How Screen Can Change Your Life

Alright, that’s an exaggeration, but screen is pretty freaking cool.  It’s an app that’s (usually) run under Linux that lets you run commands then detach from that session and reattach later.  It doesn’t seem like much, but a few examples can show what it does for me.

I have a backup script at home that takes a target file, tars up everything listed in there, zips up the new file, and puts it on an external drive.  It’s very simple but takes about 3 hours to run.  I run it manually, so, in normal circumstances, I have to SSH in to my box and keep that window open for 3 hours while the backup runs.  With screen, I can open a new shell, run the script, and detach from it while everything gets backed up.

To do this, I log into my box and simply type screen.   This takes me to a new shell that’s no different than the one I got when I first logged into the box, and, from here, I run my backup script and watch it dump output like it’s going out of style.  When I see it’s running as expected, I do a Ctrl-A, D to detach from the session and return to my original shell.  From there, I can do my other business or just log off.  When I want to check status, I log into the box again, type screen -r to reattach, and I’m back at my backup session.

How about something more network-dude(tte)-based?  In the past, we’ve had issues with our VPN kicking us off at random times while we’re trying to do some maintenance.  This sucked pretty badly for us when we were doing log archive searches or running custom reporting scripts that may each take several minutes to run  — when we got kicked off, we lost everything we had.  Since we weren’t the guys doing the VPN at the time, we wound up using screen to help alleviate some of those problems.  We would VPN in and connect to one of the Linux management servers.   From there, we would open a new screen session and do our work.  When the inevitable boot came around, we could just reattach to the screen session to find our stuff still running.  That saves a whole mess of frustration when something happens at 03:00.

What else?  I’ve mentioned in past articles that I use screen to run dynagen labs — I have a shell for dynamips, one for dynagen, and one for each console that all run in the same screen session.  I can use my function keys to add new shells, navigate among them, and detach when I’m done. I editing my .screenrc file on my lab box so that I get the same setup just by typing screen. I stole most of this off the Intrawebs, but here’s my .screenrc file.  It sets up the function keys for navigation and opens (and labels) the multiple sessions for my labs.

bindkey -k k7 detach
bindkey -k k8 kill
bindkey -k k9 screen
bindkey -k k; title
bindkey -k F1 prev
bindkey -k F2 next
termcapinfo xterm ti@:te@
term vt100
multiuser on
shell -$SHELL
screen -t dyanmips 0
screen -t dynagen 1
screen -t R0 2
screen -t R1 3
select 0

Check the man pages or ask me for more details.

Aaron Conaway

I shake my head around sometimes and see what falls out. That's what lands on these pages. If you have any questions, the best way to contact me is through Twitter at @aconaway.

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3 comments for “How Screen Can Change Your Life

  1. Clint Young
    July 15, 2008 at 11:07 pm

    NIce application of that program. I don’t have a TON of immediate use for it, but that most definitely gets two thumbs up from me! Thanks for sharing! (Maybe I”m just lucky that our VPN is pretty rock-solid. lol)

  2. Kevin
    July 23, 2008 at 3:21 pm

    Screen is a great tool. I use it when I’m making changes to a remote device, I open screen and configure a cron job to restore the server back to it’s original state in 15 minutes. That way if I mess up a server it fixes itself and I don’t have to drive to the office.

  3. welbow
    August 6, 2008 at 6:08 pm

    Screen’s also cool for what I call multiplexing – having multiple terminals attached to the same screen session and each can look at an individual screen. Screen is a godsend for if you have to do admin work on windows IMO.

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