Collecting my attempts to improve at tech, art, and life

GNU screen

Tags: unix coolnamehere

Sometimes it’s helpful to have multiple consoles open during a Linux session. The best example I can think of is when you are logged in to a machine via ssh. There are other ways, of course. You could try to log in to the server with ‘-X’ so that X11 applications can run on the remote host but display on your computer. That’s not always easy, though. The administrator of the server may not allow X11 forwarding. Your machine may not allow or even understand X11 requests. You could log in to multiple ssh sessions. This is what I did for several years. It works, but it’s not the most convenient approach, since it clutters up your desktop. screen is a better option.

screen lets you log in once, and have multiple command line consoles open and controlled from within your single ssh session. It even keeps your session active as an added bonus. This means that after the inevitable network hiccup that hoses your ssh login, you can log in once more and simple start from where you left off with a simple screen -Dr.

Where To Find screen

screen is part of the GNU project. You can find more info at the GNU Screen project page. It’s also on many distributions, so search with your package manager before you download and install the source package.

How To Use screen

Once you’ve installed screen by whatever approach needed, starting a screen session is as simple as invoking the screen command.

$ screen

From there the best way to learn is to monkey around with screen, using the quick list of commands below as your guide. All screen commands start with Ctrl-A, as seen below.

Common screen Commands

Combination Action
Ctrl-A C Create a new window
Ctrl-A A Switch to the last window you were in
Ctrl-A N Switch to the next window in screen internal list
Ctrl-A P Switch to the previous window in screen internal list
Ctrl-A K Kill the current window
Ctrl-A D Detach your screen session
Ctrl-A ? Get the help screen
Ctrl-A A Send an actual Ctrl-A signal to your current shell

The commands are fairly straightforward. For example, to create a new window:

  1. Hold down the Control key
  2. Press “A”
  3. Release the Control key
  4. Press “C”

You may already know this particular shorthand for key combos, but I wanted to have the information just in case you didn’t.

Detaching your session may be the coolest aspect of screen. Your screen session stays in the same state until you can come back and resume later. This lasts days - I know, I have tested it - and won’t actually go away unless forcibly killed by you or an admin. Well, shutting down the computer will end your screen session completely, so try to bear that in mind whenever you are about to reboot.

You reattach a session with screen -r from the command line. You can also reattach a session that you lost because of network failure or some other minor accident with screen -Dr.

Be careful with Ctrl-A Ctrl-K! If you are used to working in Emacs or using emacs-style movement in your shell, you may be accustomed to that key combo moving you to the beginning of the current line and cutting that line into the kill ring. In the screen world, you would use Ctrl-A A Ctrl-K to get the same effect.

Added to vault 2024-01-15. Updated on 2024-01-26