How to rsync files between two remotes?

Vincent Bernat

scp -3 can copy files between two remote hosts through localhost. This comes in handy when the two servers cannot communicate directly or if they are unable to authenticate one to the other.1 Unfortunately, rsync does not support such a feature. Here is a trick to emulate the behavior of scp -3 with SSH tunnels.

When syncing with a remote host, rsync invokes ssh to spawn a remote rsync --server process. It interacts with it through its standard input and output. The idea is to recreate the same setup using SSH tunnels and socat, a versatile tool to establish bidirectional data transfers.

The first step is to connect to the source server and ask rsync the command-line to spawn the remote rsync --server process. The -e flag overrides the command to use to get a remote shell: instead of ssh, we use echo.

$ ssh web04
$ rsync -e 'sh -c ">&2 echo $@" echo' -aLv /data/. web05:/data/.
web05 rsync --server -vlogDtpre.iLsfxCIvu . /data/.
rsync: connection unexpectedly closed (0 bytes received so far) [sender]
rsync error: error in rsync protocol data stream (code 12) at io.c(228) [sender=3.2.3]

The second step is to connect to the destination server with local port forwarding. When connecting to the local port 5000, the TCP connection is forwarded through SSH to the remote port 5000 and handled by socat. When receiving the connection, socat spawns the rsync --server command we got at the previous step and connects its standard input and output to the incoming TCP socket.

$ ssh -L 127.0.0.1:5000:127.0.0.1:5000 web05
$ socat tcp-listen:5000,reuseaddr exec:"rsync --server -vlogDtpre.iLsfxCIvu . /data/."

The last step is to connect to the source with remote port forwarding. socat is used in place of a regular SSH connection and connects its standard input and output to a TCP socket connected to the remote port 5000. Thanks to the remote port forwarding, SSH forwards the data to the local port 5000. From there, it is relayed back to the destination, as described in the previous step.

$ ssh -R 127.0.0.1:5000:127.0.0.1:5000 web04
$ rsync -e 'sh -c "socat stdio tcp-connect:127.0.0.1:5000"' -aLv /data/. remote:/data/.
sending incremental file list
haproxy.debian.net/
haproxy.debian.net/dists/buster-backports-1.8/Contents-amd64.bz2
haproxy.debian.net/dists/buster-backports-1.8/Contents-i386.bz2
[…]
media.luffy.cx/videos/2021-frnog34-jerikan/progressive.mp4

sent 921,719,453 bytes  received 26,939 bytes  7,229,383.47 bytes/sec
total size is 7,526,872,300  speedup is 8.17

This little diagram may help understand how everything fits together:

Diagram showing how all processes are connected together: rsync,
socat and ssh
How each process is connected together. Arrows labeled “stdio” are implemented as two pipes connecting the process to the left to the standard input and output of the process to the right. Don't be fooled by the apparent symmetry!

The rsync manual page prohibits the use of --server. Use this hack at your own risk!

The options --server and --sender are used internally by rsync, and should never be typed by a user under normal circumstances. Some awareness of these options may be needed in certain scenarios, such as when setting up a login that can only run an rsync command. For instance, the support directory of the rsync distribution has an example script named rrsync (for restricted rsync) that can be used with a restricted ssh login.

Addendum#

I was hoping to get something similar with a one-liner. But this does not work!

$ socat \
>  exec:"ssh web04 rsync --server --sender -vlLogDtpre.iLsfxCIvu . /data/." \
>  exec:"ssh web05 rsync --server -vlogDtpre.iLsfxCIvu /data/. /data/." \
over-long vstring received (511 > 255)
over-long vstring received (511 > 255)
rsync error: requested action not supported (code 4) at compat.c(387) [sender=3.2.3]
rsync error: requested action not supported (code 4) at compat.c(387) [Receiver=3.2.3]
socat[878291] E waitpid(): child 878292 exited with status 4
socat[878291] E waitpid(): child 878293 exited with status 4

  1. And SSH agent forwarding is dangerous. Don’t use it if you can. ↩︎