Decrypt LUKS partition remotely via SSH

One of the most common situations when we want to remotely decrypt our LUKS partitions is in case we have a headless server, otherwise, we have to be on-site in order to plug a keyboard and a screen and type the decryption key so our machine can load the Linux OS.

Before proceeding

The Process

The idea behind this is simple: we are going to start an SSH Service (TinySSH) in our Initial RAM Disk via mkinitcpio that will let us connect to our machine at an early stage, so we can decrypt our LUKS partition remotely.

1 - Install dependencies

We are going to be using a mkinitcpio hook named systemd-tool, which provides early remote SSH access before the root partition gets mounted.. Let’s proceed with the following command:

$ pacman -S mkinitcpio-systemd-tool busybox cryptsetup openssh tinyssh tinyssh-convert mc

2 - Add ‘systemd-tool’ HOOK

In order to setup our environment, it is mandatory to add the ‘systemd-tool’ hook in the ‘HOOKS’ section of our mkinitcpio configuration file located at /etc/mkinitcpio.conf.

As a reference, this is how my configuration looks like (you might have other HOOKS depending on your system):

HOOKS=(base udev autodetect modconf block lvm2 sd-vconsole filesystems keyboard fsck systemd systemd-tool)

3 - Add network module

Since the HOOK will setup a network connection before the filesystem is mounted, we need to make sure we are adding the right driver so the Linux Kernel can recognize our network adapter. This how the file /etc/mkinitcpio.conf, section MODULES should look like:

MODULES=(r8169 nvme i915 intel_agp)

In my case, the driver for the network adapter is r8169. You can check yours with the command below:

$ lspci -k

And the output:

03:00.0 Ethernet controller: Realtek Semiconductor Co., Ltd. RTL8111/8168/8411 PCI Express Gigabit Ethernet Controller (rev 15)
        Subsystem: Intel Corporation Device 2067
        Kernel driver in use: r8169
        Kernel modules: r8169

4 - Configure the ‘fstab’ file

The fstab defines how disk partitions, various other block devices, or remote file systems should be mounted into the file system.. At this point you have one, used by the system to mount the filesystem, so let’s check it out (WITHOUT MODIFYING IT):

$ sudo vim /etc/fstab

Mine looks like this (pay attention to the nuc-root, since this is how I named it when I installed Arch, yours could be root):

# Static information about the filesystems.
# See fstab(5) for details.

# <file system> <dir> <type> <options> <dump> <pass>
# /dev/mapper/nuc-root
UUID=2c904c48-4178-44d7-921e-87d23e888888       /               ext4            rw,relatime     0 1

# /dev/mapper/nuc-home
UUID=d32aa547-670c-43b8-b4dd-5c6975888888       /home           ext4            rw,relatime     0 2

Now we have to kind of replicate this /etc/fstab file and adapt its content to /etc/mkinitcpio-systemd-tool/config/fstab, which is where systemd-tool will dive into in order to mount the filesystem.

We can do this via this command:

$ echo "/dev/mapper/nuc-root    /sysroot    auto    x-systemd.device-timeout=9999h  0 1" > /etc/mkinitcpio-systemd-tool/config/fstab

Here the final result (cut off) by checking the content of /etc/mkinitcpio-systemd-tool/config/fstab:

# This file is part of

# *
# *

# fstab: mappings for direct partitions in initramfs:
# * file location in initramfs: /etc/fstab
# * file location in real-root: /etc/mkinitcpio-systemd-tool/config/fstab

# ...
/dev/mapper/nuc-root     /sysroot         auto         x-systemd.device-timeout=9999h     0       1

5 - Configure the ‘cryptab’ file

The formal definition of cryptab says that /etc/crypttab (encrypted device table) file is similar to the fstab file and contains a list of encrypted devices to be unlocked during system boot up. This file can be used for automatically mounting encrypted swap devices or secondary file systems.

In other words, if we are dealing with a headless server, it is very likely that we have an external RAID HDD plugged in, that needs decryption when mounting the filesystem. This is the purpose of the cryptab file.

