I’ve spent a lot of time tweaking and customizing my own workspace in order to accomplish things faster and more comfortably. However I often have to get things done from different hosts, in different locations, or while on the move.
Before I began configuring my workspace this way I would often have to configure every host I found myself working on separately. This ate up valuable time and invariably led to slight differences between hosts I had configured. Some configurations were more geared towards desktops, others laptops, some for remote environments, others local.
In order to avoid these inconveniences I’ve begun configuring my workspaces explicitly so that I can quickly and easily begin to get work done from anywhere. I think configuring my workspaces this way has some substantial benefits:
- It lets me work in a similar workspace no matter what host I’m on
- It lets me tweak/expand/improve all of my workspaces at once
- It speeds up my ramp up time when I need to start working on a new host.
- It eliminates that irritating week long period of trying to run applications that aren’t installed, hit hotkeys that aren’t configured, and run bash aliases that aren’t defined.
Overall, my goal is to work in a familiar workspace no matter the host I’m actually working from or the circumstances I’m working in. I think there are two major strategies to accomplish this:
- Go to a workspace I’ve already configured.
- Bring my configurations into the new workspace.
Both of these strategies tend to be useful in different circumstances:
If I’m working on an open source project from lackluster hardware, or on a machine I’m only using briefly, it makes more sense to go to a workspace I’ve already configured.
If I’m working on proprietary code using a client supplied laptop I’ll be using regularly it makes sense to bring my configurations to this new workspace.
In order to accomplish either of these strategies I use a couple of ubiquitous tools (mosh, tmux, git, stow, and a good old fashioned terminal) and battle tested workflows from software development and systems administration. While there are several excellent blog posts (which I’ve linked to later in this post) about different parts of this setup I don’t think I’ve seen a single post or tutorial which ties them all together - so I’m giving it a go.
Prerequisite: Ditch the GUI
I’ve found that GUIs and GUI applications violate several criteria for setting up a modular workspace that lends itself to being easily distributed to different environments, or easily accessed from a remote environment:
- GUIs tend to behave poorly when used over networks, whether accessed via something like X forwarding or VNC.
- GUIs have many (usually heavy) requirements, which means they take more time to install, and may not be easy/appropriate to install in certain environments. (Don’t be the guy that installed X on the headless Debian server)
- GUI applications are less consistent in where and how their configuration files are stored.
- GUI applications tend to have fewer synergies with each other, and follow the Unix philosophy more loosely in an attempt to wrap more functionality into the same application.
For these reasons, among others, I build my workspaces primarily with CLI applications.
Strategy 1: Going to Our Workspace
“Going somewhere” on the *nix CLI is a standard procedure. It’s usually accomplished via SSH, and nearly every *nix system has a CLI ssh client installed by default. In order to go to a workspace I configure an SSH server on the host that contains the workspace. I’ll not go so far as to include a tutorial on installing and configuring a SSH server in this blog post, because there are plenty of them already.
I’m There, Now What?
SSHing into a server gives me a CLI interface on that host. I’m there but I need some tools that serve standard needs in order to get work done:
- bash fills the slot of a task launcher and file system explorer. It’s the interface I see when I “land” on the remote host.
- git provides access to version control repositories
- tmux can act as a window manager, providing different “windows” to open new terminals or applications in.
- vim is my editor of choice, giving me the ability to edit files.
Beyond the basics I use a variety of other tools depending on the specific work I’m trying to get done.
SSHing to a preconfigured host works fine most of the time, but SSH itself has some annoying behaviors:
- it disconnects when ever I lose network access and doesn’t automatically reconnect.
- it kills foreground processes if I disconnect
- it blocks if I start a long running process in the foreground, and I have to open a new (local) terminal instance and start a new SSH connection to keep working.
Mosh sits on top of SSH and provides a near identical interface to ssh + some nice benefits:
- the ability to reconnect after sleeping/hibernating whatever local host I’m on, or roaming between different wifi networks.
- some basic persistence, so my foreground processes don’t die if my local host loses connection.
Mosh is easy to setup, it installs just like any other application, is available in most Linux distributions’ package managers, it doesn’t require any privileged code execution (sudo), and it doesn’t require a daemon. Putting all of that together, it means that if SSH is already running on the host mosh can be installed and utilized entirely from userland on both the local and remote hosts.
Tmux, in addition to making a great terminal based window management solution, tmux is also a terminal multiplexer. While mosh provides the ability to painlessly reconnect to SSH sessions and keeps foreground processes from being killed in the event that I lose connection to the remote server, it doesn’t provide the kind of fine grained manual control of session persistence that a full blown terminal multiplexer does. Tmux also provides the ability to run multiple virtual terminal windows within a single “real” terminal window - meaning that long running process in the foreground can run happily while I open another tab or split and continue working.
The interplay between mosh and tmux can be a bit confusing off the bat, and getting them both configured and working together in harmony (and utilizing them efficiently) can be tricky. This excellent blog post goes over configuring this portion of a robust remote workspace setup with mosh and tmux working together, so I’ll avoid reiterating its content here.
With this setup, I can use any host’s ssh client, or install the mosh client, and travel to my own pre-configured workspace from anywhere!
