Remote drush with only FTP and database access


July 19, 2014


I manage a Drupal site as part of my job, which has taught me to appreciate the treat that is drush. With Drupal,  you really want ssh access to the webserver because it gives you the ability to use drush, the command-line administration utility for Drupal sites. Uninteresting tasks like module and core upgrades become much less tedious.

I also babysit the website for the Minnesota Valley Unitarian Universalist fellowship, a real simple Drupal site that lives on a basic shared hosting server. No ssh access here. Because doing drupal core updates solely over FTP sucks so much, finally today I sat down in earnest to see if I could somehow leverage the power of drush with such shared hosting sites.


There didn’t seem to be much accurate information about how to do it already, with top Google hits saying things like you need ssh and drush installed both locally and on the server (false and false), you can’t, and there was really nobody suggesting anything to the contrary especially when your local workstation is running Linux (here’s a workable method for Windows.) I stubbornly refused to believe them and came up with a method that has proven to work for upgrading modules and core successfully, and every other drush subcommand I have tried to date. This is a guide for Linux, and I’ll include the package names for Debian/Ubuntu, but other than that it should be generic to other distros too.

The basic idea is to get the site’s source code mounted as a filesystem on your local machine backed by your ftp server, install php on your local machine if needed, and get connected to the live site’s database server from your local machine. You then run drush directly on your local machine, but its changes impact the actual site. It’s a bit of work to get everything going the 1st time, but simplifies site management tons in the long run.


Before the step-by-step, two words of warning: 1. This method is for people that want to be lazy, but don’t mind if the computers take forever once you tell them what to do. This method’s performance is slow, due to curlftpfs. For my purposes I don’t care, but some might. 2. A somewhat faster and more reliable way involves copying your site’s source locally and synchronizing the real site to it after running commands that modify code, not a big deal with a few rsync commands. Even when you do it this way, you don’t need to get another instance of your site actually up and running locally, and you don’t need a clone of the database. I discuss this more in step 5.

Step-by-step Guide

1. Pick a Linux computer to run drush commands on, likely your desktop/laptop. This computer will need php with mysql and gd extensions installed, as well as curlftpfs (or something else that makes ftp servers mountable, if you have another preference.) On Debian/Ubuntu, run these commands to ensure you have all needed packages:

sudo apt-get install php5
sudo apt-get install php5-mysql
sudo apt-get install php5-gd
sudo apt-get install curlftpfs

Failure to install php5 ultimately produces a clear error message from drush that it failed to find php, but failure to install php5-mysql produces an error with inaccurate troubleshooting information when you run Drush, so make sure you have it. Lack of php5-gd will generate frequent warnings from drush, but can mostly be done without if you really don’t want to install it.

2. Install drush locally on the Linux computer you’ve chosen. When I put drush on a system I usually just untar the latest stable release from Drush’s github releases to somewhere like /usr/local/lib and symlink the drush shell script from the release to /usr/bin/drush, but drush is just php and shell scripts so you can untar and run it in your home directory or wherever as well if you like. I’ll skip the line-by-line commands for how to do these things; few readers will have never extracted a .tgz or .zip.

3. Mount your site somewhere on your local machine’s filesystem with curlftpfs. In this example I’ll mount to the path ‘/mnt/mvuuf_inmotion’; choose something appropriate to your site and create an empty directory there.

sudo mkdir -p /mnt/mvuuf_inmotion

Modifying the below command for your ftp server, username, password, and local mountpoint, run (as the regular user you plan to run drush commands as, not as root):

curlftpfs -o user="your-ftp-username:your-ftp-password,uid=$UID,gid=${GROUPS[0]}"  "ftp://your-ftp-server/" /mnt/mvuuf_inmotion

(ps, if you get an error about “fusermount: failed to open /etc/fuse.conf: Permission denied”, fix with ‘sudo chmod a+r /etc/fuse.conf’; if you get an error about “fusermount: user has no write access to mountpoint /mnt/mvuuf_inmotion”, fix with ‘sudo chown \(UID:\){GROUPS[0]} /mnt/mvuuf_inmotion’.)

You should now be able to cd into your local mountpoint, /mnt/mvuuf_inmotion in this example, and ls your site’s contents.

4. Remote database connectivity. You need to be able to connect to your site’s database  from your local computer using the credentials stored in sites/default/settings.php_._

You should be confident that your hosting company supports such remote database connections before spending too much time on this; consult with them if you need to. Even when it is supported, many webhosts won’t actually allow connections from hosts other than the webserver unless you take special steps to allow it - again, consult with them if you need to. If your hosting provider gives you MySQL managed with cPanel, this is quite easy, just go to “Remote MySQL” under Databases and add your public IP address that your local machine makes connections out to the Internet with (as displayed at

You should probably do a manual connection to the database to ensure this part works before proceeding. Assuming the database server software is MySQL and you’ve installed the mysql client locally, you can do that with

mysql -h [] -u [username_from_settings.php] -p

where “” would generally be a hostname given in your sites/default/settings.php, unless settings.php says “localhost” in which case you should try the domain name of your website. You’ll be prompted for a password, which should also be in the database settings in settings.php.

5. Try it out. From a terminal on your local machine, cd to the root directory of your site (where Drupal’s index.php file is) and try a simple drush command like drush status. (Note that when this runs successfully, drush status likes to list the site’s url as “http://default” even when a url is explicity given in your settings.php. This seems to be a drush bug but doesn’t seem to affect anything else; you can fix it anyway if you like with drush’s –uri option.)

Great! You now have drush set up for use with your remote site.

Optional: Working with a local copy of the code. If you’ve gotten this far, you have two choices: If everything works and you don’t mind how darned slow it is, you can choose to be done. However, if you can’t stand the slowness or if drush is even aborting during some operations with messages like “the MySQL server has gone away,” you might want to make a local copy of the site’s code on your computer, switch to that to run drush, then rsync the local copy back over to your curlftpfs mount after you do updates. (I needed to do this because the shared host had a quite short timeout on idle mysql connections, so doing everything over curlftpfs slowed drush runs down enough to break it.)

Here’s some sample rsync commands to create a local copy of your site’s code, and to sync the remote site with your local copy. Note that you should place your site in maintenance mode before beginning upgrades with this method, and exit maintenance mode only after the remote sync is complete.

Example command to create/sync existing local copy:

rsync -aP --exclude="sites/default/files" /mnt/mvuuf_inmotion ~/mvuuf_local

Example command to sync the remote site up with your local copy after it has changed:

rsync -aP --temp-dir=/var/tmp/rsync --exclude="sites/default/files" --delete ~/mvuuf_local /mnt/mvuuf_inmotion

(these commands assume you have your curlftpfs-mounted copy of the site at /mnt/mvuuf_inmotion and you want to store the local copy under your home directory in a folder called mvuuf_local; adapt to suit.) The specific options to rsync here are composed with some care, don’t change them unless you’ve given it careful thought.

The obligatory notice accompanying all drupal upgrade etc writeups: whenever you do things that make considerable changes to your site, whether with this remote drush method or any other, make backups first. Drush itself can do this for you if you like.