Computer Laboratory

OpenSSH clients

This page describes how to use OpenSSH clients under Unix and Linux to connect to Computer Lab systems from 'outside.' This includes from so-called alien machines in the domain.

This section assumes familiarity with the structure of ssh sessions and the use of keys for host and user verification. See an overview of ssh for example.

Note that if you are not completely confident that you understand what a public/private key pair is, or which part of the pair is used on the client and which part on the server for user and for host authentication then you are likely to run into difficulties in what follows, so please read the introduction and e-mail [Javascript required] if that still does not make things clear.

Is ssh installed?

The easiest way to find out is to try to run the ssh command. Try

   ssh -V

You should be presented with the SSH program and version, perhaps something like

OpenSSH_3.9p1, OpenSSL 0.9.7d 17 Mar 2004

If ssh is not installed (which is very unusual these days) you will need to get someone to install it for you, or install it yourself. This is not especially difficult if you are used to compiling and installing programs on Unix/Linux, but the details are beyond the scope of this document.

Obtaining host keys

On any Lab managed Linux machine there is a file /etc/ssh/ssh_known_hosts2 containing the public keys for all Lab hosts. You will probably only need the host keys for the slogin machines, normally just the ones. These can be obtained with the command

   grep -h slogin /etc/ssh/ssh_known_* >known_hosts

which will produce a file known-hosts containing the public keys.

Next you must place the public keys so obtained into the file ~/.ssh/known_hosts (i.e. the file known_hosts in the .ssh subdirectory of your home directory) on the host from which you are making a connection to the Lab. You can achieve this transfer by almost any means: you can e-mail them, ftp them, transfer them by http or floppy disk or copy-and-paste them from one terminal window to another (if, say, you were logged in using one-time passwords). All that is important is that no-one intercepts and alters them in transit.

For information on how to find the Fingerprint of host keys see Fingerprinting host keys.

Creating user keys

First, you must decide upon and memorise a passphrase for your new key. From the ssh-keygen manual page:

Good passphrases are 10-30 characters long, are not simple sentences or otherwise easily guessable (English prose has only 1-2 bits of entropy per character, and provides very bad passphrases), and contain a mix of upper and lowercase letters, numbers, and non- alphanumeric characters.

Now, on the machine from which you are making a connection to the remote host, use ssh-keygen to generate a key pair:

   ssh-keygen -t rsa

You will be prompted to enter the name of the file in which to save the key. You can probably accept the default (~/.ssh/id_rsa) if this is the first key you have generated in this home directory. The public key will be stored in the file with same name in the same directory but with the extension .pub appended.

Next you will be prompted to enter the passphrase. You must do this twice because it is entered blind (i.e. without echo of the typed characters.)

Transferring and setting up public keys

Having created your key pair you must now transfer the public key to your Lab Unix home directory. Again, it is a public key you are transferring so it can be sent by any means, as long as it cannot be altered easily by a third party.

Once transferred to your Lab Unix filespace, you must add it to the file ~/.ssh/authorized_keys. The format of this file can be quite complex, but typically it consists of lines beginning

from="" ssh-rsa (long string of key text)

This means that you are enabling public key ssh connections from the machine using the given key.

A quick way to add a host key to this file is to type (or copy/paste and edit from here)

  echo 'from=""' $(cat >> ~/.ssh/authorized_keys
  chmod go= ~/.ssh/authorized_keys

where is the full domain name of the host you want to connect from and is the name of the file containing your public key, which you have somehow transferred into your Lab home directory from where it was generated (presumably on

The from= can include wildcards and IP addresses as well as host names. It can also include more than one address/name by separating them with commas. This is particularly useful if you are connecting from a number of different machines where your home directory is common. It is also useful if you are connecting from a network where dynamic hostnames and IP addresses are in use. For example, an ISP providing a cable service. In this case you will need to use a wildcard * in the hostname. E.g. from="*".

The chmod command is sometimes necessary because the ssh server will not use the contents of ~/.ssh/authorized_keys if the file is writable by anyone other than the user attempting the connection (even if it is writable only by a group of which the owner is the sole member.)

Running ssh

The ssh command is typically

  ssh [Javascript required]

This connects you to one of the Lab slogin-serv machines using the user-id user from where you will be able to issue a further ssh command to any Unix machine within the Lab.

If you have not added the host keys for all of the slogin machines, in this case slogin-serv, to your ~/.ssh/ssh_known_hosts file then you should be warned about connecting with a message like:

The authenticity of host ' (' can't be established.
RSA key fingerprint is c1:c4:07:cf:cf:62:10:c5:1b:9d:e6:40:bc:74:40:c6.
Are you sure you want to continue connecting (yes/no)? 

In this case you should check that the fingerprint is in fact that of one of the slogin key fingerprints you previously copied before accepting.

It is also possible that you get a message like this:

No RSA host key is known for and you have requested strict checking.
Host key verification failed.

and you are not offered the chance to accept the key on the basis of the fingerprint. In this case you can run the command again, but with the option -oStrictHostKeyChecking=ask:

  ssh -oStrictHostKeyChecking=ask [Javascript required]

and you will be offered the chance to accept the host key after checking the fingerprint.

If you have other problems, then check the output of ssh with the -v option:

  ssh -v [Javascript required]

This will produce a fairly detailed set of diagnostics and comments about what is happening, from which you may be able to determine what is the problem. If you cannot find the solution yourself then e-mail [Javascript required] with the above output and a clear description of what you have done (i.e. from which machine you are trying to connect, and which keys you have set up and enabled.)

Using ssh-agent

Normally you need to type the passphrase every time you use your private key to establish a session. This is tedious and the ssh-agent program is a means to avoid having to it more than once per login. Ssh-agent works by decrypting the private key once and caching it in memory. Subsequently, programs can authenticate using the decrypted key by connecting to ssh-agent via a socket on the local machine. (The socket is owned and exclusively readable by the user.)

On most modern Un*x/Linux installations, ssh-agent runs for the duration of any X windows login session. To find out whether ssh-agent is running, enter the command echo $SSH_AUTH_SOCK This should give you something like /tmp/ssh-XXOGradz/agent.15762 if ssh-agent is running, otherwise it should just produce a blank line.

If ssh-agent isn't running, then the easiest way to start it is to type eval $(ssh-agent)

Once ssh-agent is running, you can use the ssh-add program to add keys to the cache. If you have only one private key in ~/.ssh/id_rsa then just typing ssh-add will prompt you for your passphrase:

$ ssh-add
Enter passphrase for ~/.ssh/id_rsa: 
Identity added: ~/.ssh/id_rsa (~/.ssh/id_rsa)

From now on ssh will get your private key from the ssh-agent cache without requiring you to enter the passphrase.

Agent forwarding

The ssh-agent cache can be made available to ssh-slients running on other hosts via a mechanism called agent forwarding. Essentially this is just a matter of the ssh-agent making the keys available to client programs over a socket connection which the ssh clients forward to the remote hosts they are connecting to. By default, agent forwarding is disabled, but by adding the -A option to the ssh command line it can be switched on. In this way it is possible for one private key to be used from multiple sites whilst only being decrypted once at the start of the session (so the passphrase is only typed once when ssh-add is run for the first time.) Of course the public key must be listed in ~/.ssh/authorized_keys with the names of all the hosts from where it will be used (even of those hosts never see the private key itself.)

Note that agent forwarding should only be used to connect to sites where you trust the people with root privilege: anyone with root privileges on the site you are connecting to can use the forwarded agent socket to authenticate other connections 'as you' using any of the private keys in the cache.