Customize GuixSD: Use Stock SSH Agent Everywhere!

I frequently use SSH. Since I don't like typing my password all the time, I use an SSH agent. Originally I used the GNOME Keyring as my SSH agent, but recently I've switched to using the ssh-agent from OpenSSH. I accomplished this by doing the following two things:

Below, I'll show you in detail how I did this. In addition to being useful for anyone who wants to use OpenSSH's ssh-agent in GuixSD, I hope this example will help to illustrate how GuixSD enables you to customize your entire system to be just the way you want it!

The Problem: GNOME Keyring Can't Handle My SSH Keys

On GuixSD, I like to use the GNOME desktop environment. GNOME is just one of the various desktop environments that GuixSD supports. By default, the GNOME desktop environment on GuixSD comes with a lot of goodies, including the GNOME Keyring, which is GNOME's integrated solution for securely storing secrets, passwords, keys, and certificates.

The GNOME Keyring has many useful features. One of those is its SSH Agent feature. This feature allows you to use the GNOME Keyring as an SSH agent. This means that when you invoke a command like ssh-add, it will add the private key identities to the GNOME Keyring. Usually this is quite convenient, since it means that GNOME users basically get an SSH agent for free!

Unfortunately, up until GNOME 3.28 (the current release), the GNOME Keyring's SSH agent implementation was not as complete as the stock SSH agent from OpenSSH. As a result, earlier versions of GNOME Keyring did not support many use cases. This was a problem for me, since GNOME Keyring couldn't read my modern SSH keys. To make matters worse, by design the SSH agent for GNOME Keyring and OpenSSH both use the same environment variables (e.g., SSH_AUTH_SOCK). This makes it difficult to use OpenSSH's ssh-agent everywhere within my GNOME desktop environment.

Happily, starting with GNOME 3.28, GNOME Keyring delegates all SSH agent functionality to the stock SSH agent from OpenSSH. They have removed their custom implementation entirely. This means that today, I could solve my problem simply by using the most recent version of GNOME Keyring. I'll probably do just that when the new release gets included in Guix. However, when I first encountered this problem, GNOME 3.28 hadn't been released yet, so the only option available to me was to customize GNOME Keyring or remove it entirely.

In any case, I'm going to show you how I solved this problem by modifying the default GNOME Keyring from the Guix package collection. The same ideas can be used to customize any package, so hopefully it will be a useful example. And what if you don't use GNOME, but you do want to use OpenSSH's ssh-agent? In that case, you may still need to customize your GuixSD system a little bit. Let me show you how!

The Solution: ~/.xsession and a Custom GNOME Keyring

The goal is to make OpenSSH's ssh-agent available everywhere when we log into our GNOME desktop session. First, we must arrange for ssh-agent to be running whenever we're logged in.

There are many ways to accomplish this. For example, I've seen people implement shell code in their shell's start-up files which basically manages their own ssh-agent process. However, I prefer to just start ssh-agent once and not clutter up my shell's start-up files with unnecessary code. So that's what we're going to do!

Launch OpenSSH's ssh-agent in Your ~/.xsession

By default, GuixSD uses the SLiM desktop manager. When you log in, SLiM presents you with a menu of so-called "desktop sessions", which correspond to the desktop environments you've declared in your operating system declaration. For example, if you've added the gnome-desktop-service to your operating system declaration, then you'll see an option for GNOME at the SLiM login screen.

You can further customize your desktop session with the ~/.xsession file. The contract for this file in GuixSD is the same as it is for many GNU/Linux distributions: if it exists, then it will be executed. The arguments passed to it will be the command line invocation that would normally be executed to start the desktop session that you selected from the SLiM login screen. Your ~/.xsession is expected to do whatever is necessary to customize and then start the specified desktop environment. For example, when you select GNOME from the SLiM login screen, your ~/.xsession file will basically be executed like this (for the exact execution mechanism, please refer to the source code linked above):

$ ~/.xsession gnome-session

The upshot of all this is that the ~/.xsession is an ideal place to set up your SSH agent! If you start an SSH agent in your ~/.xsession file, you can have the SSH agent available everywhere, automatically! Check it out: Put this into your ~/.xsession file, and make the file executable:

exec ssh-agent "$@"

When you invoke ssh-agent in this way, it executes the specified program in an environment where commands like ssh-add just work. It does this by setting environment variables such as SSH_AUTH_SOCK, which programs like ssh-add find and use automatically. Because GuixSD allows you to customize your desktop session like this, you can use any SSH agent you want in any desktop environments that you want, automatically!

