SSH: More than secure shell

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SSH is a protocol for authenticating and encrypting remote shell sessions.

But, using SSH for just remote shell sessions ignores 90% of what it can do.

# ssh home -L

This article covers less common SSH use cases, such as:

  • using passwordless, key-based login;
  • setting up local per-host configurations;
  • exporting a local service through a firewall;
  • accessing a remote service through a firewall;
  • setting up a SOCKS proxy for Firefox;
  • executing commands remotely from scripts;
  • transfering files to/from remote machines;
  • mounting a filesystem through SSH; and
  • triggering admin scripts from a phone.

This post is part of my "Unix fundamentals" series. Recent posts in this series include settling into Unix, standalone lexers with lex, and sculpting text with regex, grep, sed and awk.

Update: By request, I added the SOCKS proxy option, but with a word of caution about DNS. (Firefox does not forward DNS requests by default.)

Update: Jeff Bonhag wrote to point out (correctly) that RSA is better than DSA for your private key.

Why SSH?

As recently as a 2001, it was not uncommon to log in to a remote Unix system using telnet.

Telnet is just above netcat in protocol sophistication, which means that passwords were sent in the clear.

As wifi proliferated, telnet went from security nuissance to security disaster.

As an undergrad, I remember running ethereal (now wireshark) in the school commons area, snagging about a dozen root passwords in an hour.

SSH, which encrypts and authenticates connections, had been in development since 1995, but it seemed to become adopted nearly universally and almost overnight around 2002.

It is worth configuring SSH properly:

  • per-user configuration is in ~/.ssh/config;
  • system-wide client configuration is in /etc/ssh/ssh_config.
  • system-wide daemon configurtion is in /etc/ssh/sshd_config.

Key-based, passwordless authentication

Key-based passwordless authentication makes it less cumbersome for other programs and scripts to piggyback atop SSH, since you won't have to re-enter your password each time.

Key-based authentication exploits public-key cryptography to prove to the server that the client owns the secret private key without revealing the key.

[If you're curious about public-key cryptography, see my post on a short implementation of RSA.]

To set this up, first log in to the client machine.

Then create a private/public key pair with ssh-keygen:

 $ ssh-keygen -t dsa

This will place the private key in ~/.ssh/id_dsa and the public key in ~/.ssh/

Guard the private key (set appropriate permissions) as if the private key were your password. In effect, it is.

Now, append the contents of ~/.ssh/ to the end of ~/.ssh/authorized_keys on the remote machine.

For example:
 $ cat .ssh/ | ssh host 'cat >> ~/.ssh/authorized_keys'

(On Linux systems, you can use ssh-copy-id instead; the technique above is more portable.)

Do not copy your private key over.

Now, when you connect to that account, it won't require a password.

Executing remote commands

To run a command on a remote system without logging in, specify the command after the login information:

 $ ssh host command

For example, to check remote disk space:

 $ ssh host df

My favorite example for Linux is piping the microphone from one machine to the speakers of another:

 $ dd if=/dev/dsp | ssh -C user@host dd of=/dev/dsp

Copying files with ssh

For copying data and files over SSH, there are a few options.

It's possible to copy with the command cat. If you're trying to copy the output of a process instead of a file, this is certainly a reasonable route.

If you're going to use SSH like this, disable the escape sequences:

 $ cat file | ssh -e none remote-host 'cat > file'

If these are going to be large files, you may want to use the -C flag to enable compression.

For copying files, the program scp works like cp, except it also accepts remote destinations.

For example:

 $ scp .bash_profile

For an FTP-like interface for copying files, use the program sftp.

Per-host SSH client configuration options

You can set per-host configuration options in ~/.ssh/config by specifying Host hostname, followed by host-specific options.

It is possible to set the private key and the user (among many other settings) on a per-host basis.

Here's an example config file:

User admin
IdentityFile ~/.ssh/admin.id_dsa
BatchMode yes
EscapeChar none

Host mm
User matt
IdentityFile ~/.ssh/matt.id_dsa

Host *
User u8193

The first example enables batch mode, which means it will never ask for a passphrase or password for this host. It also disables an escape sequence, which avoids any hiccups when transmitting arbitrary data. If ssh is to be invoked within scripts, this is a good option.

The second example uses a HostName abbreviation, so that ssh mm is equivalent to ssh -i ~/.ssh/matt.id_dsa

The third example sets the user to u8193 for any machine in the subdomain

See more options in man ssh_config.

Configuring sshd

The options most frequently tweaked are:

  • Port: set this to the port on which you want sshd to run. Unless you have a compelling reason to move it, keep it on 22.
  • PermitRootLogin: set this to no and then configure sudo to add a little security; another good setting is without-password, which will force the use of public key authentication for root.
  • PasswordAuthentication: set this to no to disallow password authentication entirely and to require public key authentication.

The man page for sshd_config summarizes the remaining options well.

Local port forwarding

SSH allows secure port forwarding.

For example, suppose you want to connect from client A to server B but route traffic securely through server C.

From A, run:

 A$ ssh C -L localport:B:remoteport

Then, to connect to B:remoteport, connect to localhost:localport.

If you use add -g, then anyone that can reach A may connect to B:remoteport through A:localport.

This is useful for evading firewalls.

For example, suppose your work banned

Run this:

 # ssh yourserver -L

And, set the address of and to in /etc/hosts.

You will also need to disable any local web server running first.

Now, it will surreptitiously traffic to through your yourserver.

If you do this frequently, you might want to add a special host:

 Host redditfw
 HostName yourserver
 LocalForward 80

Remote port forwarding

Alternatively, suppose you wanted to give remote machine B access to another machine, A, by passing securely through your local machine C.

Then, on C, you can run:

 C$ ssh B -R remoteport:A:targetport

At this point, local users on B can connect to A:targetport through localhost:remoteport.

If you want to to allow nonlocal users to be able to connect A:targetport through localhost:remoteport, then set:

 GatewayPorts yes

in the sshd_config file.

Once again, if you do this frequently, set up a special host in ~/.ssh/config:

 Host exportme
 HostName B
 RemoteForward remoteport A:targetport

Setting up a SOCKS proxy for Firefox

SSH can also set up a SOCKS proxy to evade a firewall.

It's remarkably simple:

 $ ssh -D localport host

In Firefox, under Preferences > Advanced > Network, select "Settings."

Set your SOCKS5 proxy to localhost port localport.

Test it out by googling "what is my ip."

Firefox will now forward your web traffic through host.

A word of caution: this will not forward your DNS requests.

If you need to hide your DNS requests as well, I recommend installing DNSCrypt from OpenDNS.

In about:config, you can also tell Firefox to forward your DNS requests; set:


to true.

SSH as a filesystem: sshfs

Using the FUSE project with sshfs, it's possible to mount a remote filesystem over SSH.

On the Mac, use Fuse4x.

From MacPorts, install it all with:

 $ sudo port install sshfs

And, once it's installed, run:

 $ sshfs remote-host: local-mount-directory

SSH from windows

Sometimes, you need to get to your home machine from windows. In these cases, you want the PuTTY suite of tools.

SSH from iOS

Using SSH from iOS can be cumbersome, but the iSSH app is particularly well-suited to administrative tasks.

The iSSH app allows storing configurations, which enables per-machine private keys and remote commands to run upon connecting.

So, you can create a configuration that logs in to run a shell script.

I have three command-based configurations for

  • a script to (re)start the web server;
  • a script to (re)start the DNS server;
  • a script to reboot the entire server.

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