So let’s move forard and configure /etc/crypttab and /etc/mkinitcpio-systemd-tool/config/crypttab according to systemd-tool requirements.

First we need to add our encrypted sdxdevice (yours) to /etc/crypttab file. So let’s see what we have:

lsblk -f

NAME           FSTYPE      FSVER    LABEL UUID                                   
└─sda2         crypto_LUKS 2    83a6d1c1-8348-4b0c-bb7d-ab1f4366666

Now let’s add this information to our /etc/crypttab:

crypt    UUID=83a6d1c1-8348-4b0c-bb7d-ab1f430368d1   none    luks

As a final step, we have to copy the content of /etc/crypttab to /etc/mkinitcpio-systemd-tool/config/crypttab:

$ cat /etc/crypttab > /etc/mkinitcpio-systemd-tool/config/crypttab

By checking our new /etc/mkinitcpio-systemd-tool/config/crypttab content, we should get something like this:

# This file is part of

# *
# *
# ...

# <mapper-name>  <block-device>                           <password/keyfile>   <crypto-options>
crypt            UUID=83a6d1c1-8348-4b0c-bb7d-ab1f430368d1   none                luks
home-server      /dev/sdb1                                   /root/keyfile       luks,noauto

6 - Enable required services

Now it is time to start and enabled the required services:

$ sudo systemctl enable initrd-cryptsetup.path
$ sudo systemctl enable initrd-tinysshd
$ sudo systemctl enable initrd-debug-progs
$ sudo systemctl enable initrd-sysroot-mount

7 - Double check your Kernel Paramters

This is just a sanity check to revisit your systemd-boot configuration and kernel parameters. My /boot/loader/entries/arch.conf look like this:

title Arch Linux
linux /vmlinuz-linux
initrd /intel-ucode.img
initrd /initramfs-linux.img
options rd.luks.uuid=83a6d1c1-8348-4b0c-bb7d-ab1f430368d1 
        root=/dev/mapper/nuc-root rw resume=/dev/mapper/nuc-swap ro intel_iomnu=igfx_off

8 - Setting up Tiny SSH

Now we have to setup the SSH service in order to accept remote connections:

  • The shell that appears to unlock the partition is a tinyssh: service.
  • Tinyssh only recognizes Ed25519 SSH keys, so we need to generate an Ed25519 key pair and paste the public key to /root/.ssh/authorized_keys.
  • Then we create a symlink to where mkinitcpio-systemd-tool pick them up before converting them to tinyssh format.
    • sudo ln -s /root/.ssh/authorized_keys /etc/mkinitcpio-systemd-tool/config/authorized_keys
  • At this early stage, we can ONLY connect as root user, because other users are NOT available yet.

One more thing is that we need to tell the system that we want a static ip (by default is DHCP) at boot. So, inside the /etc/mkinitcpio-systemd-tool/network/

$ sudo vim /etc/mkinitcpio-systemd-tool/network/

Add this content:



As we can see, the [Match] label represents the network interface by the usage of kernel interface names (eth0). If you cannot find yours, here is a helper command:

$ sudo dmesg | grep -i eth0

Which displays:

[   20.157387] e1000e 0000:00:1f.6 eth0: (PCI Express:2.5GT/s:Width x1) 94:c6:91:1f:58:ff
[   20.157395] e1000e 0000:00:1f.6 eth0: Intel(R) PRO/1000 Network Connection
[   20.157459] e1000e 0000:00:1f.6 eth0: MAC: 12, PHY: 12, PBA No: FFFFFF-0FF
[   20.201872] e1000e 0000:00:1f.6 eno1: renamed from eth0

9 - Build ‘initramfs’

As last step, we have to create and activate our initramgfs image via mkinitcpio:

$ mkinitcpio -P

10 - Reboot the system

Last but not least, let’s reboot. Afterwards, we should see a prompt like this:

$ secret> ************* 

Type your passphrase and voilà! The root partition will automatically get decrypted and mounted. Now you have a headless server with encrypted LUKS partitions that you can decrypt remotely via SSH.