VS Code Remote: WSL + SSH Agent Forwarding

A step by step guide for configuring tools necessary to develop remotely with Visual Studio Code over SSH. The documented setup enables connections to standard Windows environments as well as Windows Subsystem for Linux distributions. In addition, it also shows how to configure SSH Agent Forwarding for connecting to services like GitHub without having to store copies of privates keys or enter passphrases.

The code and scripts within this guide should be treated as reference only -- I do not advise executing anything without first fully understanding the intention and also verifying that proper modifications have been made to adapt it to your specific system and needs.

Windows Host SSH Configuration and Key Setup

The first things we want to do is setup OpenSSH on Windows, generate keys for the host machine and/or any clients that will be using it remotely, and glue it all together.

  1. Install OpenSSH Client & OpenSSH Server

    • Settings > Apps & Features > Optional Features
    • Search for "OpenSSH"
    • Ensure Client and Server are installed
  2. SSHD Configuration requirements: open %programdata%/ssh/sshd_config and ensure the following are configured as follows:

    • PasswordAuthentication no (can be left enabled, but doing so reduces the security benefit of using pubkey authentication)
    • PubkeyAuthentication yes (default)
    • AllowAgentForwarding yes (default)
    • AuthorizedKeysFile .ssh/authorized_keys (default)
    • If any of the accounts you will be using when connecting to the Windows Host have administrative privileges you will either need to comment out the following setting, or be required to designate remote access for those users through the global administrators_authorized_keys file. With the default configuration, user owned authorized_keys files are ignored for administrators.
      1#Match Group administrators
      2# AuthorizedKeysFile __PROGRAMDATA__/ssh/administrators_authorized_keys
  3. Start OpenSSH Server and OpenSSH Agent services and set them to start automatically:

    1PS> Set-Service sshd -StartupType Automatic
    2PS> Start-Service sshd
    4PS> Set-Service ssh-agent -StartupType Automatic
    5PS> Start-Service ssh-agent

    or via GUI by running (Win+R) services.msc

  4. Generate passphrase protected ssh-keys for the Windows host and any client systems that will be connecting to it (ideally you should do this locally on each machine so that later you only need to transfer public keys over):

    1PS> cd ~/.ssh
    2PS> ssh-keygen -t ed25519 -C "email@example.com"
    4> Enter passphrase (empty for no passphrase): [Type a passphrase]
    5> Enter same passphrase again: [Type passphrase again]
  5. Restrict security permissions for the created id_ed25519 private keys:

    • Windows Host and/or Clients:

      • Right click > Properties > Security Tab > Advanced
      • Click Disable Inheritance
      • Select Convert inherited permissions into explicit permissions on this object.
      • Remove any entries that are not SYSTEM, the Administrators group, or your own user account
      • See "User private key files" for more details
    • POSIX Clients: Ensure ownership is restricted to your own account and the file permissions are set to 0600, to change either you can use something like the following:

      1# Set 'username' as owner
      2$ chown username:username ~/.ssh/id_ed25519
      4# Set file permission to -rw-------
      5$ chmod 0600 ~/.ssh/id_ed25519
  6. Let each machine's ssh-agent handle the private keys; on linux clients you may need to use something like keychain if your Desktop Environment or distribution doesn't automatically start ssh-agent for you and/or doesn't provide any compatible alternatives.

    1# List available keys (not required, but useful to confirm before proceeding)
    2PS> ssh-add -L
    4# Add the generated key
    5PS> ssh-add ~/.ssh/id_ed25519

    Note: On Windows machines it is recommended to move and store the private key off of the machine after it has been added to the SSH Agent service as the file itself is no longer necessary for the agent to operate. On Linux and other OSes it may be necessary to keep the private key on the machine depending on the key storage mechanism being used -- classic ssh-agent implementations are transient and only maintain added keys for the lifetime of their process.

  7. Set Git for Windows to use the Windows OpenSSH Client (by default Git for Windows uses its own bundled ssh package that is unaware of the Windows ssh-agent service):

    1PS> git config --global core.sshcommand "C:/Windows/System32/OpenSSH/ssh.exe"
  8. Ensure the Windows Host's public key has been added to GitHub -- instructions for adding keys. You may wish to also add the client public keys if you would like to use them to connect to GitHub directly.

  9. Verify everything up to this point is working correctly by authenticating with GitHub from the Windows Host and from any of the clients you intend to use directly. You should not be required to enter your passphrase if ssh-agent is working as expected.

    1PS> ssh -T git@github.com
    3> Hi <Account Name>! You've successfully authenticated, ...
  10. Import client public keys into ~/.ssh/authorized_keys (or %programdata%/ssh/administrators_authorized_keys if the host account you'll be using is designated as an admin and you want to keep the default configuration scheme). The following import scripts are copied from VSCode's documentation and will only work for modifying the user owned ~/.ssh/authorized_keys.

    • Remote Unix-like client:

      1$ export USER_AT_HOST="your-user-name-on-host@hostname"
      2$ export PUBKEYPATH="$HOME/.ssh/id_rsa.pub"
      4$ ssh $USER_AT_HOST "powershell New-Item -Force -ItemType Directory -Path \"\$HOME\\.ssh\"; Add-Content -Force -Path \"\$HOME\\.ssh\\authorized_keys\" -Value '$(tr -d '\n\r' < "$PUBKEYPATH")'"

      Note: The above did not work as expected in my case -- the generated authorized_keys contained malformed characters. I suggest double checking the file after it is created or simply performing this step manually.

