Technology‎ > ‎

Secure Shell

Secure Shell or SSH is a network protocol that allows data to be exchanged using a secure channel between two networked devices.[1] The two major versions of the protocol are referred to as SSH1 or SSH-1and SSH2 or SSH-2. Used primarily on Linux and Unix based systems to access shell accounts, SSH was designed as a replacement for Telnet and other insecure remote shells, which send information, notably passwords, in plaintext, rendering them susceptible to packet analysis.[2] The encryption used by SSH is intended to provide confidentiality and integrity of data over an unsecured network, such as theInternet.

Internet Protocol Suite
Application Layer


Transport Layer


Internet Layer

IP (IPv4IPv6· ICMP · ICMPv6 · IGMP ·IPsec ·

Link Layer
ARP/InARP · NDP · OSPF ·Tunnels (L2TP· PPP · Media Access Control (EthernetDSLISDNFDDI·(more)
v · d · e




SSH uses public-key cryptography to authenticate the remote computer and allow the remote computer to authenticate the user, if necessary.[1] Anyone can produce a matching pair of different keys (public and private). The public key is placed on all computers that must allow access to the owner of the matching private key (the owner keeps the private key in secret). While authentication is based on the private key, the key itself is never transferred through the network during authentication.

SSH only verifies if the same person offering the public key also owns the matching private key. Hence in all versions of SSH, it is important to verify unknown public keys before accepting them as valid. Accepting an attacker's public key without validation would simply authorize an unauthorized attacker as a valid user.

[edit]Key management

On Unix-like systems, the list of authorized keys is stored in the home folder of the user that is allowed to log in remotely, in the file ~/.ssh/authorized_keys.[3] This file is only respected by ssh if it is not writable by anything apart from the owner. When the public key is present on one side and the matching private key is present on another side, typing in the password is no longer required (some software like MPI stack may need this passwordless access to run properly). However for additional security the private key itself can be locked with a passphrase.

The private key can also be looked for in standard places but the full path to it can also be specified as a command line setting (the switch -i for ssh). The ssh-keygen utility produces the public and private key, always in pairs.

SSH also supports password based authentication that is still encrypted by automatically generated keys. In this case the attacker could imitate the legitimate side, ask for the password and obtain it (man-in-the-middle attack). However this is only possible if the two sides have never authenticated before as SSH remembers the key that the remote side once used. Password authentication can be disabled.


SSH is typically used to log into a remote machine and execute commands, but it also supports tunnelingforwarding TCP ports and X11 connections; it can transfer files using the associated SFTP or SCP protocols.[1] SSH uses the client-server model.

The standard TCP port 22 has been assigned for contacting SSH servers,[4] though administrators frequently change it to a non-standard port as an additional security measure.

An SSH client program is typically used for establishing connections to an SSH daemon accepting remote connections. Both are commonly present on most modern operating systems, including Mac OS X, most distributions of GNU/LinuxOpenBSD,FreeBSDSolaris and OpenVMSProprietaryfreeware and open source versions of various levels of complexity and completeness exist.

[edit]History and development

[edit]Version 1.x

In 1995, Tatu Ylönen, a researcher at Helsinki University of Technology, Finland, designed the first version of the protocol (now called SSH-1) prompted by a password-sniffing attack at his university network. The goal of SSH was to replace the earlierrloginTELNET and rsh protocols, which did not provide strong authentication or guarantee confidentiality. Ylönen released his implementation as freeware in July 1995, and the tool quickly gained in popularity. Towards the end of 1995, the SSH user base had grown to 20,000 users in fifty countries.

In December 1995, Ylönen founded SSH Communications Security to market and develop SSH. The original version of the SSH software used various pieces of free software, such as GNU libgmp, but later versions released by SSH Secure Communications evolved into increasingly proprietary software.

It is estimated that, as of 2000, there were 2 million users of SSH.[5]

[edit]Notable vulnerabilities

In 1998 a vulnerability was described in SSH 1.5 which allowed unauthorized insertion of content into encrypted SSH stream due to insufficient data integrity protection from CRC-32 used in this version of protocol.[6][7] A fix known as SSH Compensation Attack Detector[8] was introduced into most implementations. Many of these updated implementations contained a new integer overflow vulnerability[9] that allowed attackers to execute arbitrary code with the privileges of the SSH daemon, typically root.

