Shell access over FTP

For a variety of reasons many shared web hosts provide only FTP accounts, not SSH shell based access. While I would never recommend such a host to a die hard Linux fan, I have occasionally had the requirement to work with such accounts for friends. Clearly I’m not about to break my workflow and use FTP commands and/or web based MySQL tooling, so how to proceed?

Firstly, bizarrely, many hosts despite not providing SSH access, *do* allow you to have remote MySQL access, so with a local mysql-client library installed and the correct rules in CPanel to permit one of my static IPs access, I can easily run commands on the remote database. I won’t include a tutorial because, if your CPanel has such an option and you’re an avid Linux user, you’ll know what to do.

Getting around FTP is slightly harder to do and there will be some caveats. The main limitation will be that nothing can replace direct shell access; you won’t for example be able to execute processes on the remote host. You will however be able to work with the file system as if you were logged in over SSH. The method we will use here is to mount the remote FTP filesystem to a directory on our local machine and then work with it locally. This means, for example, we can develop live in PhpStorm and have the changes reflected on the remote CPanel administered server – neat!

So, to get this working you need to install curlftpfs. On my debian based system with sudo, apt command is as follows

sudo apt-get install curlftpfs

Once installed you can then mount the file system using the following command – be sure to swap out your hostname, user, password etc.

curlftpfs '<username>:<password>@<hostname>' /home/<local-user>/ftp/

And that’s it! You can then navigate to the directory in question and work on files in there as if they were local to you. When you’re finished you can unmount as follows

umount /home/<local-user>/ftp

Finally a little known fact about many CPanel configurations – they support cron jobs! This means that if, as a one-off, you *do* need to execute something on a remote server to which you do not have shell access, you can drop the executable onto the box via the FTP mounted file system method above, apply the appropriate CHMOD and then schedule your command to run as a timed job in CPanel. If you direct the command output to a log file then you can even tail that log file on your own machine over the mount point to allow you to track progress of the script!


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