" ]]; then
    elif [[ "${p}" == "--local" ]]; then
        # Use local server, for use with --sudo.
        # Setting field separator to newline so that filenames with spaces will
        # not be split up into 2 array elements.

        if [[ $(id -u) -eq 0 || ${sudo} -eq 1 ]]; then
            if [[ ${local} -eq 0 ]]; then
                params+=( "/ssh:$(hostname -f)|sudo:$(hostname -f):"$(realpath -m "${p}") )
                params+=( "/sudo:localhost:"$(realpath -m "${p}") )
            params+=( "/ssh:$(hostname -f):"$(realpath "${p}") )


emacsclient -f ~/.emacs.d/server/server "${params[@]}"

I had to add [[ "${TERM}" = "dumb" ]] && unsetopt zle to my Zsh configuration to prevent TRAMP connections from hanging all the time. Thanks to Darius for their answer on StackExchange.

Shell configuration

Now we should set VISUAL and EDITOR to the wrapper and set up some nice, short aliases. In my examples I assume we called our wrapper emacsremote. The argument -f causes emacsclient to not try to use UNIX domain sockets (and print an error message).

I wrote the following code for Zsh, but it should also work for Bash.
# Set preferred editor.
if command -v emacsclient > /dev/null; then
    VISUAL="$(command -v emacsclient) -f ~/.emacs.d/server/server -a emacs"
    if [[ -n "${SSH_CONNECTION}" ]]; then # Logged in via SSH.
        if command -v emacsremote > /dev/null; then
            VISUAL="$(command -v emacsremote)"
    elif [[ $(id -u) -eq 0 ]] && command -v emacsremote > /dev/null; then
        # Edit files as root in the Emacs instance run by the current user.
        VISUAL="$(command -v emacsremote) --sudo --local"
elif command -v emacs > /dev/null; then
    VISUAL="$(command -v emacs)"
elif command -v vim > /dev/null; then
    VISUAL="$(command -v vim)"
elif command -v nano > /dev/null; then
    VISUAL="$(command -v nano)"
export VISUAL
export EDITOR="${VISUAL}"
if [[ "${VISUAL}" =~ "emacs(client|remote)" ]]; then
    alias e="${VISUAL} -n"
    if [[ "${VISUAL}" =~ "emacsremote$" ]]; then
        # Don't block the terminal until the file is closed.
        alias se="${VISUAL} -n --sudo"
    elif command -v emacsremote >/dev/null &&  [[ -z "${SSH_CONNECTION}" ]]; then
        # Edit files as root in the Emacs instance run by the current user.
        alias se="$(command -v emacsremote) -n --sudo --local"
    alias e="${VISUAL}"
    alias se="sudo ${VISUAL}"

To detect SSH connections after using sudo -i, we have to tell sudo to preserve the environment variable SSH_CONNECTION.

echo 'Defaults env_keep += "SSH_CONNECTION"' >> /etc/sudoers.d/ssh_vars


  • Updated 2019-05-12: Add -f argument to emacsclient.

  • Updated 2019-10-06: Support files with spaces in emacsremote and allow to open files the user can’t read (for use with emacsremote --sudo).

  • Updated 2019-10-17: Added Zsh-hack to prevent hanging TRAMP-connections.