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A democratic SSH certificate authority.

Operators of ssh-cert-authority want to use SSH certificates to provide fine-grained access control to servers they operate, enforce the 2-person rule, keep their certificate signing key a secret and not need to be required to get involved to actually sign certificates. A tall order.

The idea here is that a user wishing to access a server runs ssh-cert-authority request and specifies a few parameters for the cert request like how long he/she wants it to be valid for. This is POSTed to the ssh-cert-authority runserver daemon which validates that the certificate request was signed by a valid user (configured on the daemon side) before storing a little state and returning a certificate id to the requester.

The requester then convinces one or more of his or her authorized friends (which users are authorized and the number required is configured on the daemon side) to run the ssh-cert-authority sign command specifying the request id. The signer is allowed to see the parameters of the certificate before deciding whether or not to actually sign the cert request. The signed certificate is again POSTed back to the server where the signature is validated.

Note that a requester may not sign their own request. If a +1 is received for a request by the same key as the one in the request then the signing request is rejected.

Once enough valid signatures are received the cert request is automatically signed using the signing key for the cert authority and made available for download by the requester using the request id.

None of the code here ever sees or even attempts to look at secrets. All signing operations are performed by ssh-agent running on respective local machines. In order to bootstrap the signing daemon you must ssh-add the signing key. In order to request a cert or sign someone's cert request the user must have the key used for signing loaded up in ssh-agent. Secrets are really hard to keep, we'll leave them in the memory space of ssh-agent.


In general the authors of this project believe that SSH access to hosts running in production is a sometimes-necessary evil. We prefer systems that are capable of resolving faults by themselves and that are always fault tolerant. However, when things go wrong or when tools for managing the system without SSH have not been built we recognize that getting on the box is often the only option remaining to attempt to restore service.

SSH access to hosts in dynamic datacenters like those afforded by Amazon Web Services and Google Compute poses its own challenges. Instances may be spun up or torn down at any time. Typically organizations do one of two things to facilitate SSH access to instances:

  • Generate an SSH keypair and share it amongst anyone that may need to access production systems
  • Put everyone's public key into an authorized_keys file (perhaps baked into an AMI, perhaps via cloudinit)

In security conscience environments organizations may have built a tool that automates the process of adding and removing public keys from an authorized_keys file.

None of these options are great. The first two options do not meet the security requirements of the author's employer. Sharing secrets is simply unacceptable and it means that an ex-employee now has access to systems that he or she shouldn't have access to until the key can be rotated out of use.

Managing a large authorized_keys file is a problem because it isn't limited to the exact set of people that require access to nodes right now.

As part of our ISO 27001 certification we are additionally required to:

  • Automatically revoke access to systems when engineers no longer need access to them.
  • Audit who accessed which host when and what they did

SSH certificates solve these problems and more.

An OpenSSH certificate is able to encode a set of permissions of the form (see also the CERTIFICATES section of ssh-keygen(1)):

  • Which user may use this certificate
  • The user id of the user
  • When access to servers may begin
  • When access to servers expires
  • Whether or not the user may open a PTY, do port forwarding or SSH agent forwarding.
  • Which servers may be accessed

The certificate is signed by some trusted authority (an SSH private key) and machines within the environment are told to trust any certificate signed by that authority. This is very, very similar to how trust works for TLS certificates on your favorite websites.

A piece of trivia is that SSH certificates are not X.509 certs, they're instead more along the lines of a tag-length-value encoding of a C struct.

Using OpenSSH Certificates

This section describes using OpenSSH certificates manually, without the ssh-cert-authority tool.

To begin using OpenSSH certificates you first must generate an ssh key that will be kept secret and used as the certificate authority in your environment. This can be done with a command like:

ssh-keygen -f my_ssh_cert_authority

That command outputs two files:

my_ssh_cert_authority: The encrypted private key for your new authority The public key for your new authority.

