SSH And Key Authentication.

The SSH protocol is used to provide an encrypted tunnel between the SSH client and a SSH server. It also provides a level of confidence that the client is communicating with a known host through the use of host keys, which can be configured to only allow a connection to a host whose public finger print is pre-registered with the SSH client. Many enterprises use SSH with either user/password authentication or Public Key Exchange (PKE).

Public Key Exchange (PKE).

Enterprises use PKE as it replaces the need for a user to enter a password. This is ideal for where every user of an application connects to the host using a generic user and then is presented with an application logon where the users logs on with their user ID/password. Also system administrators will often have the need to logon to multiple UNIX/Linux servers which means managing passwords across servers can be a big issue.

If we take a look at how PKE works (see figure 1 below) we can see that the user (owner) has the private key within their profile directory. When they connect to an SSH enabled host the server checks to see if the user holds the private key matching the public key held on the server in the user’s home/profile directory – if they do then the user is logged on without the need of a password.

Figure 1: Overview of PKE Authentication

The problem is the user may connect to many servers, especially if they are a system administrator as illustrated in figure 2.  As we can see, each server that they connect to has to have the user’s public key in the user’s home/profile directory. This is not too difficult to manage across a couple of servers – but beyond that it becomes a problem; especially if there are a number of users as this has to be done for each user.

This article was first published in Open Horizons Magazine, Issue 39. 2017/4, p32-33.


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