How to make a GitHub Action that exposes a SSH server

May 14, 2022

In the first post, I explained how to use action-sshd-cloudflared, a GitHub Action that I wrote to easily SSH to a GitHub workflow container and debug it efficiently. I gave a precise explanation of what the client commands do, and I compared it to similar alternatives.

In this post, we’ll go through the details of the server (the code that runs inside the GitHub workflow). We’ll see how to make a simple GitHub Action that runs a shell script (or anything executable), a couple useful environment variables, and most importantly, what’s the recipe to run a SSH server there and expose it over the internet despite the container not being publicly addressable.

Making the simplest GitHub Action possible

All we need to turn a simple GitHub repository in a GitHub Action is to add a valid action.yml at the top level.

GitHub can run Docker actions, JavaScript actions, but the one we care about is the composite action. A composite action allows us to run simple commands in a shell and that’s exactly what we need. 👍

name: Debug via SSH
description: Setup a SSH server with a tunnel to access it to debug your action via SSH.
  using: composite
    - run: $GITHUB_ACTION_PATH/setup-ssh
      shell: bash

Unlike in a normal workflow YAML, the run command must also include an explicit shell. We can use any of the GitHub Actions environment variables directly in there, which is convenient because we have GITHUB_ACTION_PATH, the path to our action repository (by default the working directory is the one containing the user’s code, not our action code).

From there, the setup-ssh script can be broken down in 9 simple steps:

  1. Download the latest cloudflared binary.
  2. Fetch the public SSH keys of the GitHub user who triggered the workflow to a authorized_keys file.
  3. If there was no SSH key, set a password for the runner user so that there’s alternative way to connect.
  4. Generate a server key.
  5. Create the sshd config.
  6. Start sshd.
  7. Start a tmux session.
  8. Start cloudflared to expose the sshd port on the internet.
  9. Output the client instructions.
  10. Wait for the tmux session to end and stop everything.

Download cloudflared

We start simple and easy.

curl --location --silent --output cloudflared
chmod +x cloudflared

Fetch the actor keys

In GitHub Actions, the user who trigger the workflow is called an “actor”. Their username is set in the GITHUB_ACTOR environment variable.

As you may know, you configured a number of SSH keys on GitHub to be able to push to repositories over SSH. Those keys are public knowledge, and we can fetch them via the public GitHub API, which is convenient here to automatically give the actor SSH access to that server.

curl -s "$GITHUB_ACTOR/keys" | jq -r '.[].key' > authorized_keys

The GitHub API response is in JSON, but we use a simple jq script to extract the raw key, one per line, to put it in a valid authorized_keys file.

Set a password

If there was no SSH keys for that user, we set a password as a fallback, so they still have a means to connect.

To test whether or not there was any SSH key, we use:

grep -q . authorized_keys

-q makes grep quiet (we don’t need to display the output), . is the regular expression to match (any character), and authorized_keys is the file we use as input.

If there’s any character in that file, grep will exit with 0 (success). Otherwise with a nonzero code, which means nothing was matched.

We can conveniently use it in a if condition:

if grep -q . authorized_keys; then
    echo "Configured SSH key(s) for user: $GITHUB_ACTOR"
    echo "No SSH key found for user: $GITHUB_ACTOR"
    echo "Setting SSH password..."

It’s in that else branch that we generate and set the password. To generate it, we fetch 16 characters from /dev/urandom:

password=$(base64 < /dev/urandom | tr -cd '[:alnum:]' | head -c16)

This gives us a password that we can set for the current user.

(echo "$password"; echo "$password") | sudo passwd "$USER"

We can’t use the passwd command directly because it first prompts us for our own current password (which we don’t know), but we have root access in this VM through sudo, and root doesn’t need confirmation to change anyone’s password.

We echo the password twice because passwd typically asks to input the password first, then a second time for confirmation.

Generate a server key

ssh-keygen is a cool utility to generate SSH keys. It defaults to a RSA key which is fine with me.

ssh-keygen -q -f ssh_host_rsa_key -N ''

Create the sshd config

We copy it from a template file, where we just replace the $PWD and $USER symbols by the corresponding environment variable.

sed "s,\$PWD,$PWD,;s,\$USER,$USER," sshd_config.template > sshd_config

This is a good time to review the template. It’s heavily based on my standalone userland SSH server config I published last year!