Be sure you choose a passphrase when prompted so that the secret is stored encrypted. Other options to ssh-keygen are permitted including both key type and key parameters. For example, you might choose to use ECDSA keys instead of RSA.

Grab the fingerprint of your new CA:

$ ssh-keygen -l -f my_ssh_cert_authority
2048 2b:a1:16:84:79:0a:2e:38:84:6f:32:96:ab:d4:af:5d (RSA)

Now that you have a certificate authority you'll need to tell the hosts in your environment to trust this authority. This is done very similar to user SSH keys by setting up the authorized_keys on your hosts (the expectation is that you're setting this up at launch time via cloudinit or perhaps baking the change into an OS image or other form of snapshot).

You have a choice of putting this authorized_keys file into $HOME/.ssh/authorized_keys or the change can be made system wide. For system wide configuration see sshd_config(5) and the TrustedUserCAKeys option.

If you are modifying the user's authorized_keys file simply add a new line to authorized_keys of the form:

cert-authority <paste the single line from>

A valid line might look like this for an RSA key:

cert-authority ssh-rsa AAAAB3NzaC1yc2EAAAADAQABAAAAYQC6Shl5kUuTGqkSc8D2vP2kls2GoB/eGlgIb0BnM/zsIsbw5cWsPournZN2IwnwMhCFLT/56CzT9ZzVfn26hxn86KMpg76NcfP5Gnd66dsXHhiMXnBeS9r6KPQeqzVInwE=

At this point your host has been configured to accept a certificate signed by your authority's private key. Let's generate a certificate for ourselves that permits us to login as the user ubuntu and that is valid for the next hour (This assumes that our personal public SSH key is stored at ~/.ssh/

ssh-keygen -V +1h -s my_ssh_cert_authority -I bvanzant -n ubuntu ~/.ssh/

The output of that command is the file ~/.ssh/ If you open it it's just a base64 encoded blob. However, we can ask ssh-keygen to show us the contents:

$ ssh-keygen -L -f ~/.ssh/
    Type: user certificate
    Public key: RSA-CERT f6:e3:42:5e:72:85:ce:26:e8:45:1f:79:2d:dc:0d:52
    Signing CA: RSA 4c:c6:1e:31:ed:7b:7c:33:ff:7d:51:9e:59:da:68:f5
    Key ID: "bvz-test"
    Serial: 0
    Valid: from 2015-04-13T06:48:00 to 2015-04-13T07:49:13
    Critical Options: (none)

Let's use the certificate now:

# Add the key into our ssh-agent (this will find and add the certificate as well)
ssh-add ~/.ssh/id_rsa
# And SSH to a host
ssh ubuntu@<the host where you modified authorized_keys>

If the steps above were followed carefully you're now SSHed to the remote host. Fancy?

At this point if you look in /var/log/auth.log (Ubuntu) (/var/log/secure on Red Hat based systems) you'll see that the user ubuntu logged in to this machine. This isn't very useful data. If you change the sshd_config on your servers to include LogLevel VERBOSE you'll see that the certificate key id is also logged when a user logs in via certificate. This allows you to map that user bvanzant logged into the host using username ubuntu. This will make your auditors happy.

You're now an SSH cert signer. The problem, however, is that you probably don't want to be the signer. Signing certificates is not fun. And it's really not fun at 3:00AM when someone on the team needs to access a host for a production outage and you were not that person. That person now has to wake you up to get a certificate signed. And you probably don't want that. And now you perhaps are ready to appreciate this project a bit more.

Setting up ssh-cert-authority

This section is going to build off of parts of the prior section. In particular it assumes that you have configured an SSH authority already and that you know how to configure servers to accept your certificates.

ssh-cert-authority is a single tool that has subcommands (the decision to do this mostly came from trying to follow Go's preferred way of building and distributing software). The subcommands are:

  • runserver
  • request
  • sign
  • get
  • encrypt-key
  • generate-config

As you might have guessed by now this means that a server needs to be running and serving the ssh-cert-authority service. Users that require SSH certificates will need to be able to access this service in order to request, sign and get certificates.

