SSH: Best Practices


Are you using SSH in the best way possible? Have you configured it to be as limited and secure as possible? The goal of this document is to kick in the new year with some best practices for SSH: why you should use them, how to set them up, and how to verify that they are in place.

All of the examples below assume that you are using EnGarde Secure Linux but any modern Linux distribution will do just fine since, as far as I know, everybody ships OpenSSH.


SSHv2 vs. SSHv1

There are numerous benefits to using the latest version of the SSH protocol, version 2, over it's older counterpart, version 1 and I'm not going into a lot of details on those benefits here - if you're interested, see the URL in the reference below or Google around. That being said if you don't have an explicit reason to use the older version 1, you should always be using version 2.

To use SSHv2 by default but permit SSHv1, locate the "Protocol" line in your sshd_config file and change it to:

Protocol 2,1

When doing 2,1 please note that the protocol selection is left up to the client. Most clients will default to v2 and "fall back" to v1, while legacy clients may continue to use v1. To force everybody to use SSHv2, change it to:

Protocol 2

When you make this change don't forget to generate the appropriate HostKey's as well! SSHv2 requires the following keys:

# HostKeys for protocol version 2
HostKey /etc/ssh/ssh_host_rsa_key
HostKey /etc/ssh/ssh_host_dsa_key

While SSHv1 requires:

# HostKey for protocol version 1
HostKey /etc/ssh/ssh_host_key

Once your changes are made, restart the SSH daemon:

# /etc/init.d/sshd restart

[ SUCCESSFUL ] Secure Shell Daemon
[ SUCCESSFUL ] Secure Shell Daemon

From another machine, try SSH'ing in. You can use the -v option to see which protocol is being used, and the '-oProtocol=' option to force one or the other - for example, "ssh -v -oProtocol=2 " would force protocol version 2.


Binding to a Specific Address or Non-Standard Port

If you're running SSH on an internal, firewalled, workstation then you can probably skip this section, but if you're running SSH on a firewall or on a machine with two network interfaces, this section is for you.

Out of the box OpenSSH will bind to every available network address; while convenient and suitable for most installations, this is far from optimal. If your machine has two or more interfaces then the odds are that one is "trusted" and the other is "untrusted." If this is the case, and you don't need nor want SSH access coming in on the untrusted interface, then you should configure OpenSSH to listen on a specific interface.

To have OpenSSH only bind to your internal interface, in the example below, locate the following line in your sshd_config file:


and change the to


To verify that this change took, restart OpenSSH and look at netstat:

# /etc/init.d/sshd restart

[ SUCCESSFUL ] Secure Shell Daemon
[ SUCCESSFUL ] Secure Shell Daemon

# netstat -anp | grep sshd
tcp        0      0*               LISTEN      7868/sshd

As you can see, the sshd daemon is now only listening on SSH requests coming in any other interface will be ignored.

Similarly, you may want to change the port that the SSH daemon binds to. Sometimes there is a functional need for this (ie, your employer blocks outbound 22/tcp) but there is also security-through-obscurity value in this as well. While not providing any real security benefit against a determined attacker, moving the SSH daemon off of port 22 protects you against automated attacks which assume that the daemon is running on port 22.

To have OpenSSH bind to a port other than port 22, 31337 in the example below, locate the following line in your sshd_config file:

Port 22

and change the 22 to 31337:

Port 31337

To verify that this change took, restart OpenSSH and, again, look at netstat:

# netstat -anp | grep sshd 
tcp        0      0*               LISTEN      330/sshd

Finally, to SSH into a host whose SSH daemon is listening on a non-standard port, use the -p option:

ssh -p 31337 [email protected]


Using TCP Wrappers

TCP Wrappers are used to limit access to TCP services on your machine. If you haven't heard of TCP Wrappers you've probably heard of /etc/hosts.allow and /etc/hosts.deny: these are the two configuration files for TCP Wrappers. In the context of SSH, TCP Wrappers allow you to decide what specific addresses or networks have access to the SSH service.

To use TCP Wrappers with SSH you need to make sure that OpenSSH was built with the -with-tcp-wrappers. This is the case on any modern distribution.

As I indicated earlier, TCP Wrappers are configured by editing the /etc/hosts.deny and /etc/hosts.allow files. Typically you tell hosts.deny to deny everything, then add entries to hosts.allow to permit specific hosts access to specific services.

An example:

# hosts.deny    This file describes the names of the hosts which are
#               *not* allowed to use the local INET services, as decided
#               by the '/usr/sbin/tcpd' server.
# hosts.allow   This file describes the names of the hosts which are
#               allowed to use the local INET services, as decided
#               by the '/usr/sbin/tcpd' server.
# sshd: 207.46.236.

In the example above, access to SSH is limited to the network and the address Requests to any other service from any other address are denied by the "ALL: ALL" in hosts.deny. If you try to SSH into a machine and TCP Wrappers denies your access, you'll see something like this:

ssh_exchange_identification: Connection closed by remote host

This simple configuration change significantly hardens your installation since, with it in place, packets from hostile clients are dropped very early in the TCP session -- and before they can do any real damage to a potentially vulnerable daemon.


Public Key Authentication

The last item I will cover is public key authentication. One of the best things you can do to tighten the security of your SSH installation is to disable password authentication and to use public key authentication instead. Password authentication is suboptimal for many reasons, but mostly because people choose bad passwords and attackers routinely try to brute-force passwords. If the systems administrator has chosen a bad password and he's permitting root logins... game over.

