May 142012

The telnet service is never used these days as a means of accessing a host shell – it’s too insecure – but the telnet client is, for many sysadmins, still the tool of choice for testing whether a host has connectivity with another host network service. It’s a good reliable and general tool, and the syntax is dead simple. So for example, if you wanted to just test whether you could hit the Tomcat port (8080) on host “davros”, you’d:

   # telnet davros 8080

But telnet isn’t really the “right” tool for this job. By default it opens a TCP connection to a nominated port, but this flexible port argument is more of a side effect of its function as an interactive console, and not its real function. So from now on, you should be using netcat – which is executed as nc.


Netcat is a Swiss army knife for network connections, and as well as being able to initiate outgoing calls to TCP and UDP ports, it can be made to function as a listener to read incoming connections. It can be used to construct a basic proxy. Most importantly, because netcat is non-interactive (unlike telnet) it can be easily used in scripts. The connection will be terminated gracefully, rather than left rudely cut off from the prompt with telnet’s “^]”.

Netcat is installed by default on several Linux distributions and is easily obtainable from the standard repositories on others.

Working Example

Here’s a few basic examples which show how it’s used to test network connectivity. Note that extent of the tests is just to check whether the port is listening, and not the nature of the daemon or whether it’s working. In every case, I’ll assume once again that our listening host is called “davros”.

Test that the Tomcat port (tcp/8080) is listening and accessible

   # nc -v davros 8080
Connection to davros 8080 port [tcp/http-alt] succeeded!

The man page has a lot of other good examples which are worth trying out. Netcat is a very versatile, yet very basic command, admirabl suited to creating TCP and UDP sockets.

Matt Parsons is a freelance Linux specialist who has designed, built and supported Unix and Linux systems in the finance, telecommunications and media industries.

He lives and works in London.

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