    • Remote Windows client:

      1PS> $USER_AT_HOST="your-user-name-on-host@hostname"
      2PS> $PUBKEYPATH="$HOME\.ssh\id_rsa.pub"
      4PS> Get-Content "$PUBKEYPATH" | Out-String | ssh $USER_AT_HOST "powershell `"New-Item -Force -ItemType Directory -Path `"`$HOME\.ssh`"; Add-Content -Force -Path `"`$HOME\.ssh\authorized_keys`" `""
    • Alternatively, either use ssh-id-copy or manually insert the public key into ~/.ssh/authorized_keys yourself:

      1ssh-copy-id -i ~/.ssh/client_public_key.pub your-user-name-on-host@hostname
  11. Restrict security permissions for authorized_keys:

    • Right click > Properties > Security Tab > Advanced
    • Click Disable Inheritance
    • Select Convert inherited permissions into explicit permissions on this object.
    • Remove any entries that are not SYSTEM, the Administrators group, or your own user account
    • See "authorized_keys" for more details.

    If using the administrators_authorized_keys file, its permissions should only allow access by SYSTEM and the Administrators group; inheritance should be disabled. See "administrators_authorized_keys" for specifics.

  12. With everything configured you should be able to ssh into your Windows Host from all of your clients.

Windows Host WSL Configuration

The objective here is to setup a mechanism that will route the WSL ssh-agent communication over to the ssh-agent running on the Windows Host. To do this, a few tools are going to be required:

  1. Install socat in the WSL distro (assuming Debian/Ubuntu):

    1sudo apt install socat
  2. Download npiperelay and put npiperelay.exe under the Windows portion of the file system. You can then symlink it to some location that's visible to your WSL's PATH environment variable.

    1$ wget https://github.com/jstarks/npiperelay/releases/download/v0.1.0/npiperelay_windows_amd64.zip
    2$ unzip npiperelay_windows_amd64.zip
    3$ mv npiperelay_windows_amd64/npiperelay.exe /mnt/c/Users/[USER]/bin/npiperelay.exe
    4$ sudo ln -s /mnt/c/Users/[USER]/bin/npiperelay.exe /usr/local/bin/npiperelay.exe
  3. Add the following to your ~/.bashrc, sources: stuartleeks.com and rupor-github.

    1# Route SSH Agent Forwarding to Windows Host's ssh-agent
    2export SSH_AUTH_SOCK=$HOME/.ssh/agent.sock
    3ss -a | grep -q $SSH_AUTH_SOCK
    4if [ $? -ne 0 ]; then
    5 rm -f $SSH_AUTH_SOCK
    6 (setsid socat UNIX-LISTEN:$SSH_AUTH_SOCK,fork EXEC:"npiperelay.exe -ei -s //./pipe/openssh-ssh-agent",nofork &) > /dev/null 2>&1
  4. Verify that you are able to authenticate to GitHub from your WSL distro when on the Windows Host and when connected via SSH from a client:

    1$ ssh -T git@github.com
    3> Hi <Account Name>! You've successfully authenticated, ...

Client Configuration

The last tricky part is to create two Host configurations for the Windows Host on each client. These will be mapped within VSCode to the standard Windows environment and the other to the WSL distro, allowing you the option of which specific environment you want to connect to for remote development.

  1. Create two entries for the Windows host in the client's ~/.ssh/config. Note that the second one's name is appended with -wsl (the suffix is not important so long as the two names are different), otherwise they should be identical.

    1Host [ID or name used for connecting]
    2 HostName [A hostname or LAN ip]
    3 User [your username on the host]
    4 IdentityFile ~/.ssh/id_ed25519
    5 ForwardAgent yes
    7Host [ID or name used for connecting]-wsl
    8 HostName [A hostname or LAN ip]
    9 User [your username on the host]
    10 IdentityFile ~/.ssh/id_ed25519
    11 ForwardAgent yes
  2. Ensure proper permissions are applied to ~/.ssh/config:

    • For Windows: similar to before, disable permission inheritance and restrict access to only allow SYSTEM, the Administrators group, and your own user account; See "ssh_config" for more information.

    • For POSIX: ensure ownership is restricted to your own account and the file permissions are set to 0600:

      1# Set 'username' as owner
      2$ chown username:username ~/.ssh/config
      4# Set file permission to -rw-------
      5$ chmod 0600 ~/.ssh/config
  3. Install the VSCode Remote - SSH extension.

  4. Edit VSCode's settings.json file and add the following JSON. This will map the Host to the desired platform so that when connecting you will be able to specify if you want the regular windows environment or the WSL environment contained within it.

    1"remote.SSH.remotePlatform": {
    2 "[ID or name of windows host]": "windows",
    3 "[ID or name of windows host]-wsl": "linux"
    5"remote.SSH.useLocalServer": false
  5. On the Windows Host you may want to install the Remote - WSL extension if you wish to develop using the local WSL distro.

  6. You should now be able to establish a remote VSCode connection from any of your clients to your Windows Host's standard environment or its WSL environment. From there you should also be able to authenticate with services like GitHub without needing to provide any passphrases or needing to keep copies of private keys.

The personal portfolio of Ernie Wieczorek. Ernie is a Philadelphia based software developer who specializes in full stack web application development. Contains summary of recent ventures, discoveries, and guidance on technical matters.
© 2021 Ernie Wieczorek