Public key authentication is no silver bullet - similarly, people generate passphrase-less keys or leave ssh-agents running when they shouldn't - but, in my opinion, it's a much better bet.

Just about every distribution ships with public key authentication enabled, but begin by making sure it is:

RSAAuthentication yes
PubkeyAuthentication yes

Both of these options default to "yes" and the "RSAAuthentication" option is for SSHv1 and the "PubkeyAuthentication" option is for SSHv2. If you plan on using this authentication method exclusively, while you're there, you may want to disable password authentication:

PasswordAuthentication no

Before you proceed, make sure you have a terminal open on your target machine. Once you restart the SSH daemon you will no longer be able to log in without a key... which we haven't generated yet!

Once you're sure, restart the SSH daemon:

# /etc/init.d/sshd restart

[ SUCCESSFUL ] Secure Shell Daemon
[ SUCCESSFUL ] Secure Shell Daemon

Now, from your desktop, try to SSH in to your target machine:

$ ssh [email protected]
Permission denied (publickey,keyboard-interactive).

We're locked out! This is a good thing. The next step, on your desktop, is to generate a key:

$ ssh-keygen -t dsa -C "Ryan's SSHv2 DSA Key (Jan 2008)"

Generating public/private dsa key pair.
Enter file in which to save the key (/home/rwm/.ssh/id_dsa):
Enter passphrase (empty for no passphrase): **********
Enter same passphrase again: **********
Your identification has been saved in /home/rwm/.ssh/id_dsa.
Your public key has been saved in /home/rwm/.ssh/
The key fingerprint is:
98:4d:50:ba:ee:8b:79:be:b3:36:75:8a:c2:4a:44:4b Ryan's SSHv2 DSA Key (Jan 2008)


A few notes on this:

  • You can generate a DSA (-t dsa), RSA (-t rsa), or SSHv1 (-t rsa1) key. In the example above I'm using dsa.
  • I like to put the date I generated the key in the comment (-C) field, that way I can change it out every so often.
  • You're entering a passphrase, not a password. Use a long string with spaces and punctuation. The longer and more complicated the better!

The command you just ran generated two files - id_dsa, your private key and, your public key. It is critical that you keep your private key private, but you can distribute your public key to any machines you would like to access.

Now that you have generated your keys we need to get the public key into the ~/.ssh/authorized_keys file on the target machine. The best way to do this is to copy-and-paste it - begin by concatenating the public key file:

$ cat .ssh/

ssh-dss AAAAB3NzaC1kc3MAAACBAL7p6bsg5kK4ES9BWLPCNABl20iQQB3R0ymaPMHK...
... ds= Ryan's SSHv2 DSA Key (Jan 2008)

This is a very long string. Make sure you copy all of it and that you do NOT copy the newline character at the end. In other words, copy from the "ssh" to the "2008)", but not past that.

The next step is to append this key to the end of the ~/.ssh/authorized_keys file on your target machine. Remember that terminal I told you to keep open a few steps ago? Type the following command into it, pasting the key you've just copied into the area noted KEY:

echo "KEY"  >> ~/.ssh/authorized_keys

For example:

echo "ssh-dss AAAA5kS9BWLPCN...s= Ryan's SSHv2 DSA Key (Jan 2008)"  >> ~/.ssh/authorized_keys

Now, try to SSH in again. If you did this procedure correctly then instead of being denied access, you'll be prompted for your passphrase:

$ ssh [email protected]

Enter passphrase for key '/home/rwm/.ssh/id_dsa':
Last login: Thu Jan 10 14:37:14 2008 from
[[email protected] ~]$

Viola! You're now logged in using public key authentication instead of password authentication.


In Summary...

SSH is a wonderful tool and is every systems administrators second best friend (Perl, of course, being the first :). It allows you to read your email from anywhere, provided you still use a terminal-based mail reader. It allows you to tunnel an xterm or X11 application from your home server to your desktop at work. It provides you a far superior alternative to FTP in SFTP and SCP.

SSH is great but just like any tool, it's only as good as you use it. I hope that you found value in some of my best practices and if you have any of your own, leave them in the comments!

Before I go, here are some additional resources on SSH:

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+ you're using some funny port (as in used by rootkits) to run SSH service on; it's ok as a joke but not as recommendation for others (IMHO)

+ you're missing (or forgetting about) the denyhosts package, which will lock out of SSH anyone who retried his/her password after a certain number of trials and denyhosts comes with a directory of "known" or reported IPs used to bruteforce they way into SSH servers worldwide

 + denyhosts + /etc/hosts.allow is a good thing in order not to lock yourself out ;-)


Don't use port 31337 as stated in the tutorial. It was just an example. Use your own port number. If everyone starts using 31337 then the point of changing ports is no longer valid. A list of well known ports can be found


If you sometimes have to ssh in from computers that are outside of your control and therefore don't have access to your private key you can use S/Key authentication. S/Key is a one time password system that uses a program on your PDA to generate the passwords. That way if someone sniffs or key logs your password it will not work twice.

Also, if you get tired of typing ssh -p 31337 you can add that to your user level configuration file like this:

Host hostname
  Port 31337
  User username


Here are some ssh-agent tricks; how to use the agent. I use these tricks daily and they help me great.



SSH is a great, secure tool and these suggestions are great. I would add that if you need to be PCI compliant or face some other audit requirements, you might need something more than public-key authentication.  With SSH public-key authentication:

There is no way to control which users have public key authorization
There is no way to enforce passphrase complexity (or even be sure that one is being used)
There is no way to expire a public key

as I discussed here: