SSH Keys

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Parent page: SSH

What are SSH keys?

SSH relies on public key cryptography (PK) for its security.

PK is based on a "keypair", which consists of a private part, to be kept secret, and a public part, which can be distributed freely. Anyone can use the public key to encode a message, but the message can only be decoded with the private part. This is why PK is sometimes described as "asymmetric encryption".

PK can also be used to verify identities: if someone is claiming to be Alice, then a second party, Bob, can send Alice a message encoded with Alice's public key. If the person claiming to be Alice can tell Bob what is in the message, then that person has access to Alice's private key. In this sense, possession of a private key establishes identity.

PK systems are the basis for the SSL and TLS protocols that protect most internet traffic, such as HTTPS websites.

On our systems, PK is used in SSH several ways:

  • When connecting to our systems, your SSH client normally uses our system's public key to ensure that it has connected to the real (authentic) server.
  • PK is used to establish an encrypted session so that all following traffic is secure from eavesdropping.
  • The remote server can use your public key to verify your identity - that is, to allow you to log in.

We strongly recommend using PK to connect to our systems. Using PK is almost always more secure than using a password.

Generating an SSH Key

Using PK requires some initial configuration, but once this is done it is both more secure and more convenient. To use PK, you must generate a key pair and install the public key on any systems you intend to connect with.

You should ideally generate a key pair on your own system, or a system you believe to be secure. The private part of the key pair should never be shared or copied on another computer, as is the case with any password.

When generating a key pair, you will be prompted for a "passphrase". This is a string that is used to encrypt the private key. You should provide a strong passphrase that is memorable, and is not a password. This passphrase offers protection if the private key file is stolen.

The specific process to generate an SSH key pair depends on the operating system you use. For the Windows PuTTY or MobaXterm clients, see Generating SSH keys in Windows. For a Unix-like environment (Linux, Mac, Windows Subsystem for Linux or Cygwin), see Using SSH keys in Linux. In addition if you are using the cloud, OpenStack provides a method for creating keypairs: See the ssh key pair section on the Cloud Quick Start page.

Installing your key

Using CCDB

To install the key, you must make the target/destination system aware of the public part of your key. In March 2021, we added a convenient way to do this. You should visit:

Or via the CCDB menu:

This page will allow you to paste in the public key. Since both the public and private keys are plain text, you can examine them - for instance,

cat .ssh/

which should show something like this (a very long single line):

ssh-rsa AAAAB3NzaC1yc2EAAAADAQABAAACAQC3qeojDkUShnPTq9pI3cCZe+jgD6RKA/6CPsJIWZ8MqbX6wkk6
OfJUwHSNqUc6SfIt7w== user@machine

You can then paste this public portion of your key into the CCBD form. You should also provide a description for this key so you can keep track of them.

After clicking "Add Key" your SSH key will show up in the section below.

Once your public key is loaded into CCDB this way, you can use it to login to any of our clusters. However, our OpenStack cloud systems cannot access the keys entered in the CCDB.

Sometimes, you may encounter a key that is in an alternate format. For instance, this is a public key in PEM format:


Public keys in RFC4716 or PKCS8 formats will look similar to PEM, with small variations in the header and footer lines.

Using the authorized_keys file

The CCDB method described above makes your public key available on all Compute Canada HPC systems. This is convenient, and is often desired.

However, there may be circumstances in which you want to install a key only on a specific system. You can do this by adding the key to a file in your home directory on that system. For instance, to install a key that only works on Cedar, copy your public key into the file ~/.ssh/authorized_keys on Cedar. This will allow you to log in to any of Cedar's login nodes using PK. On our systems (or any other with OpenSSH) the ssh-copy-id command is the most convenient way to do this:

 ssh-copy-id -i computecanada-key 

The authorized_keys mechanism is standard, and almost universally used on the internet. It is however somewhat fragile: Specifically, SSH is quite picky about the permissions on the authorized_keys file, as well as your home directory and the .ssh subdirectory. This is described further in using SSH keys in Linux.

Using a key agent

Although it's important to secure your private key by encrypting it with the passphrase, it is inconvenient to have to enter your passphrase every time you use the key. Rather than leaving the private key unencrypted, we strongly suggest using an SSH key agent. You type the passphrase when starting up the agent, after which the agent supplies the private key for new connections. This avoids storing the unencrypted private key on permanent storage, where it is more vulnerable to being stolen or copied.

Options for key generation

When you generate a key the default settings are usually sufficient. However, here are a few options which may be of interest. We demonstrate these options here using ssh-keygen as described in Using SSH keys in Linux, but the same options are available if you are using a graphical interface as described in Generating SSH keys in Windows.

  • You can specify a comment for the key, which may be helpful if you have multiple keys:
ssh-keygen -C 'computecanada systems'
  • You can choose the name of the key file:
ssh-keygen -F computecanada-key

This produces a file "computecanada-key" containing the private part, and "" for the public part.

  • There are sometimes reasons to choose a different key type (rather than the RSA default):
ssh-keygen -t ed25519
  • You can strengthen certain key types, such as RSA, by setting a longer key length:
ssh-keygen -t rsa -b 4096

SSH key constraints

The public key syntax permits you to provide a number of very useful constraints that limit what the key is allowed to do. By default, a public key installed without constraints can do anything. For instance, this public key:

 restrict,command="squeue --me" ssh-ed25519 AAAAC3NzaC1lZDI1NTE5AAAAIGhczaUoV6SzR2VEf9Rp4/P9xHVU8S72CKHrwKU+Yntx

can only perform one simple operation (showing whether you have any jobs in Slurm). An interesting example is:

 restrict,command="/usr/libexec/openssh/sftp-server" ssh-ed25519 AAAAC3NzaC1lZDI1NTE5AAAAIGhczaUoV6SzR2VEf9Rp4/P9xHVU8S72CKHrwKU+Yntx

which allows the key to be used only for SFTP, which is how sshfs works.

The key constraint can also limit which hosts can connect using the key:

 restrict,from="" ssh-ed25519 AAAAC3NzaC1lZDI1NTE5AAAAIGhczaUoV6SzR2VEf9Rp4/P9xHVU8S72CKHrwKU+Yntx

Limiting by hosts is a powerful way to minimize the danger posed by a key being compromised. In this case, the "restrict" keyword turns off "pty allocation", which makes an interactive session behave peculiarly. For a source-constrained interactive session:

 restrict,from="",pty ssh-ed25519 AAAAC3NzaC1lZDI1NTE5AAAAIGhczaUoV6SzR2VEf9Rp4/P9xHVU8S72CKHrwKU+Yntx

allows pty allocation.

There are a large number of these key constraints, which are documented in the sshd man page ("man sshd" on a linux system).

Best practices for key pairs

  • Always encrypt your private key with a passphrase.
  • Do not copy your private key to a remote system.
  • Use ssh-agent to make encrypted keys convenient.
  • If you use agent forwarding, use ssh-askpass too.
  • Apply constraints to your public key to limit its scope.

Here are some links to short videos on setting up SSH keys:

Compute Canada Data Base