SSH Key based access to Unix Servers

Access to Linux and Unix systems via Secure Shell (SSH) is standard practice.  It offers encrypted access to enable you to administer your server which is vital over the big bad internet.

There are different ways to access SSH: password, user keys and host-based keys.  Passwords are the most common but are less secure than key-based access.  Passwords are susceptible to keylogger attacks, as well as more likely to fool users into a “man-in-the-middle” attack (one where you think you’re logging onto your server, but you are actually proxying your connection through another server which has been compromised and is recording every keystroke and data transfer.)

Key based access is more secure as it requires two parts of a key to be present before access is granted.  When dealing with cloud based services such as Rackspace and Amazon Web Services, key based access is enabled by default.  Key based access is also known as “passwordless access” as access is granted by your key, not by asking for any passwords.  The exception to this is if you put a password on your key (but you can enable services that ask for this password once and it is cached for the rest of your session).

Setting this up on your Linux server is very simple, and most installations of SSH (OpenSSH) enable both password and key-based access by default.  Let’s assume user@client needs to access user@server

Ensure OpenSSH is installed on your Linux server (server)


sudo apt-get install openssh-server

CentOS/Fedora/RedHat/Oracle Enterprise Linux

sudo yum install openssh-server

Ensure the following lines has been uncommented from /etc/ssh/sshd_config

RSAAuthentication yes
PubkeyAuthentication yes

Restart OpenSSH


sudo /etc/init.d/ssh restart

CentOS/Fedora/RedHat/Oracle Enterprise Linux

sudo /etc/init.d/sshd restart

On your Linux client (desktop or other server you’ll be using to connect to the server configured in steps 1-3)

Generate your public and private keys

ssh-keygen -t rsa

You will see output like the following:

Generating public/private rsa key pair.
Enter file in which to save the key (/home/user/.ssh/id_rsa):
Created directory ‘/home/user/.ssh’.
Enter passphrase (empty for no passphrase):
Enter same passphrase again:
Your identification has been saved in /home/user/.ssh/id_rsa.
Your public key has been saved in /home/user/.ssh/
The key fingerprint is:
79:e1:08:77:c2:0d:c4:ff:35:22:64:9a:4d:03:b8:67 user@client
The key’s randomart image is:
+–[ RSA 2048]—-+
|       ++.                      |
|      …o=                    |
|      ..+O+.                 |
|      .oE*+.. o             |
|       oS oo o .            |
|         .  .                     |
|                                  |
|                                  |
|                                  |

This produces two important pieces of data.  Your PRIVATE KEY (~/.ssh/id_rsa) and your PUBLIC KEY (~/.ssh/  You must keep your PRIVATE KEY safe.  Your public key can be given to anyone.  Without your private key your public key is just a string of characters and you can’t generate a private key from a public key.  Equally, you can’t generate a public key from a private key.  Together they make your key-pair.
To enable your private key to access the server running SSH configured in steps 1-3 (server) you simply copy the contents of your public key onto the server.
Copy the public key from your client machine to server

scp .ssh/ user@server:
(enter your password)

Login to server

ssh user@server
(enter your password)

Copy the public key to authorized_keys

cat .ssh/ >> .ssh/authorized_keys

Change the permission of authorized_keys file to 600 (rw——-)

chmod 0600 .ssh/authorized_keys

This creates the directory .ssh/ and relevant authorized_keys file with the correct permissions (anything less strict will not work).  You can put in a number of public keys in here, line-by-line.  When there are multiple entries it allows multiple people to connect to that account using their keys.  This becomes useful when a team of system administrators require access to systems with minimal accounts installed, but each are accountable for audit purposes as to who logged onto the system.

Log out of that session and log back in again and you shouldn’t be asked for a password.


About amalgjose
I am an Electrical Engineer by qualification, now I am working as a Software Engineer. I am very much interested in Electrical, Electronics, Mechanical and now in Software fields. I like exploring things in these fields. I like travelling, long drives and very much addicted to music.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: