Updates of Multiple Machines Using SSH

Šarūnas Burdulis

September 7, 2007

Inspired by [1] here is a technique for updating multiple hosts on a network using Secure Shell (SSH), private/public keys, sudo and some scripting. Though this assumes Linux machines built using Debian, Ubuntu or other APT/dpkg distributions, it can also be applied to any OS, for which command line software update tools, SSH, and sudo (or their equivalents) exist.

Key elements are:


We start on administrator's workstation where a regular user's SSH key pair is generated (ssh-keygen) with no passphrase for the private key. As a result .ssh/ should contain id_dsa and id_dsa.pub files with private and public keys respectively. The latter should be distributed to all the hosts, which we intend to update via SSH:

 bofh@admins$ scp .ssh/id_dsa.pub bofh@host:~/.ssh/authorized_keys

This assumes that account bofh: 1) exists on all the hosts; 2) has .ssh/ directory already. As a result user bofh should be able to login via SSH to any of the hosts without being prompted for the password.


Software updates usually require super-user privileges. As we do not allow SSH logins as root, user bofh has to be given appropriate rights. By adding the following line to /etc/sudoers

 bofh  ALL=NOPASSWD: /usr/bin/apt-get

user bofh is allowed to run apt-get via sudo without being prompted for their password, for example:

 bofh@host$ sudo apt-get update

or via SSH from admins workstation:

 bofh@admins$ ssh bofh@host sudo apt-get update

Script Sample

The script given below can be used to streamline updates of multiple hosts. There are of course countless ways to adapt this to your needs.

 # ~/bin/update -- script to update groups of Debian/Ubuntu machines
 # Usage: update <name> [<name> [<name>]]
 # where <name> is a nickname for predefined class of machines:
 # serv --- main servers
 # grid --- computational grid nodes
 # wkst --- workstations
    printf "\n%s\n\n" " Usage: update < serv | grid | wkst >"
    exit 1

 if [ -z $1 ] ; then


 COMMAND="sudo /usr/bin/apt-get update && sudo /usr/bin/apt-get upgrade"

 SERV="host1 host2 host3"
 GRID="node1 node2 node3 node4 node5"
 WKST="etch1 etch2 etch3 gutsy1 gutsy2 gutsy3" 

 while WHAT=$1 ; shift ; do

    case $WHAT in
        serv) MACHINES=$SERV;;
        grid) MACHINES=$GRID;;
        wkst) MACHINES=$WKST;;
        *) usage;;

    for machine in $MACHINES
        printf "\n\n%s\n\n" $machine:
        ssh -oConnectTimeout=$TIMEOUT -t $machine $COMMAND


NB: apt-proxy

Using apt-proxy (aptcacher, other?) on a local network only makes sense while updating a number of similarly configured machines.


Martin Brown, ``System Administration Toolkit: Distributed administration using SSH'' (http://www.ibm.com/developerworks/aix/library/au-satdistadmin/index.html?ca=drs-tp3307)

Sarunas Burdulis 2007-09-07