Of course, if you're using GNOME Keyring version 3.27 or earlier (like I was), then this isn't quite enough. In that case, the SSH agent feature of GNOME Keyring will override the environment variables set by OpenSSH's ssh-agent, so commands like ssh-add will wind up communicating with the GNOME Keyring instead of the ssh-agent you launched in your ~/.xsession. This is bad because, as previously mentioned, GNOME Keyring version 3.27 or earlier doesn't support as many uses cases as OpenSSH's ssh-agent.

How can we work around this problem?

Customize the GNOME Keyring

One heavy-handed solution would be to remove GNOME Keyring entirely. That would work, but then you would lose out on all the other great features that it has to offer. Surely we can do better!

The GNOME Keyring documentation explains that one way to disable the SSH agent feature is to include the --disable-ssh-agent configure flag when building it. Thankfully, Guix provides some ways to customize software in exactly this way!

Conceptually, we "just" have to do the following two things:

Create a Custom GNOME Keyring Package

Let's begin by defining a custom gnome-keyring package, which we'll call gnome-keyring-sans-ssh-agent. With Guix, we can do this in less than ten lines of code:

(define-public gnome-keyring-sans-ssh-agent
    (inherit gnome-keyring)
    (name "gnome-keyring-sans-ssh-agent")
         (package-arguments gnome-keyring)
       ((#:configure-flags flags)
        `(cons "--disable-ssh-agent" ,flags))))))

Don't worry if some of that code is unclear at first. I'll clarify it now!

In Guix, a <package> record like the one above is defined by a macro called define-record-type* (defined in the file guix/records.scm in the Guix source). It's similar to an SRFI-9 record. The inherit feature of this macro is very useful: it creates a new copy of an existing record, overriding specific fields in the new copy as needed.

In the above, we define gnome-keyring-sans-ssh-agent to be a copy of the gnome-keyring package, and we use inherit to change the name and arguments fields in that new copy. We also use the substitute-keyword-arguments macro (defined in the file guix/utils.scm in the Guix source) to add --disable-ssh-agent to the list of configure flags defined in the gnome-keyring package. The effect of this is to define a new GNOME Keyring package that is built exactly the same as the original, but in which the SSH agent is disabled.

I'll admit this code may seem a little opaque at first, but all code does when you first learn it. Once you get the hang of things, you can customize packages any way you can imagine. If you want to learn more, you should read the docstrings for the define-record-type* and substitute-keyword-arguments macros in the Guix source code. It's also very helpful to grep the source code to see examples of how these macros are used in practice. For example:

$ # Search the currently installed Guix for the current user.
$ grep -r substitute-keyword-arguments ~/.config/guix/latest
$ # Search the Guix Git repository, assuming you've checked it out here.
$ grep -r substitute-keyword-arguments ~/guix

Use the Custom GNOME Keyring Package

OK, we've created our own custom GNOME Keyring package. Great! Now, how do we use it?

In GuixSD, the GNOME desktop environment is treated as a system service. To make GNOME use our custom GNOME Keyring package, we must somehow customize the gnome-desktop-service (defined in the file gnu/services/desktop.scm) to use our custom package. How do we customize a service? Generally, the answer depends on the service. Thankfully, many of GuixSD's services, including the gnome-desktop-service, follow a similar pattern. In this case, we "just" need to pass a custom <gnome-desktop-configuration> record to the gnome-desktop-service procedure in our operating system declaration, like this:



  (services (cons*
              #:config my-gnome-desktop-configuration)

Here, the cons* procedure just adds the GNOME desktop service to the %desktop-services list, returning the new list. For details, please refer to the Guile manual.

