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What is SSH Access?

If you need to frequently access remote systems through unsecure networks, you will most likely want to find a host that supports the Secure Shell (SSH) protocol.

SSH is an encryption protocol for networks created to allow secure connections across unsecured networks and initiate text-based shell sessions on remote machines. It allows the user to run commands on remote computers securely, using a secure channel over an unsecure network. Essentially this is what it’s all about – the protocol enables a secure channel over an insecure network.

SSH was developed in 1995 by a Finnish student following a security breach. Although SSH was originally developed for Linux and other Unix-derived environments, it also operates on other platforms. It uses public key cryptography, but manual keys can be employed as well. The protocol relies on one private key and one or more public keys used on the server and client.

SSH use cases

SSH is commonly used in to log into and communicate with remote machines. However, in addition to pure shell functionality, it also enables users to use tunnelling, X11 connections, and TCP port forwarding. SSH can also be employed to for secure file transfers, using secure copy (SCP) or SSH file transfer (SFTP) protocols.

SSH is commonly used to log into remote servers, execute server commands or authenticate virtual private network (VPN) users. There are a number of different niches that may benefit from SSH, as it can be used to restrict remote access to servers or to provide users with encrypted, high-security browsing through a proxy connection.

SSH can complement or replace Telnet, rsh, rlogin and other standards in the remote host role. It can also be employed to set up 'passwordless' login to remote servers and enable secure file transfers. By using public/private key logins, it is possible to eliminate the need for passwords on remote sites, since attackers will be unable to impersonate you without your private key, which is unfeasible to calculate due to the immense number of possible permutations.

SSH is also becoming increasingly relevant in cloud computing, as it helps address a number of security issues inherent to decentralised cloud platforms.

Never ending security arms race

The first versions of SSH are now obsolete and cannot provide much security. Their vulnerabilities were exposed and patched up, resulting in new, more secure versions.

Versions 1.x though 2.x are vulnerable to attack and are no longer in widespread use. The latest SSH versions are considered secure and SSH-2 is becoming the industry standard.

While it was originally designed for Linux, SSH is available on most operating systems, including Apple's OS X, OpenBSD, FreeBSD, NetBSD, Solaris, OpenVMS and of course most GNU/Linux distributions.

Microsoft platforms do not offer SSH support by default, but support can be added though third-party software.

TCP port 22 has been assigned for use by SSH servers. In case you are looking to improve security, it is possible to change the default port to nonstandard port, provided this is technically feasible. This involves a bit of tinkering, but also offers additional security through obscurity.

There is simply no way of making your server 100% secure regardless of what you do, but using the latest SSH standards and tweaked nonstandard configurations should help enhance your security and reduce the number of attack vectors.

Secure Shell hosting considerations

Since Secure Shell access is quite popular on Linux servers, most hosts tend to offer it and pricing is competitive. SSH access support may be bundled with various LAMP hosting packages, in which case you can get it for next to nothing, or literally nothing.

Major hosts tend to offer SSH access by default, both on shared and dedicated plans. Resellers may be required to pay a one-time SSH deployment charge for newly activated accounts. Dedicated server and VPS customers typically get SSH root access, allowing them more freedom.

As far as Microsoft environments go, the process could be a bit trickier. To use SSH on Windows you need to use WinSCP, PuTTY or a similar solution, then manually set up your IP address and SSH port. Dozens of SSH clients and servers are available, either as free or commercial services, so you may want to do some research before choosing which one is right for you.

Many developers require Microsoft development tools such as .NET, but at the same time they need SSH. Although native support is lacking, most hosts offer SSH functionality with their Microsoft packages, so there is nothing to worry about - you should be able to find a plan that meets your requirements with relative ease.

How much programming experience do I need to utilize SSH hosting?

Not any more than you would require to access your hosting environment through a non-SSH connection. Secure Shell Hosting (SSH) helps encrypt information sent over two unsecure connections to prevent data breaches while information is in transit. While you may be required to login via FTP with some specific settings, specific programming knowledge is not required to connect to a remote server via SSH.

