Stupid Unix Tricks - Running A Script On Multiple Servers Concurrently

Table of Contents

One of the amazing things about Unix and Linux is that you can get a LOT of work done with the help of a few lines of shell scripting and some simple, well-defined tools. Today I would like to show you a technique that I use on a regular basis that saves me a ton of time and energy.

The Problem

You have a backup script called that you would like to run on 4 different servers from a centralized "job control" server. Ideally, you would not like to log into each server in a different terminal window and execute the command. Instead, you want to just run a script from one server and then wait while the job runs on the 4 (or 40 or 400) other servers.

Iteration 1

First let's assume that the file is staged on all of your servers (and it's the same version on each server, right?) in the /home/tom/scripts/ location. Here's how you would kick that off on every server from one, centralized shell instance:


servers="serverA serverB serverC serverN"
for server in $servers; do
    ssh $server "/home/tom/scripts/" &

There's a lot of stuff going on here in this script that is pretty common. We have a for loop iterating over a space-delimited list that starts on line 4 and ends on line 6. However, everything else may be a little confusing to most shell scripters.

Running Remote Commands

Let's start line 5. From a high level what we're doing is connecting to a remote server and running a command on that server.

When most Unix and Linux users think of SSH they think of a replacement for telnet, which is certainly is. However, in addition to that, SSH is also an encrypted replacement for a tool called rsh which stands for remote shell. rsh (and therefore ssh) lets you actually run commands on remote servers. All you have to do is sepcify the server and command and assuming that you have the proper security access you can run commands on remote machines.

So for example, let's say that you wanted to just check the uptime of the four servers listed above. Here's a really easy way to do that:


servers="serverA serverB serverC serverN"
for server in $servers; do
  ssh $server "hostname && uptime"

And here's what you can expect to see:
 20:17:59 up 1 day,  8:00,  0 users,  load average: 0.12, 0.04, 0.05
 15:18:00 up 1 day,  8:02,  0 users,  load average: 0.00, 0.01, 0.05
 15:18:01 up 74 days, 11:30,  0 users,  load average: 0.02, 0.04, 0.10
 20:17:59 up 1 day,  8:00,  0 users,  load average: 0.12, 0.04, 0.05

Please note that this script does not run the uptime commands concurrently, but it does a decent job of running the uptime command on each of the servers in the list.


Believe it or not the Bash shell gives us some simple and powerful tools to run more than one command simultaneously. One of the simplest examples of these tools is the & operator which lets you background a command. By background I mean that the shell does not do what it usually does, which is block (i.e. wait) immediately after a command is executed until that command is finished.

Here's a basic example of what I mean. Type the following in your Bash console:

sleep 5

Since you didn't background this process with a single ampersand the shell will block until 5 seconds have passed and then return control to you.. Now try this:

sleep 5 &

Control is returned to the shell immdiately so that other commands can be executed while your sleep command (or any other long-running command) is running. Now mix this feature with multi-core processors (or multiple hosts like in our backup example) and voila - simple, effective, multi-process concurrency.

Now a script using concurrent commands shouldn't just use ampersands, which takes us to line line 7. The wait command is a great Bash command that waits for all backgrounded commands to complete (when executed without any arguments).

The wait command isn't absolutely necessary because technically the script would still run without it. However, like safety goggles on a welder it's a really good idea to include it in any script that uses backgrounding for lots of reasons 1.

Iteration 2 - Running Locally-Hosted Scripts Remotely

Our first iteration of this script is really pretty good. It's a simple, five-line shell script that concurrently launches a command on multiple servers and then waits for its children processes to complete (like any responsible parent process in the Unix world). It meets all of our requirements and would work really well for a lot of sysadmins in the real world.

However, there's still one nagging problem. We have this great script that allows us to kick off the backup job on every host from a central location. But we still have to install and manage the script on each server. Wouldn't it be nice if we could kick off and manage that script from one place? By that I mean wouldn't it be nice if we could host the script on one server and then run that script on an arbitrary list of remote servers?

Believe it or not this is actually pretty simple using Bash and SSH. Here's what the script would look like:


servers="serverA serverB serverC serverN"
for server in $servers; do
    ssh $server "bash -s" < ./ &

Here's the differences between the first iteration and this one:

  • The command that we're running on the remote machine is bash -s instead of the remote copy of
  • We're passing the contents of the local copy of the command to the remote command 's standard input using the < operator.
  • The remote bash process then executes the standard input because we passed it the -s switch.

That's it! Without adding a single line of code (or additional commands or pipes or anything) we just made our backup management script that much more awesome. This is a great example of how expressive and powerful shell scripting can be for certain tasks.


The point of this tutorial was to show people how to run a command on multiple servers concurrently, not to give them a bulletproof script that could be used to coordinate backups for their entire company. Here's a few things to consider if you are trying to coordinate backups for multiple servers from one host:

  • This script is still a little naieve. It could use things like better error handling and logging (which are out of the scope of this tutorial).
  • The more complex and important your job streams get the less you will want to rely on clever Bash scripts to manage them. An example of a good tool for managing such jobstreams from a single location is Jenkins.



I certainly hope that you don't just take my word for it and you check out the Process Management page on the Bash FAQ (which I really can't recommend enough if you write any Bash scripts) for more information.