I am trying to code a shell-script that uses a ssh-connection for doing "heartbeats". I want to terminate the client- and server-side of that connection after a certain timeout (after the connection drops).

What I found so far:

  • TCPKeepAlive yes/no for ssh and sshd
  • ClientAliveCountMax for sshd
  • ClientAliveInterval for sshd
  • ServerAliveCountMax for ssh
  • ServerAliveInterval for ssh

To change "ClientAliveCountMax" I would have to modify the sshd_config on each target machine (this option is disabled by default).

So my question is - can I use "TCPKeepAlive" for my purposes, too (without changing anything else on the source/target machines)?

Target operating system is SLES11 SP2 - but I do not think that is relevant here.

  • Those parameters are all meant for situations where a firewall or intermediary device along the connection will terminate the connection. Those parameters are for sending periodic data to keep the connection alive, and also for shutting the connection down when there are X outstanding replies. Can you provide a little more detail of what youre doing? Are you using the ControlMaster option and using slave connections?
    – phemmer
    Commented Mar 14, 2012 at 17:28
  • I just want to build a means to determine, if another node is "down" using several ssh-network connections with several physical lines. I do this by just openening an ssh-session (that more or less does an endless loop). I want that session to terminate if the connections breaks. I am wondering what the interval/count for TCPKeepalive is.
    – Nils
    Commented Mar 14, 2012 at 21:57

2 Answers 2


You probably want to use the ServerAlive settings for this. They do not require any configuration on the server, and can be set on the command line if you wish.

ssh -o ServerAliveInterval=5 -o ServerAliveCountMax=1 $HOST

This will send a ssh keepalive message every 5 seconds, and if it comes time to send another keepalive, but a response to the last one wasn't received, then the connection is terminated.

The critical difference between ServerAliveInterval and TCPKeepAlive is the layer they operate at.

  • TCPKeepAlive operates on the TCP layer. It sends an empty TCP ACK packet. Firewalls can be configured to ignore these packets, so if you go through a firewall that drops idle connections, these may not keep the connection alive.
  • ServerAliveInterval operates on the ssh layer. It will actually send data through ssh, so the TCP packet has encrypted data in and a firewall can't tell if its a keepalive, or a legitimate packet, so these work better.
  • 1
    I think this is the right direction. Initial tests have shown that this will work - it will terminate sending and receiving ssh/sshd subprocesses latest 5 seconds after the connection drops. I guss that TCPKeepalive simply uses the TCP-stack-defaults - so it is harder to configure, too.
    – Nils
    Commented Mar 15, 2012 at 20:05
  • This also solves the ghost-user problem. I believe this can also be done in PuTTY settings, changing Seconds between keepalives to 1800 under Settings | Connection.
    – Bob Stein
    Commented Jan 14, 2015 at 15:40
  • @Patrick, by "ignore these packets" you mean "drop these packets"?
    – Shuzheng
    Commented Mar 23, 2020 at 9:43
  • 1
    No, I mean they won't reset the firewall's "drop idle connections" timer. Firewalls have to let ACKs through, or TCP connections would be breaking left and right.
    – phemmer
    Commented May 29, 2020 at 1:42

The TCPKeepAlive option is actually a very different method of keeping connections alive from ClientAlive-like or ServerAlive-like options.

Are per BSD SSH manual page, we can read that:

The client alive messages are sent through the encrypted channel and therefore will not be spoofable. The TCP keepalive option enabled by TCPKeepAlive is spoofable. The client alive mechanism is valuable when the client or server depend on knowing when a connection has become inactive.

The TCPKeepAlive make sure whether the system should send TCP keepalive messages to the other side. The default option is always enabled.

If you're using ClientAliveInterval, you can disable TCPKeepAlive. This option will send a message through the encrypted channel to request a response from the client (the default is 0, so no messages are sent to the client) and ClientAliveCountMax sets the number of client alive messages before sshd will disconnect the client, by terminating the session.

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