Putty-like SSH port forwarding on Linux and MacOS

As a Linux or Mac user you benefit from a very useful, built-in terminal and SSH client implementation that’s mostly identical across all Unix-like systems. The situation used to be different on Windows.

Before Windows supported a built-in SSH client on the command line Putty was (and still is!) one of the primary tools available to perform remote administration. One of the nice things in Putty is its ability to add port forwarding rules on the fly, e.g. after the session has already been established. A similar feature exists for SSH clients on MacOS and Linux (and even Windows as its ssh client is also based on OpenSSH)

Port-forwarding in openSSH clients

The contents of this post was tested with a wide range of SSH clients. I did not go so far as to research when dynamic port forwarding was introduced but it seems to be present for a little while. For the most part I used the SSH client shipping with Oracle Linux 8.6.

Port-forwarding at connection time

You can specify either the -L or -R flag (and -D for some fancy SOCKS options not relevant to this post) when establishing a SSH session to a remote host, specifying how ports should be forwarded. Throw in the -N flag and you don’t even open your login shell! That’s a very convenient way to enable port forwarding. As long as the command shown below isn’t CTRL-C’d the SSH tunnel will persist.

[martin@host]$ ssh -i ~/.ssh/vagrant -N -L 5510:server2:5510 vagrant@server2

Occasionally I don’t know in advance which ports I have to forward, and I’m not always keen to establish a new session. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could simply add a port forwarding rules just like with Putty?

Putty-like port-forwarding on the command line

Once established you can control the behaviour of your SSH session using escape characters. The ssh(1) man page lists the available options in a section titled “ESCAPE CHARACTERS” (yes, the man page lists it in uppercase, it wasn’t me shouting).

The most interesting escape key is ~C: it opens a command line. I’m quoting from the docs here:

[~C] Open command line. Currently this allows the addition of port forwardings using the -L, -R and -D options (see above). It also allows the cancellation of existing port-forwardings with -KL[bind_address:]port for local, -KR[bind_address:]port for remote and -KD[bind_address:]port for dynamic port-forwardings. !command allows the user to execute a local command if the PermitLocalCommand option is enabled in ssh_config(5). Basic help is available, using the -h option.

man ssh(1)

Let’s try this in practice. Let’s assume I’d like to use port-forwarding to tunnel the Oracle Enterprise Manager (EM) Express port for one of my Pluggable Databases (PDBs) to my local laptop. The first step is to establish the port number used by EM Express.

SQL> show con_name


SQL> select dbms_xdb_config.gethttpsport from dual;


Right, the port number is 5510! It’s above the magic number of 1024 and therefore not a protected port (only root can work with ports <= 1024). Let’s add this to my existing interactive SSH connection:

[vagrant@server2 ~]$      # hit ~ followed by C to open the command line
ssh> L5510:server2:5510   # add a local port forwarding rule
Forwarding port.

As soon as you see the message “Forwarding port” you are all set, provided of course the ports are defined correctly and there’s no service running on your laptop’s port 5510. Next, when I point my favourite web browser to https://localhost:5510/em the connection request is forwarded to server2’s port 5510. In other words, I can connect to Enterprise Manager Express.

Should you find yourself in a situation where you’re unsure which ports you have forwarded, you can find out about that, too. Escape character ~# displays currently forwarded ports:

[vagrant@server2 ~]$ ~#
The following connections are open:
  #0 client-session (t4 r0 i0/0 o0/0 e[write]/4 fd 4/5/6 sock -1 cc -1 io 0x01/0x01)
  #3 direct-tcpip: listening port 5510 for server2 port 5510, connect from port 58950 to port 5510 (t4 r1 i0/0 o0/0 e[closed]/0 fd 9/9/-1 sock 9 cc -1 io 0x01/0x00)

Your client session is always present as #0. In the above output #3 indicates my browser session I established to EM Express. Unfortunately the forwarded port is only shown after an initial connection was established. This is close to Putty’s behaviour, but not a match. If you really need to know you have to use lsof or netstat and related tools.

You can even stop forwarding sessions on the command line:

[vagrant@server2 ~]$ 
ssh> KL5510
Canceled forwarding.

Once all sessions previously using the forwarded port have ended, the information is removed from the output of ~# in ssh.


The ssh command line client offers quite a few options not many users are aware of. Dynamically adding port forwarding rules to a session is a great feature I use frequently. Although it’s not quite on par with Putty’s port forwarding options dialogue it’s nevertheless very useful and I find myself mainly adding forwarding rules. The sshd (= server) configuration must of course allow port forwarding for this to work, if port forwarding fails because the admin disabled it you’ll get a message similar to this on in your ssh session:

[vagrant@server2 ~]$ channel 3: open failed: administratively prohibited: open failed

In which case you are out of luck.