This tool was built with the idea that organizations have more than one environment with perhaps different requirements for obtaining and using certificates. For example, there might be a test environment, a staging environment and a production environment. Throughout the examples we assume a single environment named "production."

In all cases this tool relies heavily on ssh-agent. It is entirely feasible that ssh-agent could be replaced by any other process capable of signing a blob of data with a specified key including an HSM.

Many of the configuration files use SSH key fingerprints. To get a key's fingerprint you may run ssh-keygen -l -f <filename> or, if the key is already stored in your ssh-agent you can ssh-agent -l.

Setting up the daemon

ssh-cert-authority uses json for its configuration files. By default the daemon expects to find its configuration information in $HOME/.ssh_ca/sign_certd_config.json (you can change this with a command line argument). A valid config file for our production environment might be:

  "production": {
        "NumberSignersRequired": 1,
        "MaxCertLifetime": 86400,
        "SigningKeyFingerprint": "66:b5:be:e5:7e:09:3f:98:97:36:9b:64:ec:ea:3a:fe",
        "AuthorizedSigners": {
            "66:b5:be:e5:7e:09:3f:98:97:36:9b:64:ec:ea:3a:fe": "bvz"
        "AuthorizedUsers": {
            "1c:fd:36:27:db:48:3f:ad:e2:fe:55:45:67:b1:47:99": "bvz"

Effectively the format is:

    "environment name": {
        AuthorizedSigners {
            <key fingerprint>: <key identity>
        AuthorizedUsers {
            <key fingerprint>: <key identity>
  • NumberSignersRequired: The number of people that must sign a request before the request is considered complete and signed by the authority. If this field is < 0 valid certificate requests will be automatically signed at request time. It is highly recommended that if auto signing is enabled a MaxCertLifetime be specified.

  • MaxCertLifetime: The maximum duration certificate, measured from Now() in seconds, that is permitted. The default is 0, meaning unlimited. A value of 86400 would mean that the server will reject requests for certificates that are valid for more than 1 day.

  • SigningKeyFingerprint: The fingerprint of the key that will be used to sign complete requests. This should be the fingerprint of your CA. When using this option you must, somehow, load the private key into the agent such that the daemon can use it.

  • PrivateKeyFile: A path to a private key file or a Google KMS key url.

    If you have specified a file system path the key may be unencrypted or have previousl been encrypted using Amazon's KMS. If the key was encrypted using KMS simply name it with a ".kms" extension and ssh-cert-authority will attempt to decrypt the key on startup. See the section on Encrypting a CA Key for help in using KMS to encrypt the key.

    If you specified a Google KMS key it should be of the form: gcpkms:///projects/<project-name>/locations/<region|global>/keyRings/<keyring name>/cryptoKeys/<keyname>/cryptoKeyVersions/<version-number>

  • KmsRegion: If sign_certd encounters a privatekey file with an extension of ".kms" it will attempt to decrypt it using KMS in the same region that the software is running in. It determines this using the local instance's metadata server. If you're not running ssh-cert-authority within AWS or if the key is in a different region you'll need to specify the region here as a string, e.g. us-west-2.

  • AuthorizedSigners: A hash keyed by key fingerprints and values of key ids. I recommend this be set to a username. It will appear in the resultant SSH certificate in the KeyId field as well in ssh-cert-authority log files. The AuthorizedSigners field is used to indicate which users are allowed to sign requests.

  • AuthorizedUsers: Same as AuthorizedSigners except that these are fingerprints of people allowed to submit requests.

  • CriticalOptions: A hash of critical options to be added to all certificate requests. By specifying these in your configuration file all cert requests to this environment will have these options embedded in them. You can use this option, for example, to restrict the IP addresses that are allowed to use a certificate or to force a user to only be able to run a single command. Those are the only two options supported by sshd right now. This document describes them in the section Critical options:

The same users and fingerprints may appear in both AuthorizedSigners and AuthorizedUsers.

