Make SSH do more

By Jon Lasser, LinuxWorld.com |  Operating Systems

Because Linux is a deep operating system, we often use a miniscule portion of a tool's features. I, for one, use awk primarily to isolate columns that cut can't find, though in fact awk is a full-fledged text-processing language. There's nothing wrong with that approach -- actually it's unavoidable -- but it benefits us to delve more deeply into the advantages a single program can offer.

Presumably you have already installed SSH and are using it to securely log in to remote systems. (If you aren't, please read Jay Beale's article "Stupid, Stupid Protocols: Telnet, FTP, rsh/rcp/rlogin" to see why you should -- see Resources.) However, most people simply connect via SSH, enter their passwords, and type away. They don't realize that SSH has advanced key-management features that allow them to avoid having to retype their passwords; that its port-forwarding options can secure other, normally insecure, packages; and that they can employ little tricks in SSH that would make their lives easier.

There's great confusion at present regarding SSH and the different versions of the software available. (See Resources for more information.) I recommend using the newest version of OpenSSH, 2.5.1p2. At the very least, use OpenSSH 2.3.0p1, as earlier versions had security holes. Several details that I will discuss do not apply to older versions of OpenSSH or to other implementations of the SSH protocol.

Keys to the kingdom

One major benefit of SSH, besides the obvious advantage of cryptographically secure connections, is that it allows you to log on to a server without ever having to type your password. You do have to type a password (only once -- but we'll get to that in a minute), but it doesn't have to be the password for your account on the server, and it will be the same password for every system to which you log in. That is possible through the magic of authentication via cryptographic keys.

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