Port 2222
HostKey $PWD/ssh_host_rsa_key
PidFile $PWD/

First we set the port to 2222, and we define the host key and process ID file. We could have written PidFile none to prevent the default of /run/, because we don’t actually use it, but it doesn’t hurt.

UsePAM yes

We enable PAM (pluggable authentication module). Not going in details with this, but keep in mind it’s required for this to work at least on Debian-based systems.

KbdInteractiveAuthentication yes
ChallengeResponseAuthentication yes
PasswordAuthentication yes

This enables interactive password authentication. They’re actually enabled by default so we could leave them out.

AllowUsers $USER
AuthorizedKeysFile $PWD/authorized_keys

We only allow the Unix user who the workflow is running as, and we allow the SSH keys we fetched earlier in authorized_keys. Remember that we replace those $USER and $PWD symbols with a sed command before starting the server, you can’t actually use variables in here otherwise.

ForceCommand tmux attach

Finally we force the tmux attach command to run upon login. This makes sure the user is connecting to the tmux session we’ll start in the following steps, and it’s important because we monitor the status of this session to determine when to stop the server.

Start sshd

/usr/sbin/sshd -f sshd_config -D &

We could avoid -D and & altogether by using the file that we configured in PidFile to retrieve the process ID instead. Whatever works.

Start a tmux session

(cd "$GITHUB_WORKSPACE" && tmux new-session -d -s debug)

We start a subshell (the parens around the command), so that cd only affects the subshell and not our top-level environment.

We effectively change the current directory to the main workflow directory, defined in GITHUB_WORKSPACE, and start a tmux session.

With tmux new-session, -d disables the default behavior of attaching the session to the current terminal, and -s allows us to give it a name.

Start cloudflared

./cloudflared tunnel --no-autoupdate --url tcp://localhost:2222 &

We run the cloudflared binary that we downloaded to the current directory earlier. This command allows us to start a tunnel forwarding to port 2222, where our SSH server is listening.

And again, we terminate with & to start it as a background process so that we can keep running commands and kill it at the end.

But there’s a few more things we need to add to this command:

./cloudflared tunnel ... 2>&1 | tee cloudflared.log | sed -u 's/^/cloudflared: /' &

This log file is useful for us to retrieve the relay URL that cloudflared will output, which we do right after:

url=$(head -1 <(tail -f cloudflared.log | grep --line-buffered -o 'https://.*\'))

Note: we can’t put head -1 at the end of the pipeline even though that would seem intuitive, because it would take grep to try to write to the head input after it was closed to notice that the pipe was broken, and then it would take another line output from tail to notice that grep exited.

In practice this just means this would hang indefinitely because cloudflared doesn’t output the relay host twice.

See more details here.

Output the client instructions

We already have the url variable as well as an optional password variable.

With that, all we need is the SSH server public key to include it as part of the connection command that the user will paste.

public_key=$(cut -d' ' -f1,2 <

Thanks to the cut command, we split the single line in the given file by space, and output only fields 1 and 2. This file normally has 3 fields: the key type, the actual key, and a comment. We don’t need the comment.

We can then display those variables in a friendly and convenient way to the user. I already detailed that in the first part focusing on the client side, check it out if you didn’t already!

Watch for session end

tmux wait-for channel

This commands waits for a channel named channel to be “woken up” by a matching tmux wait-for -S channel.

We don’t actually ever run this last command, and we don’t really care about the channel either, but the effect this have if we never “wake up” the channel, is that it will hang until the tmux session itself is over.

That’s exactly what we need: when the user is done debugging, they’ll typically end the tmux session, and this is our way to know we can tear down the servers:

kill "$cloudflared_pid"
kill "$sshd_pid"

Wrapping up

And just like that, you know everything about action-sshd-cloudflared!

This script is simple enough to be explained in depth in a blog post, and builds on top of rock solid programs like sshd, cloudflared and tmux.

Thanks to Cloudflare Tunnel guest mode, we don’t even need an API key or token to set up the relay, and because GitHub already exposes the actor public SSH keys, we can preconfigure them so that everything just works out of the box.

I hope GitHub introduces a SSH feature natively at some point, that would make actions like this obsolete. In the meantime, I hope this helps you debug your GitHub workflows!

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