How do I diff files/folders across machines provided that the only connectivity available is ssh?

14 Answers 14


You can do it with Bash's process substitution:

 diff foo <(ssh myServer 'cat foo')

Or, if both are on remote servers:

diff <(ssh myServer1 'cat foo') <(ssh myServer2 'cat foo')
  • 12
    yeah, something like this, but for directories :) – Alexey Timanovsky Aug 26 '09 at 17:29
  • How do you mean for directories, could always replace cat with ls – Kyle Brandt Aug 26 '09 at 17:29
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    I suspect that 'for directories' means doing a recursive diff – Ian Clelland Aug 26 '09 at 17:36
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    I found that this technique didn't work for me if my remote host required a password. The password prompt didn't seem to work well with the redirection and couldn't be successfully completed. If you use ssh keys this shouldn't be a problem. – Adam Franco Jan 24 '12 at 14:28
  • 2
    This is a great general solution to many problems. Instead of 'cat foo' you could use 'find /foo/bar -type f | while read file; do echo "**** $file"; cat "$file"; done' and you'd have a list of the file names and file contents to diff. – Paul Gear Nov 11 '14 at 22:22

Finally I've found great solution: vimdiff

vimdiff /path/to/file scp://remotehost//path/to/file

thanks to http://linux.spiney.org/remote_diff_with_vim_and_ssh see also http://www.vim.org/scripts/script.php?script_id=1075 .

  • 7
    What about directories? :) – Perlnika Dec 16 '13 at 16:13
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    Here is an example: vimdiff .bash_profile scp://vaibhavc@ – vaichidrewar Feb 19 '14 at 22:56
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    2 slashes // after the remotehost is important. Single slash will not work – Lee Chee Kiam Apr 7 '14 at 2:05
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    If you have a different username on the remote host than your current host, you would use vimdiff /path/to/file scp://username@remotehost//path/to/file – JaredC May 19 '14 at 15:21
  • how can you do this with two remote hosts with id_rsa key files @JaredC? – Manatax Mar 12 '15 at 18:01

If you just want to see what files are different, rather than a diff of the actual files, then you can use rsync --dry-run

  • 10
    rsync -n is the short version. – volni Jan 3 '12 at 23:48
  • Great - if you need to use another port, use rsync -e "ssh -p 2222" <SRC> <DST> – Samoth Jul 12 '15 at 6:22

Here's another quick and dirty command line recipe. Unlike the chosen answer, it works inside of makefiles:

ssh [login]@[host] "cat [remote file]" | diff - "[local file]"
  • If my edit doesn't go through: this method is superior to the chosen answer because it works with makefiles. – Chris Redford Sep 13 '13 at 21:36
  • @Steve Dickinson - what do you mean by "it works inside of makefiles" ? – Martin Vegter May 25 '14 at 13:43
  • 1
    This is also a nice solution if you're suffering from vim allergy like myself. :) I created a bash script that compares the same file on two different hosts, useful when migrating services between machines and comparing config files. See gist.github.com/jhqv/dbd59f5838ae8c83f736bfe951bd80ff – Janek Oct 14 '16 at 9:09

Use scp to bring the files to a common machine and diff them there?

Or, if you just want to know if the files are different or not, hash them with md5sum on each machine.

You could also look into something like SSHFS, but I don't know how well an algorithm like diff performs over that.

  • 2
    An easier way to see if the files are different or not is rsync --dry-run. – Gerald Combs Aug 26 '09 at 20:18
  • I had forgotten about SSHFS. This worked great for me... – arod Sep 17 '14 at 16:36

One way, if it is possible on your system would be to simply mount the remote filesystem with sshfs.

  • diff is usually one-shot action, like to check config difference. Mounting filesystem each time is possible, but not convinient. I'd better tar and scp. – Alexey Timanovsky Aug 26 '09 at 17:28

You can use rsync in dry run mode, as suggested briefly in another answer. It lists any files that are different.

For that, use the rvnc options (r=recursive, v=verbose, n= dry-run, c=checksum). With rsync in pull mode (rsync [OPTION...] [USER@]HOST:SRC... [DEST]), an example is:

rsync -rvnc root@ .

Remember, this provides no info on whether the local or remote file is newer. Just if they differ.

  • on your local machine, make a recursive copy of the directory you want to diff. For instance:

    cp -R dir replica
  • use rsync to replicate the remote directory over the local copy:

     rsync remote:/path/to/dir replica
  • use diff to find difference between the local directory and the local replica of the remote one:

    diff dir replica

If you have sshfs and need to diff directories:

mkdir remote_path
sshfs user@host:/path/ remote_path
diff -r path remote_path

Here is how I did it.

I used SFTP to the remote server and entered my username/pwd when prompted. Then I used the dir that was created in the .gvfs dir in my home directory in the diff command.

diff -r --brief /home/user dir/.gvfs/SFTP\ on\ freenas.local/path to dir/dir1 /path to local dir/dir2


This is a script that can help to diff local folder and remote folder.:


 REMOTEFOLDER=$(ssh root@ 'ls -lA /hfs/tee'| grep -E '^total' | cut -d " " -f 2 > remotessh.txt)
 COMMAND=$(ls -lA $LOCALFOLDER | grep -E '^total' | cut -d " " -f 2 > localssh.txt)
 REM=$(cat remotessh.txt)
 LOCAL=$(cat localssh.txt)

 echo $LOCAL
 echo $REM

 if [ $REM -eq $LOCAL ]
      echo Directories are the same
      echo Directories are differnt

 #diff localssh.txt remotessh.txt | grep -E '^total' | cut -d " " -f 2


diff <(/usr/bin/ssh user1@ 'ls /opt/lib/') <(/usr/bin/ssh user2@ 'ls /tmp/') | grep -i ">" | sed 's/> //g'


Use sshfs mounted across ssh. It won't be all that fast, but you can use your full suite of tools that expect everything to be on a local filesystem. An alternative is NFS over a tunnel made with "ssh -w" (or other communications where ssh isn't the limitation).


You could also try generalizing the approach by creating a bash function, possibly in your ~/.bashrc:

myrdiff() { ssh root@"$1" cat "$2" | diff -s - "$2" ; }

then invoking it with a construct like:

myrdiff vm20-x86-64 /etc/gdm/Init/Default

By invoking diff with -s, this will also report if the files are identical.

Cheers! Jim

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