by Alexey Samoshkin

Tmux in practice: local and nested remote tmux sessions

We discuss tmux features, their relevance for local and remote scenarios, and how to setup and configure tmux to support nested sessions

This is the first part of my tmux in practice article series. It is about using and configuring tmux v2, local and remote tmux sessions usage, and how to support a scenario when a remote tmux session is going to be nested inside a local tmux session.

Before you start reading, here is a working example from my machine. We have a local tmux session on OSX inside iTerm2 (run in full screen mode). The local session has 2 windows: “zsh” and “node”.

The “zsh” window is split into 2 panes: in both panes we SSH’ed to the remote hosts (CentOS7 and Ubuntu14) and jump into remote tmux sessions there.

The bottom pane with the Ubuntu14 remote session is further split into 2 panes, and we have 3 windows: shell, mon, and logs.

Nested tmux remote sessions happily coexist even in side-by-side panes in local tmux session

If you’re curious how it all works together, continue reading.


First let’s quickly go through tmux features and advantages, to understand their relevance to local or remote scenarios. We should clarify to ourselves why we need this “nested tmux in tmux” thing, because at first glance it looks pretty crazy.

  1. Terminal multiplexing, named windows, split window into several panes. This makes more sense for the local environment, when you decide to supercharge your terminal emulator, which otherwise does not support aforementioned features. For example, iTerm or Terminator are already capable of multiplexing a terminal.
  2. Setup and kick off tmux session with a pre-configured set of windows and panes, their arrangement, and commands run inside to avoid hassle of repeatedly setting up them again and again from scratch. For example:
    - “dev” session, which includes the “#1: shell” window with 2 panes for ad-hoc usage
    - “#2: monitoring” window with htop and sysdig panes
    - “#3: log” window with journalctl and tail -f app.log panes
    - “#4: node” window running node server
    tmux lets you write script to achieve this, and if you prefer the configuration-like approach, take a look at tmuxinator. This is relevant for both local and remote scenario.
  3. Persist your working state, so you can detach and resume later with the same state as you left. When working locally with several projects, you can setup several per-project tmux sessions and switch context easily
    On the remote machine, you can detach from session by the end of a working day, and get back to the same session from home at evening.
  4. Survive abrupt connection drops. This is one of the most important feature. Suppose, you SSH onto remote host, and have a long-running process there. If SSH connection is lost or physical network drop occurs, SIGHUP signal would be sent to the remote shell, and it and all its child processes would be terminated. Tmux makes your remote processes resistant to such risks.

Less important features, but still worth mention are as follows:

  1. Once you setup tmux environment, you are less dependent on the parent terminal emulator and its unique set of features, and can switch to another terminal emulator will less hassle. Given I’m an iTerm2 on OSX user, I can migrate to Terminator or konsole on Linux by installing my tmux configuration there, and get the very same known environment I am already used to.
  2. Share your remote session with your colleague, so you can collaborate in real time. I think it’s of rare use in a real world, but sounds cool. Yeah, pair programming, and other cool buzzwords. ?

So, to conclude, tmux is responsible for two main things:

  1. Terminal multiplexing, session/window/pane management
  2. Persist session state and survive disconnects for remote scenarios

Where tmux really shines is (2). Regarding (1), some people argue, that tmux breaks Unix philosophy, because it’s trying to do 2 things, instead of doing one and doing it well, and that (1) should not be a tmux responsibility.

Nested local and remote sessions

So, given all that, some people prefer using tmux on the local machine only on top of their terminal emulator, supercharging it with multiplexing and window management in the first place. People who spent most of their time SSH’ing on remote hosts, make use of persistent session nature and resistance to network disconnects.

But do local and remote cases have to be mutually exclusive? Can I combine them? Yes, it’s legal to SSH to a remote host and start the tmux session there, while already being in a tmux environment locally.

This is called nested sessions, but comes with some obstacles:

First of all, you face the question: How you can control inner sessions, since all keybindings are caught and handled by outer sessions?

The most common solution is to press prefix twice (prefix is a keybinding that puts tmux in a command mode, usually it’s C-b, but some people prefer remapping it to screen-likeC-a). The first prefix keystroke is caught by the outer session, whereas second is passed to the inner session. No extra steps need to be done, and this works out of the box.

However, root keybindings — those which are listened globally, not in command mode — are still caught by the outer session only. And I found it’s really annoying to double press prefix. For me it’s even annoying to press it once, in iTerm2 there is no such thing as command mode, and I just press “⌘⌥→” to select pane on the right, instead of sending two separate keystrokes C-a RightArrow.

Another solution is to setup 2 individual prefixes, for example, C-b for a local session, while C-a for a remote one. With the configuration below, it means that pressing C-a locally would send default prefix C-b to the remote session. Found this solution here.

set -g prefix C-bbind-key -n C-a send-prefix

But it really feels like:


The better solution would be using same key table both on local and remote sessions — no separate prefixes or double pressing prefix — and turn off all keybindings and prefix handling in the outer session, when working with inner one. Credits and this Github issue.

So, when I’m going to work in the inner session, I just press F12 and toggle OFF mode in the outer session. When that happens, the outer session shows the OFF visual indicator in the status line and changes the visual styling of status line to further stress that the session in in OFF mode.

Here is a Gist from my working tmux configuration, which I crafted recently (only relevant pieces are included):

Basically, we setup F12 keybinding for the root key table. When pressed, we set prefix to None, switch current key table to off, then change the styles of status line, and force tmux to refresh the status line. An extra step is taken to cancel the current pane copy mode, if it is present. As soon as we switched to off for the key table and turned off prefix handling, the outer session does not listen for any keystrokes at all. All keystrokes are passed to the inner session without being intercepted by the outer one.

That’s all great, but we need somehow to get back and turn the outer session back into normal working mode. That’s why we setup a single keybinding F12 in key table off, which reverts the effect of initial F12 key press.

Also, we configure a visual indicator for the status line, which shows on when current key table is off, and hides otherwise.

To conclude, given this configuration, you can setup a single local session with 1 window with 2 panes that contains nested remote sessions to different hosts (see image at the beginning of the post).

Remote-specific session configuration

In the previous example you might notice that the status line of the outer session is positioned at the top, where the inner session has its status line at the bottom. That provides a nice visual distinction and does not make the status lines stack on top of each other.

But how is it possible to apply different conditional-based configurations?

Well, that’s rather easy. We can detect whether the session is remote or local by existence of the SSH_CLIENT environment variable.

if-shell 'test -n "$SSH_CLIENT"' \   'source-file ~/.tmux/tmux.remote.conf'

And the ~/.tmux/tmux.remote.conf file contains the configuration which will be applied only to the remote session. There we change status line position, and remove some widgets from it (like clock and battery) because they just replicate same widgets from the local session.

So, that’s it. If you want to see all this in action, check out my tmux-config repository.

tmux/tmux: tmux source code —

Using Tmux Remotely Within a Local Tmux Session | Simply Ian —

Nested tmux —

toggle on/off all keybindings · Issue #237 · tmux/tmux —

samoshkin/tmux-config: Tmux configuration, that supercharges your tmux to build cozy and cool terminal environment —