In January 2001 a vulnerability was discovered that allows attackers to modify the last block of an IDEA-encrypted session.[10] The same month, another vulnerability was discovered that allowed a malicious server to forward a client authentication to another server.[11]

Since SSH-1 has inherent design flaws which make it vulnerable, it is now generally considered obsolete and should be avoided by explicitly disabling fallback to SSH-1. Most modern servers and clients support SSH-2.

[edit]Version 1.99

In January 2006, well after version 2.1 was established, RFC 4253 specified that an SSH server which supports both 2.0 and prior versions of SSH should identify its protoversion as 1.99.[12] This is not an actual version but a method to identify backward compatibility.

[edit]OpenSSH and OSSH

This section needs additional citations for verification. Please help improve this article by adding reliable references. Unsourced material may be challenged and removed(June 2010)

In 1999, developers wanting a free software version to be available went back to the older 1.2.12 release of the original SSH program, which was the last released under an open source license. Björn Grönvall's OSSH was subsequently developed from this codebase. Shortly thereafter, OpenBSD developers forked Grönvall's code and did extensive work on it, creating OpenSSH, which shipped with the 2.6 release of OpenBSD. From this version, a "portability" branch was formed to port OpenSSH to other operating systems. As of 2005, OpenSSH was the single most popular SSH implementation, coming by default in a large number of operating systems. OSSH meanwhile has become obsolete.[13] OpenSSH continued to be maintained and now supports both 1.x and 2.0 versions.

[edit]Version 2.x

"Secsh" was the official Internet Engineering Task Force's (IETF) name for the IETF working group responsible for version 2 of the SSH protocol.[14] In 2006, a revised version of the protocol, SSH-2, was adopted as a standard. This version is incompatible with SSH-1. SSH-2 features both security and feature improvements over SSH-1. Better security, for example, comes through Diffie-Hellman key exchange and strong integrity checking via message authentication codes. New features of SSH-2 include the ability to run any number of shell sessions over a single SSH connection.[15]


In November 2008, a vulnerability was discovered for all versions of SSH, which allowed recovery of up to 32 bits of plaintext from a block of ciphertext that was encrypted using what was then the standard default encryption mode, CBC.[16][17]

[edit]Internet standard

The following RFC publications by the IETF "secsh" working group document SSH-2 as a proposed Internet standard.

  • RFC 4250, The Secure Shell (SSH) Protocol Assigned Numbers
  • RFC 4251, The Secure Shell (SSH) Protocol Architecture
  • RFC 4252, The Secure Shell (SSH) Authentication Protocol
  • RFC 4253, The Secure Shell (SSH) Transport Layer Protocol
  • RFC 4254, The Secure Shell (SSH) Connection Protocol
  • RFC 4255, Using DNS to Securely Publish Secure Shell (SSH) Key Fingerprints
  • RFC 4256, Generic Message Exchange Authentication for the Secure Shell Protocol (SSH)
  • RFC 4335, The Secure Shell (SSH) Session Channel Break Extension
  • RFC 4344, The Secure Shell (SSH) Transport Layer Encryption Modes
  • RFC 4345, Improved Arcfour Modes for the Secure Shell (SSH) Transport Layer Protocol

It was later modified and expanded by the following publications.

  • RFC 4419, Diffie-Hellman Group Exchange for the Secure Shell (SSH) Transport Layer Protocol (March 2006)
  • RFC 4432, RSA Key Exchange for the Secure Shell (SSH) Transport Layer Protocol (March 2006)
  • RFC 4462, Generic Security Service Application Program Interface (GSS-API) Authentication and Key Exchange for the Secure Shell (SSH) Protocol (May 2006)
  • RFC 4716, The Secure Shell (SSH) Public Key File Format (November 2006)
  • RFC 5656, Elliptic Curve Algorithm Integration in the Secure Shell Transport Layer (December 2009)


Example of tunneling an X11 application over SSH: the user 'josh' has SSHed from the local machine 'foofighter' to the remote machine 'tengwar' to run xeyes.
Logging into OpenWrt via SSH using PuTTYrunning on Windows.

