Quick Logins with ssh Client Keys

When you're an admin on more than a few machines, being able to navigate quickly to a shell on any given server is critical. Having to type "ssh my.server.com" (followed by a password) is not only tedious, but it breaks one's concentration. Suddenly having to shift from "where's the problem?" to "getting there" and back to "what's all this, then?" has led more than one admin to premature senility. It promotes the digital equivalent of "why did I come into this room, anyway?" (In addition, the problem is only made worse by /usr/games/fortune!)

At any rate, more effort spent logging into a machine means less effort spent solving problems. Recent versions of ssh offer a secure alternative to endlessly entering a password: public key exchange.

To use public keys with an ssh server, you'll first need to generate a public/private key pair:

[root@host]# ssh-keygen -t rsa 

You can also use -t dsa for DSA keys, or -t rsa1 if you're using Protocol v1. (And shame on you if you are! Upgrade to v2 as soon as you can!)

After you enter the above command, you should see something like this:

Generating public/private rsa key pair.
Enter file in which to save the key (/home/rob/.ssh/id_rsa): 

Just hit Enter there. It will then ask you for a pass phrase; just hit enter twice (but read the Security note below). Here's what the results should look like:

Enter passphrase (empty for no passphrase):
Enter same passphrase again:
Your identification has been saved in /home/rob/.ssh/id_rsa.
Your public key has been saved in /home/rob/.ssh/id_rsa.pub.
The key fingerprint is:
a6:5c:c3:eb:18:94:0b:06:a1:a6:29:58:fa:80:0a:bc rob@localhost 

This created two files, ~/.ssh/id_rsa and ~/.ssh/id_rsa.pub. To use this keypair on a server, try this:

[root@host]# ssh server "mkdir .ssh; chmod 0700 .ssh"
[root@host]# scp .ssh/id_rsa.pub server:.ssh/authorized_keys2 

Of course, substitute your server name for server. It should ask for your password both times. Now, simply ssh server and it should log you in automagically without a password. And yes, it will use your shiny new public key for scp, too.

If that didn't work for you, check your file permissions on both ~/.ssh/* and server:~/.ssh/*. Your private key (id_rsa) should be 0600 (and only be present on your local machine), and everything else should be 0655 or better.

Terrific. So you can now ssh server quickly and with a minimum of fuss.

Some consider the use of public keys a potential security risk. After all, one only has to steal a copy of your private key to obtain access to your servers. While this is true, the same is certainly true of passwords.

Ask yourself, how many times a day do you enter a password to gain shell access to a machine (or scp a file)? How frequently is it the same password on many (or all) of those machines? Have you ever used that password in a way that might be questionable (on a web site, on a personal machine that isn't quite up to date, or possibly with an ssh client on a machine that you don't directly control). If any of these possibilities sound familiar, then consider that an ssh key in the same setting would make it virtually impossible for an attacker to later gain unauthorized access (providing, of course, that you keep your private key safe).