This lesson is in the early stages of development (Alpha version)

Connecting to the remote HPC system


Teaching: 25 min
Exercises: 10 min
  • How do I open a terminal?

  • How do I connect to a remote computer?

  • What is an SSH key?

  • Connect to a remote HPC system.

Opening a Terminal

Connecting to an HPC system is most often done through a tool known as “SSH” (Secure SHell) and usually SSH is run through a terminal. So, to begin using an HPC system we need to begin by opening a terminal. Different operating systems have different terminals, none of which are exactly the same in terms of their features and abilities while working on the operating system. When connected to the remote system the experience between terminals will be identical as each will faithfully present the same experience of using that system.

Here is the process for opening a terminal in each operating system.


There are many different versions (aka “flavours”) of Linux and how to open a terminal window can change between flavours. Fortunately most Linux users already know how to open a terminal window since it is a common part of the workflow for Linux users. If this is something that you do not know how to do then a quick search on the Internet for “how to open a terminal window in” with your particular Linux flavour appended to the end should quickly give you the directions you need.


Macs have had a terminal built in since the first version of OS X since it is built on a UNIX-like operating system, leveraging many parts from BSD (Berkeley Software Distribution). The terminal can be quickly opened through the use of the Searchlight tool. Hold down the command key and press the spacebar. In the search bar that shows up type “terminal”, choose the terminal app from the list of results (it will look like a tiny, black computer screen) and you will be presented with a terminal window. Alternatively, you can find Terminal under “Utilities” in the Applications menu.


While Windows does have a command-line interface known as the “Command Prompt” that has its roots in MS-DOS (Microsoft Disk Operating System) it does not have an SSH tool built into it and so one needs to be installed. There are a variety of programs that can be used for this; a few common ones we describe here, as follows:


Git BASH gives you a terminal like interface in Windows. You can use this to connect to a remote computer via SSH. It can be downloaded for free from here.

Windows Subsystem for Linux

The Windows Subsystem for Linux also allows you to connect to a remote computer via SSH. Instructions on installing it can be found here.


MobaXterm is a terminal window emulator for Windows and the home edition can be downloaded for free from If you follow the link you will note that there are two editions of the home version available: Portable and Installer. The portable edition puts all MobaXterm content in a folder on the desktop (or anywhere else you would like it) so that it is easy to add plug-ins or remove the software. The installer edition adds MobaXterm to your Windows installation and menu as any other program you might install. If you are not sure that you will continue to use MobaXterm in the future, the portable edition is likely the best choice for you.

Download the version that you would like to use and install it as you would any other software on your Windows installation. Once the software is installed you can run it by either opening the folder installed with the portable edition and double-clicking on the executable file named MobaXterm_Personal_11.1 (your version number may vary) or, if the installer edition was used, finding the executable through either the start menu or the Windows search option.

Once the MobaXterm window is open you should see a large button in the middle of that window with the text “Start Local Terminal”. Click this button and you will have a terminal window at your disposal.


It is strictly speaking not necessary to have a terminal running on your local computer in order to access and use a remote system, only a window into the remote system once connected. PuTTY is likely It is, strictly speaking, not necessary to have a terminal running on your local computer in order to access and use a remote system, only a window into the remote system once connected. PuTTY is likely the oldest, most well-known, and widely used software solution to take this approach.

PuTTY is available for free download from Download the version that is correct for your operating system and install it as you would other software on your Windows system. Once installed it will be available through the start menu or similar.

Running PuTTY will not initially produce a terminal but instead a window full of connection options. Putting the address of the remote system in the “Host Name (or IP Address)” box and either pressing enter or clicking the “Open” button should begin the connection process.

If this works you will see a terminal window open that prompts you for a username through the “login as:” prompt and then for a password. If both of these are passed correctly then you will be given access to the system and will see a message saying so within the terminal. If you need to escape the authentication process you can hold the Control (Ctrl) key and press the c key to exit and start again.

Note that you may want to paste in your password rather than typing it. Use Ctrl plus a right-click of the mouse to paste content from the clipboard to the PuTTY terminal.

For those logging in with PuTTY it would likely be best to cover the terminal basics already mentioned above before moving on to navigating the remote system.

Creating an SSH key

SSH keys are an alternative method for authentication to obtain access to remote computing systems. They can also be used for authentication when transferring files or for accessing version control systems. In this section you will create a pair of SSH keys, a private key which you keep on your own computer and a public key which is placed on the remote HPC system that you will log in to.

