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Using notmuch remotely


It is hard to keep notmuch tags in sync across multiple instances of notmuch, on multiple computers. Though you can do this with "notmuch dump" and "notmuch restore", it is often preferable to be able to use notmuch on a remote computer as if it were present on a local computer.

The following guidelines show how to accomplished this. It isn't perfect, but it works pretty well, and allows one to access notmuch on one computer, using only an Emacs client, a trivial shell script, and some Emacs and ssh settings on another computer.

What you will need

You will need to have the following items in place:

  1. a working notmuch and sshd on one computer (let's call that computer "server").

  2. a working notmuch emacs interface (of the same version as on the server), bash, and ssh on another computer (let's call that computer "client")

  3. password-free login (public key authentication) from client to server. Here is a good page on how to set it up (3).

  4. a reasonably fast connection. (This isn't really necessary, but if your connection is too slow, this won't be very pleasant to use, and certainly won't seem transparent.)

(3) If you don't want / cannot use password-free login, This page provides yet another alternative.

Configure ssh on the client computer

Add this to your ~/.ssh/config:

Host notmuch
    User remoteuser
    ControlMaster auto
    ControlPath ~/.ssh/master-%h@%p:%r
    ControlPersist 15m
    IdentityFile ~/.ssh/

Replace with your server. Replace remoteuser with the username on the server.

The Control* options keep the connection open in the background to not require authentication every time. The ControlPersist option defines the connection timeout. These aren't strictly necessary, but reduce latency.

The IdentityFile option may not be necessary depending on how you set up public key authentication. This assumes you set up a separate key; set the filename accordingly.

Please refer to ssh_config(5) man page for details.

Set up a wrapper shell script on the client computer

Save this to a file, for example, in your PATH:

printf -v ARGS "%q " "$@"
exec ssh notmuch notmuch ${ARGS}

and give it execute permissions: chmod +x

Now you can run new, or other notmuch commands. You can call the script anything you like. (You could also call it notmuch or symlink ~/bin/notmuch to it for transparent usage.)

Configure Emacs on the client computer

Add this to your ~/.emacs to tell the Emacs client to use the wrapper script:

(setq notmuch-command "/path/to/your/")

If you use Fcc and Notmuch older than 0.23, you may want to do something like this on the client, to Bcc mails to yourself:

(setq notmuch-fcc-dirs nil)
(add-hook 'message-header-setup-hook
    (lambda () (insert (format "Bcc: %s <%s>\n"

Starting from 0.23, Fcc is also done through notmuch-command.

Additional Emacs remote-notmuch configuration

To prevent you from having to maintain your GPG private keys on the remote server, you can add advice to notmuch-show-view-raw-message to enable epa inline decryption from notmuch raw message views.

;; enable gpg decryption in raw view
(defadvice notmuch-show-view-raw-message
    (after notmuch-show-view-raw-message-after activate)

When using remote-notmuch in an environment that brings the ssh tunnel up and down often (e.g. laptop suspends), it's helpful to have an Emacs process sentinel in place that will monitor the process state of your remote-notmuch ssh session.

(defvar my/ssh-tunnel-notmuch-proc nil)

(defun my/ssh-tunnel-notmuch ()
  "Start and monitor ssh session for remote-notmuch."
   (proc "~/.ssh/config" "notmuch")
    #'(lambda (proc string)
        (when (buffer-live-p (process-buffer proc))
          (kill-buffer (process-buffer proc)))
        (when (yes-or-no-p "Restart notmuch control master? ")
          (setq my/ssh-tunnel-notmuch-proc (my/ssh-tunnel-notmuch)))))

(defadvice notmuch
    (before notmuch-before activate)
  (unless (process-live-p my/ssh-tunnel-notmuch-proc)
    (message "Starting notmuch control master")
    (setq my/ssh-tunnel-notmuch-proc (my/ssh-tunnel-notmuch))))

;;; here be dragons

(require 'cl-lib)
(require 'tramp)

(cl-defmacro my/ssh-tunnel-with-proc ((proc ssh-tunnel-config-path ssh-tunnel-config-name) &body body)
  "Bind PROC with an ssh process for SSH-TUNNEL-CONFIG-NAME from SSH-TUNNEL-CONFIG-PATH for BODY.

  Example of use:

  (defun my/ssh-tunnel-start ()
    \"returns active process or nil\"
    (my/ssh-tunnel-with-proc (proc \"~/my-ssh-configs/someconfig.ssh\"
                             ;; BODY with process bound to proc
  (let ((ssh-tunnel-process (gensym "ssh-tunnel-process")))

    `(let ((,ssh-tunnel-process nil)
           (ssh-tunnel-buffer-name (format "*%s*" ,ssh-tunnel-config-name))
           (ssh-tunnel-config ,ssh-tunnel-config-name))
       (if (not (process-live-p ,ssh-tunnel-process))
           (let ((process (start-process
                           (generate-new-buffer ssh-tunnel-buffer-name)
                           (format "%s" (expand-file-name ,ssh-tunnel-config-path))
             (if (process-live-p process)
                   (setq ,ssh-tunnel-process process)
                    #'(lambda (proc string)
                        (when (and (process-live-p proc)
                                   (buffer-live-p (process-buffer proc)))
                          (if (string-match-p tramp-password-prompt-regexp string)
                              (process-send-string proc (concat (read-passwd string) "\n"))
                            (princ (format "%s" string)
                                   (process-buffer proc))))))
                    #'(lambda (proc string)
                        (message "%s-sentinel: %s" ,ssh-tunnel-config-name string)))
                   (message "Started ssh config: %s" ,ssh-tunnel-config-name))
               ;; else
               (message "Could not start ssh config: %s" ,ssh-tunnel-config-name)))
         (message "%s already running" ,ssh-tunnel-config-name))
       ;; BODY
       (let ((,proc ,ssh-tunnel-process))


Some things probably won't work perfectly, and there might be some unexpected mismatches between normal usage and this sort of usage. If you're using this approach and run into any problems, please feel free to list them here. And, of course, if you improve on any of these approaches, please do edit this page and let people know!

If you have issues, you may want to try the old remote usage instructions or yet another alternative.