Now the question is: what should my-gnome-desktop-configuration be? Well, if we examine the definition of this record type in the Guix source, we see the following:

(define-record-type* <gnome-desktop-configuration> gnome-desktop-configuration
  (gnome-package gnome-package (default gnome)))

The gnome package referenced here is a "meta" package: it exists only to aggregate many GNOME packages together, including gnome-keyring. To see its definition, we can simply invoke guix edit gnome, which opens the file where the package is defined:

(define-public gnome
    (name "gnome")
    (version (package-version gnome-shell))
    (source #f)
    (build-system trivial-build-system)
    (arguments '(#:builder (mkdir %output)))
     ;; TODO: Add more packages according to:
     ;;       <>.
     `(("adwaita-icon-theme"        ,adwaita-icon-theme)
       ("baobab"                    ,baobab)
       ("font-cantarell"            ,font-cantarell)
       [... many packages omitted for brevity ...]
       ("gnome-keyring"             ,gnome-keyring)
       [... many packages omitted for brevity ...]
    (synopsis "The GNU desktop environment")
    (home-page "")
     "GNOME is the graphical desktop for GNU.  It includes a wide variety of
applications for browsing the web, editing text and images, creating
documents and diagrams, playing media, scanning, and much more.")
    (license license:gpl2+)))

Apart from being a little long, this is just a normal package definition. We can see that gnome-keyring is included in the list of propagated-inputs. So, we need to create a replacement for the gnome package that uses our gnome-keyring-sans-ssh-agent instead of gnome-keyring. The following package definition accomplishes that:

(define-public gnome-sans-ssh-agent
    (inherit gnome)
    (name "gnome-sans-ssh-agent")
     (map (match-lambda
            ((name package)
             (if (equal? name "gnome-keyring")
                 (list name gnome-keyring-sans-ssh-agent)
                 (list name package))))
          (package-propagated-inputs gnome)))))

As before, we use inherit to create a new copy of the gnome package that overrides the original name and propagated-inputs fields. Since Guix packages are just defined using good old scheme, we can use existing language features like map and match-lambda to manipulate the list of propagated inputs. The effect of the above is to create a new package that is the same as the gnome package but uses gnome-keyring-sans-ssh-agent instead of gnome-keyring.

Now that we have gnome-sans-ssh-agent, we can create a custom <gnome-desktop-configuration> record and pass it to the gnome-desktop-service procedure as follows:



  (services (cons*
              #:config (gnome-desktop-configuration
                        (gnome-package gnome-sans-ssh-agent)))

Wrapping It All Up

Finally, you need to run the following commands as root to create and boot into the new system generation (replace MY-CONFIG with the path to the customized operating system configuration file):

# guix system reconfigure MY-CONFIG
# reboot

After you log into GNOME, any time you need to use SSH, the stock SSH agent from OpenSSH that you started in your ~/.xsession file will be used instead of the GNOME Keyring's SSH agent. It just works! Note that it still works even if you select a non-GNOME desktop session (like XFCE) at the SLiM login screen, since the ~/.xsession is not tied to any particular desktop session,

In the unfortunate event that something went wrong and things just aren't working when you reboot, don't worry: with GuixSD, you can safely roll back to the previous system generation via the usual mechanisms. For example, you can run this from the command line to roll back:

# guix system roll-back
# reboot

This is one of the great benefits that comes from the fact that Guix follows the functional software deployment model. However, note that because the ~/.xsession file (like many files in your home directory) is not managed by Guix, you must manually undo the changes that you made to it in order to roll back fully.


I hope this helps give you some ideas for how you can customize your own GuixSD system to make it exactly what you want it to be. Not only can you customize your desktop session via your ~/.xsession file, but Guix also provides tools for you to modify any of the default packages or services to suit your specific needs.

Happy hacking!



To the extent possible under law, Chris Marusich has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to this article, "Customize GuixSD: Use Stock SSH Agent Everywhere!". This work is published from: United States.

The views expressed in this article are those of Chris Marusich and do not necessarily reflect the views of his past, present, or future employers.

About GNU Guix

GNU Guix is a transactional package manager for the GNU system. The Guix System Distribution or GuixSD is an advanced distribution of the GNU system that relies on GNU Guix and respects the user's freedom.

In addition to standard package management features, Guix supports transactional upgrades and roll-backs, unprivileged package management, per-user profiles, and garbage collection. Guix uses low-level mechanisms from the Nix package manager, except that packages are defined as native Guile modules, using extensions to the Scheme language. GuixSD offers a declarative approach to operating system configuration management, and is highly customizable and hackable.

GuixSD can be used on an i686, x86_64 and armv7 machines. It is also possible to use Guix on top of an already installed GNU/Linux system, including on mips64el and aarch64.

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