Strategy 2: Bring My Configurations to Me
The majority of tools are only an
git clone away from any machine though. So, if it makes sense to install software on the local host
(or if I can’t use a remote host for whatever reason), why not bring my configurations to me.
Nearly all well behaved CLI tools can be configured via
Dotfiles are configuration files that live in the home directory and start with a “.” (dot) so that they
don’t clutter up the default output of
The majority of the hard work of setting up a workspace is done in the dotfiles that contain configurations (and any personalizations or tweaks). These files are plaintext, and in order to “bring my workspace to me” I need to distribute them to multiple hosts and keep them in sync.
Distributing and syncing text files between multiple multiple workspaces sounds a lot like a workflow that every developer is well acquainted with - distributing source code. With that in mind the perfect tool for bringing dotfiles to me regardless of what host I’m working on is readily apparent: git!
But, home directories aren’t source code. There are a multitude of reasons not to put a home directory under version control:
- It often contains large files
- It can contain caches, indices, and other host specific information
- It frequently contains passwords, secrets, and other private information
Given these points in combination with the relatively disasterous potential outcomes of a mistaken
git commit it’s unreasonable to attempt to manage a git repository of a home directory using tools
These issues are only compounded if I use a public repository, which is desirable so that my dotfiles can be accessed from anywhere (i.e. any host I happen to be working from).
Enter GNU Stow. Stow is a simple utility at it’s heart. It takes files (or directories) from a directory below the current working directory and symlinks them in the parent directory of the current working directory. While this is a little tricky to explain I think the following should demonstrate the functionality pretty clearly:
$ mkdir -p /tmp/fake_root/stow_example/some_stuff $ mkdir -p /tmp/fake_root/stow_example/other_stuff $ touch /tmp/fake_root/stow_example/some_stuff/foo.txt $ touch /tmp/fake_root/stow_example/other_stuff/bar.txt $ tree /tmp/fake_root/ /tmp/fake_root/ └── stow_example ├── other_stuff │ └── bar.txt └── some_stuff └── foo.txt 3 directories, 2 files $ cd /tmp/fake_root/stow_example $ ls other_stuff some_stuff $ stow some_stuff/ $ tree /tmp/fake_root/ /tmp/fake_root/ ├── foo.txt -> stow_example/some_stuff/foo.txt └── stow_example ├── other_stuff │ └── bar.txt └── some_stuff └── foo.txt 3 directories, 3 files $ stow other_stuff/ $ tree /tmp/fake_root/ /tmp/fake_root/ ├── bar.txt -> stow_example/other_stuff/bar.txt ├── foo.txt -> stow_example/some_stuff/foo.txt └── stow_example ├── other_stuff │ └── bar.txt └── some_stuff └── foo.txt 3 directories, 4 files
Stow allows me to put a directory in my home directory (which I name
that directory under version control, divide dotfiles and configuration file hierarchies up into
subdirectories of the
dotfiles directory and then use stow in order to symlink those files
into my home directory. If that sounds a little confusing feel free to take a look at
my own dotfiles repo to see what I’m talking about.
This works for single files (e.g.
.bashrc) and for applications whose configuration(s)
live in the
.config directory, or in a dot directory (e.g.
Additionally, certain utilities (pyenv, for example) can live entirely within the home directory.
With a conditional or two in
~/.bashrc it is possible to dynamically activate tools if they’ve
been “unstowed”, which can be very powerful. I do this with pyenv in my own
Additionally, for tools like pyenv or vim extensions, which are typically distributed via git repositories and installed directly into the home directory, git submodules can dynamically link the latest versions of tools to my dotfiles repo. I package pyenv like this in my own dotfiles repo, as well as all of my vim plugins
Once all of this has been set up, having “my” bash/vim/tmux in place on a brand new host where I can install software is as simple as…
$ sudo apt-get install tmux vim # Or whatever other package manager is on the host... $ git checkout --recursive https://github.com/bnbalsamo/dotfiles.git $ cd dotfiles $ stow tmux $ stow vim $ stow bashrc
Scenario 3: Putting It All Together
Potentially the biggest leap of them all: I configure my home workspaces (the ones I can remote into) in exactly the same way as I configure any other workspace that I would bring my configurations to.
This lets me benefit from the modularity of my ‘stowed’ dotfiles configuration regardless of which strategy I’m employing on a given host, and also keeps everything in sync because my configurations everywhere are all based in the same version control repository.
I’m only ever a couple of
stow commands away from having my configurations
on whatever host I’m working on, or one
mosh $USER@$SERVER tmux a from working on a remote
host I’ve already configured.
Though it may seem a bit crazy at first, I think this method of deploying workspaces provides some excellent benefits. Once I took the initial “leap” of putting my dotfiles into a git repo (after some slight refactoring) I started to see compounding benefits each time I’ve used either of these strategies.
If you’d like to try out a similar setup I hope this post does a decent job at stitching together the various tools and workflows required to accomplish it. If you find yourself wondering where to put your remote host I can heartily recommend Digital Ocean as that’s where I have a couple of my own VPSs parked for just this reason. If you decide to try them out feel free to use my referral link, which will save us both a couple of bucks.