SSH is a protocol that can be used for many applications across many platforms including UnixMicrosoft WindowsApple's Mac OS X, and Linux. Some of the applications below may require features that are only available or compatible with specific SSH clients or servers. For example, using the SSH protocol to implement a VPN is possible, but presently only with the OpenSSH server and client implementation.

  • For login to a shell on a remote host (replacing Telnet and rlogin)
  • For executing a single command on a remote host (replacing rsh)
  • Secure file transfer
  • In combination with rsync to back up, copy and mirror files efficiently and securely
  • For forwarding or tunneling a port (not to be confused with a VPN which routes packets between different networks or bridges two broadcast domains into one).
  • For using as a full-fledged encrypted VPN. Note that only OpenSSH server and client supports this feature.
  • For forwarding X from a remote host (possible through multiple intermediate hosts)
  • For browsing the web through an encrypted proxy connection with SSH clients that support the SOCKS protocol.
  • For securely mounting a directory on a remote server as a filesystem on a local computer using SSHFS.
  • For automated remote monitoring and management of servers through one or more of the mechanisms as discussed above.
  • For development on the mobile or embedded device that supports SSH.

[edit]File transfer protocols using SSH

There are multiple mechanisms for transferring files using the Secure Shell protocols.


Diagram of the SSH-2 binary packet.

The SSH-2 protocol has an internal architecture (defined in RFC 4251) with well-separated layers. These are:

  • The transport layer (RFC 4253). This layer handles initial key exchange, as well as server authentication and sets up encryption, compression and integrity verification. It exposes to the upper layer an interface for sending and receiving plaintext packets with sizes of up to 32,768 bytes each (more can be allowed by the implementation). The transport layer also arranges for key re-exchange, usually after 1 GB of data has been transferred or after 1 hour has passed, whichever is sooner.
  • The user authentication layer (RFC 4252). This layer handles client authentication and provides a number of authentication methods. Authentication is client-driven: when one is prompted for a password, it may be the SSH client prompting, not the server. The server merely responds to client's authentication requests. Widely used user authentication methods include the following:
    • password: a method for straightforward password authentication, including a facility allowing a password to be changed. This method is not implemented by all programs.
    • publickey: a method for public key-based authentication, usually supporting at least DSA or RSA keypairs, with other implementations also supporting X.509 certificates.
    • keyboard-interactive (RFC 4256): a versatile method where the server sends one or more prompts to enter information and the client displays them and sends back responses keyed-in by the user. Used to provide one-time password authentication such as S/Key or SecurID. Used by some OpenSSH configurations when PAM is the underlying host authentication provider to effectively provide password authentication, sometimes leading to inability to log in with a client that supports just the plain password authentication method.
    • GSSAPI authentication methods which provide an extensible scheme to perform SSH authentication using external mechanisms such as Kerberos 5 or NTLM, providing single sign on capability to SSH sessions. These methods are usually implemented by commercial SSH implementations for use in organizations, though OpenSSH does have a working GSSAPI implementation.
  • The connection layer (RFC 4254). This layer defines the concept of channels, channel requests and global requests using which SSH services are provided. A single SSH connection can host multiple channels simultaneously, each transferring data in both directions. Channel requests are used to relay out-of-band channel specific data, such as the changed size of a terminal window or the exit code of a server-side process. The SSH client requests a server-side port to be forwarded using a global request. Standard channel types include:
    • shell for terminal shells, SFTP and exec requests (including SCP transfers)
    • direct-tcpip for client-to-server forwarded connections
    • forwarded-tcpip for server-to-client forwarded connections
  • The SSHFP DNS record (RFC 4255) provides the public host key fingerprints in order to aid in verifying the authenticity of the host.

This open architecture provides considerable flexibility, allowing SSH to be used for a variety of purposes beyond secure shell. The functionality of the transport layer alone is comparable to Transport Layer Security (TLS); the user authentication layer is highly extensible with custom authentication methods; and the connection layer provides the ability to multiplex many secondary sessions into a single SSH connection, a feature comparable to BEEP and not available in TLS.