In order to effectively use SSH, you really won’t need to be any more experienced with programming than you would be if you are using an unsecure connection. In fact, because SSH uses public and private key logins, the need for remote server passwords may be eliminated altogether. An SSH connection can actually make things easier for connecting to a remote server if configured correctly.

SSH Access Hosting Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is public key cryptography?

    Public key cryptography is a class of cryptographic protocols that require two separate keys to verify a person or computer’s digital identity. What this means is, when you encrypt information to send to another user or computer, you utilize a private key that is only known to your computer, along with a public key. You then send the encrypted information to the other computer, along with the public key. You do not send your private key. Instead, the destination computer uses the public key you provided, along with its own private key, to unencrypt the information.

  • Is SSH only offered by SSH Communications Security?

    No. The founder of SSH Communications Security, Tatu Ylönen, developed the first version of SSH as freeware. While later versions developed by SSH Communications Security became more proprietary, OpenSSH also developed based on the original SSH. Other open source implementations also evolved, and the SSH-2 protocol standards were later established. These versions of SSH remain open source, and OpenSSH is now the most popular SSH implementation in the world.

  • If I use a third-party SSH application for Windows, am I getting the same protection?

    Yes. The third-party solutions available for Windows servers utilize the same protocols as other SSH solutions, including the most popular, OpenSSH. Third-party programs, such as PuTTY, will use a different key file format, but tools are available to translate these to the more common format of OpenSSH if this presents a problem.

  • Can SSH be used for file transfers?

    Yes. In fact, a number of file transfer protocols have been developed using SSH, including Secure Copy (SCP), rsync, and SSH File Transfer Protocol (SFTP).

  • What sort of data can be secured using Secure Shell?

    While the primary use for Secure Shell is to log in to remote machines and send commands across computer networks, it can be used to transfer any type of data. Because it’s a protocol, it can be used to develop any type of application or even another protocol. For examples, SSH File Transfer Protocol was built upon FTP to provide a much higher level of security when uploading and downloading files from a server.

  • Do all browsers support Secure Shell?

    All modern browsers support Secure Shell. SSH is used by millions of websites across the world and has become a standard security feature. Unless you’re running an early version of Netscape Navigator, you should have no problem accessing sites that utilize SSH.

  • Is SSH an open-source protocol?

    Yes and no. SSH-2 protocol is an open source protocol, however, the implementations of that vary. The version of SSH provide by SSH Communications Security contains proprietary components, so much of it is not open source. However, several open source versions of SSH exist, the best known being OpenSSH.

  • If I’m using an open source SSH client, does that make it less secure?

    No, because the code is not what provides the security. The use of the public and private keys provide the security. Having access to the source code for a Secure Shell client will not provide data thieves with the ability to interpret your private key.

  • Are there other public key encryption protocols available?

    There are a number of other public key encryption protocols, some of which provide alternatives to SSH while many of them have specialized functions and can work alongside SSH. One of the most popular public key encryption protocols is Secure Socket Layer (SSL), which is widely used to secure data and verify authenticity over computer networks. SSL is best known for providing secure web traffic, which can be verified by the lock image in your browser’s address bar. Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) is commonly used to sign, encrypt, and decrypt information contained in email communications. Other examples include S/MIME, ZRTP, SILC, and even bitcoin.

  • Where can I get support for SSH?

    Support is typically provided specific to the implementation you’re using. For instance, OpenSSH provides a number of FAQs, manuals, and community support via a mailing list. SSH Communications Security provides several levels of technical support, most for a fee. Your first stop should be your host. Find out if they have support available and check what implementation they’re providing.

  • Is Secure Shell available on mobile platforms?

    Yes. A number of programs exist to bring SSH protocols to mobile devices, including pTerm for iOS and ConnectBot for Android. However, if you just want to access an SSH-secured server using your mobile phone, you don’t need to worry about applications like this. Your browser should have no problem communicating with the SSH server.

  • How do I install an SSH client?

    One is probably already provided through your hosting plan. If not, or if you want to utilize a different SSH client, you can usually download a copy from their website. If you decide to install SSH manually, be sure to check with your host to make sure it is compatible.

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