Using ntalkd as a Private, Secure,
One-on-One Text Chat Service

Van Emery - July, 2003


Recently, I needed to setup a mechanism whereby I could text-chat with someone overseas about some business matters. I needed this to be simple, secure, and quick. This ruled out public IRC servers, and it also ruled out any mainstream instant messaging (IM) services. I decided to check out the ntalk or talk daemon that is included in almost every Unix or GNU/Linux operating system.

This short article describes how to setup a private text-chat server on a GNU/Linux system, and how two people can securely login to the system and chat.


What is talk, anyway? It is a program that allows users to have one-on-one text chats. This is handled by copying lines from user A's terminal to user B's terminal, and vice versa. It was originally developed on Unix systems, but has been ported to many operating systems. Internet Relay Chat (IRC) came next, then the Instant Messaging (IM) programs and services like ICQ and Jabber.

ntalkd is the server that notifies a user that someone else wants to have a conversation. It acts as a repository for invitations, responding to requests by clients wishing to rendezvous for a text chat. In effect it is the call control service (or broker) between two talk clients.

According to the man pages, the talk command appeared in BSD Unix Version 4.2. The ntalk and talk daemons appeared in BSD 4.3. From here on, I will refer to the ntalk daemon as ntalkd, and I will not mention talkd. This is the server side of things, and it handles notifications and invitations in order to setup talk sessions between two users. I will refer to talk and YTalk as the client or user-space programs.

ntalkd listens on UDP port 518. Once the actual session is setup, there are two UDP streams and one TCP connection that exist between clients. talk or YTalk with ntalkd can allow clients on the same host to communicate, or clients on different hosts.


Setup and Assumptions

Setting Up the ntalkd service

Ntalkd is started and controlled by the xinetd superserver. It is off by default. In order to configure ntalkd, xinetd must be configured to run ntalkd on demand. We also want to restrict ntalkd to listen on the loopback address ( only, so that clients can only run talk sessions via SSH or terminals local to the Linux host. This is how you set this up:

First, make sure that the file /etc/xinetd.conf is setup properly. In the example below, you will see that by default, the private LAN and the loopback can access services run by xinetd.

# Simple configuration file for xinetd
# Some defaults, and include /etc/xinetd.d/

        instances               = 60
        log_type                = SYSLOG authpriv
        log_on_success          = HOST PID
        log_on_failure          = HOST
        cps                     = 25 30
        only_from               =

includedir /etc/xinetd.d

Next, open the /etc/xinetd.d/ntalk config file with a text editor. Make sure that you enable it and check the source IP address restrictions:

# default: off
# description: The ntalk server accepts ntalk connections, for chatting \
#       with users on different systems.
service ntalk
        flags                   = IPv4
        disable                 = no
        socket_type             = dgram
        wait                    = yes
        user                    = nobody
        group                   = tty
        server                  = /usr/sbin/in.ntalkd
        only_from               =

Now, restart the xinetd superserver in order to activate the ntalkd service:

[root@rat xinetd.d]# /etc/init.d/xinetd restart
Stopping xinetd:                                           [  OK  ]
Starting xinetd:                                           [  OK  ]

You can verify that it will start automatically with the chkconfig command:

[root@rat xinetd.d]# chkconfig --list ntalk
ntalk           on

Using the netstat command, you can verify that the server is listening on UDP port 518:

[root@rat xinetd.d]# netstat -tua
Active Internet connections (servers and established)
Proto Recv-Q Send-Q Local Address           Foreign Address         State
tcp        0      0 *:ssh                   *:*                     LISTEN
tcp        0      0 *:http                  *:*                     LISTEN
tcp        0      0 rat:smtp                *:*                     LISTEN
udp        0      0 *:ntalk                 *:*                     LISTEN

[root@rat xinetd.d]# netstat -tuna
Active Internet connections (servers and established)
Proto Recv-Q Send-Q Local Address           Foreign Address         State
tcp        0      0    *               LISTEN
tcp        0      0    *               LISTEN
tcp        0      0  *               LISTEN
udp        0      0   *               LISTEN

The last server setup item is that you will need to have a valid account on your server for any user that will be engaging in text chat via the talk or YTalk programs. Each user should have an SSH client and network access, or the ability to login from the console.

How the Users Chat with Each Other (using the talk client)

Assuming user Thor, user Sif, and server RAT, user Thor will use his SSH client to login to RAT. User Sif will login via her SSH client or login via a non-graphical console on RAT. Here is how the session will go:

[thor@rat thor]$ w
  8:16am  up 2 days, 11:16,  3 users,  load average: 0.18, 0.28, 0.14
USER     TTY      FROM              LOGIN@   IDLE   JCPU   PCPU  WHAT
thor     pts/2    rat8              8:16am  1.00s  0.05s  0.01s  w
sif      pts/0    tp1               8:12am  4:18   0.04s  0.04s  -bash

[thor@rat thor]$ talk sif

[Waiting for your party to respond]

Message from Talk_Daemon@rat at 6:51 ...
talk: connection requested by thor@rat.
talk: respond with: talk thor@rat

[sif@rat sif]$ talk thor

Thor will now see a "connection established" message, and text chat can begin.

[Connection established]

To quit the session, one of the users must enter <Ctrl-C>. His session will end, and the other user will see:

[Connection closed. ^C to exit]

Now the other use can hit <Ctrl-C> and end her session as well.

Text Chat Using the YTalk client

You may have noticed that the talk client is kind of short on features, and the screen layout is not very clean or informative. Fortunately, there is a better client available, called YTalk. YTalk allows 3 or more people to use text chat simultaneously. It also has a nice menu, the ability to show other participants what you are doing in a shell session, and a nicer screen layout. Ytalk has other features as well. For detailed info on YTalk, see the manpage, the home page, or these two excellent articles on using YTalk:

Installing and Configuring YTalk:

First, you will want to grab the RPM if you do not already have it. If you would rather compile from source, get the code from the YTalk home page. You can find the RPM at Rpmfind.Net, or if you are running Red Hat 7.2 - 9.0 on x86, you can grab the RPM from this server. As root, you then install it like this:

 [root@rat RPM]# rpm -Uvh ytalk-3.1.1-7.i386.rpm

Due to the fact that the ntalk daemon will still notify users to use the "talk" command to respond to a chat request, I made a system-wide bash alias. When users type "talk", they will get "ytalk -x" instead. Another way to do this would be to remove the "talk" package and make a symbolic link called "talk" that points to the "ytalk" executable. Here is the line I added to my /etc/bashrc file:

 alias talk='ytalk -x'

Now, users can use YTalk exactly like they used talk, but they can now add a 3rd participant and use the handy pop-up menu, which is invoked with the <Esc> key. Here are a couple of screenshots:

YTalk Screenshot #1YTalk Screenshot

YTalk Screenshot #2YTalk Screenshot with <Esc> Menu


If you run your own Linux host, it is quite simple to setup a private text-chat service. This can be very useful as a substitute for long-distance phone calls. It also has the added benefit of being encrypted, if you use SSH to connect to the Linux host.

Of the two talk clients available, YTalk is superior to the default client, talk.

Have fun!

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