Linux, Mac and Windows Subsystem for Linux

Once you have opened a terminal check for existing SSH keys and filenames since existing SSH keys are overwritten,

$ ls ~/.ssh/

then generate a new public-private key pair,

$ ssh-keygen -t ed25519 -a 100 -f ~/.ssh/id_Graham_ed25519

If ed25519 is not available, use the older (but strong and trusted) RSA cryptography:

$ ls ~/.ssh/
$ ssh-keygen -o -a 100 -t rsa -b 4096 -f ~/.ssh/id_Graham_rsa

The flag -b sets the number of bits in the key. The default is 2048. EdDSA uses a fixed key length, so this flag would have no effect.

When prompted, enter a strong password that you will remember. Cryptography is only as good as the weakest link, and this will be used to connect to a powerful, precious, computational resource.

Take a look in ~/.ssh (use ls ~/.ssh). You should see the two new files: your private key (~/.ssh/key_Graham_ed25519 or ~/.ssh/key_Graham_rsa) and the public key (~/.ssh/ or ~/.ssh/ If a key is requested by the system administrators, the public key is the one to provide.

Private keys are your private identity

A private key that is visible to anyone but you should be considered compromised, and must be destroyed. This includes having improper permissions on the directory it (or a copy) is stored in, traversing any network in the clear, attachment on unencrypted email, and even displaying the key (which is ASCII text) in your terminal window.

Protect this key as if it unlocks your front door. In many ways, it does.

Further information

For more information on SSH security and some of the flags set here, an excellent resource is Secure Secure Shell.


On Windows you can use

Logging onto the system

With all of this in mind, let’s connect to a remote HPC system. In this workshop, we will connect to Graham — an HPC system located at the University of Waterloo. Although it’s unlikely that every system will be exactly like Graham, it’s a very good example of what you can expect from an HPC installation. To connect to our example computer, we will use SSH (if you are using PuTTY, see above).

SSH allows us to connect to UNIX computers remotely, and use them as if they were our own. The general syntax of the connection command follows the format ssh -i ~/.ssh/key_for_remote_computer [email protected] when using SSH keys and ssh [email protected] if only password access is available. Let’s attempt to connect to the HPC system now:

ssh -i ~/.ssh/key_Graham_ed25519 [email protected]


ssh -i ~/.ssh/key_Graham_rsa [email protected]

or if SSH keys have not been enabled

The authenticity of host ' (' can't be established.
ECDSA key fingerprint is SHA256:JRj286Pkqh6aeO5zx1QUkS8un5fpcapmezusceSGhok.
ECDSA key fingerprint is MD5:99:59:db:b1:3f:18:d0:2c:49:4e:c2:74:86:ac:f7:c6.
Are you sure you want to continue connecting (yes/no)?  # type "yes"!
Warning: Permanently added the ECDSA host key for IP address '' to the list of known hosts.
[email protected]'s password:  # no text appears as you enter your password
Last login: Wed Jun 28 16:16:20 2017 from

Welcome to the ComputeCanada/SHARCNET cluster Graham.

If you’ve connected successfully, you should see a prompt like the one below. This prompt is informative, and lets you grasp certain information at a glance. (If you don’t understand what these things are, don’t worry! We will cover things in depth as we explore the system further.)

[yourUsername@gra-login1 ~]$ 

Telling the Difference between the Local Terminal and the Remote Terminal

You may have noticed that the prompt changed when you logged into the remote system using the terminal (if you logged in using PuTTY this will not apply because it does not offer a local terminal). This change is important because it makes it clear on which system the commands you type will be run when you pass them into the terminal. This change is also a small complication that we will need to navigate throughout the workshop. Exactly what is reported before the $ in the terminal when it is connected to the local system and the remote system will typically be different for every user. We still need to indicate which system we are entering commands on though so we will adopt the following convention:

Being certain which system your terminal is connected to

If you ever need to be certain which system a terminal you are using is connected to then use the following command: $ hostname.

Keep two terminal windows open

It is strongly recommended that you have two terminals open, one connected to the local system and one connected to the remote system, that you can switch back and forth between. If you only use one terminal window then you will need to reconnect to the remote system using one of the methods above when you see a change from [local]$ to [yourUsername@gra-login1 ~]$ and disconnect when you see the reverse.

Key Points

  • To connect to a remote HPC system using SSH and a password, run ssh [email protected].

  • To connect to a remote HPC system using SSH and an SSH key, run ssh -i ~/.ssh/key_for_remote_computer [email protected].