You're now ready to start the daemon. I recommend putting this under the control of some sort of process monitor like upstart or supervisor or whatever suits your fancy.:

ssh-cert-authority runserver

Log messages go to stdout. When the server starts it prints its config file as well as the location of the $SSH_AUTH_SOCK that it found

If you are running this from within a process monitor getting a functioning ssh-agent may not be intuitive. I run it like this:

ssh-agent ssh-cert-authority runserver

This means that a new ssh-agent is used exclusively for the server. And that means that every time the service starts (or restarts) you must manually add your signing keys to the agent via ssh-add. To help with this the server prints the socket it's using:

2015/04/12 16:05:05 Using SSH agent at /private/tmp/

You can take that value and add in your keys like so:

SSH_AUTH_SOCK=/private/tmp/ ssh-add path-to-ca-key

Once the server is up and running it is bound to on port 8080.

Running behind a reverse proxy (e.g. nginx)

If you're running behind a reverse proxy, which this project recommends, you will want to set one additional command line argument, reverse-proxy. You can instead set the environment variable SSH_CERT_AUTHORITY_PROXY=true if that is more your style. Setting this flag to true instructs the daemon to trust the X-Forwarded-For header that nginx will set and to use that IP address in log messages. Know that you must not set this value to true if you are not running behind a proxy as this allows a malicious user to control the value of the IP address that is put into your log files.

Command Line Flags

  • config-file: The path to a config.json file. Used to override the default of $HOME/.ssh_ca/sign_certd_config.json
  • listen-address: Controls the bind address of the daemon. By default we bind to localhost which means you will not be able to connect to the daemon from hosts other than this one without using a reverse proxy (e.g. nginx) in front of this daemon. A reverse proxy is the recommended method for running this service in production.
  • reverse-proxy: When specified the daemon will trust the X-Forwarded-For header as added to requests by your reverse proxy. This flag must not be set when you are not using a reverse proxy as it permits a malicious user to control the IP address that is written to log files.

Storing Your CA Signing Key in Google Cloud

Google Cloud KMS supports signing operations and ssh-cert-authority can use these keys to sign the SSH certificates it issues. If you do this you'll likely want to have your ssh-cert-authority running on an instance in GCP and configured with a service account that can use the key.

ssh-cert-authority has been tested with ecdsa keys from prime256v1 both software and hardware backed. Other key kinds and curves might work.

This example assumes you have a functioning gcloud already.

Setting up keys:

# First create a keyring to store keys
gcloud kms keyrings create ssh-cert-authority-demo --location us-central1

# Create keys on that keyring for dev and prod
gcloud alpha kms keys create --purpose asymmetric-signing --keyring ssh-cert-authority-demo \
  --location us-central1 --default-algorithm ec-sign-p256-sha256 dev
gcloud alpha kms keys create --purpose asymmetric-signing --keyring ssh-cert-authority-demo \
  --location us-central1 --default-algorithm ec-sign-p256-sha256 prod

# Create a service account for the system
gcloud iam service-accounts create ssh-cert-authority-demo

# If you're using a GCP instance you should launch your instance and specify
# that service account as the account for the instance. If you're running
# this on a local machine or an AWS instance or something you will need to
# explicitly get the service account key
gcloud iam service-accounts keys create ssh-cert-authority-demo-serviceaccount.json

# You need to set that key file in an environment variable now:
export GOOGLE_APPLICATION_CREDENTIALS=/path/to/ssh-cert-authority-demo-serviceaccount.json

# Give that service account permission to use our newly created keys:
gcloud kms keys add-iam-policy-binding  ssh-cert-authority-dev-hsm --location us-central1 \
    --keyring ssh-cert-authority-demo \
    --member \
    --role roles/cloudkms.signerVerifier

# Get the path to the keys we created:
gcloud kms keys list --location us-central1 --keyring ssh-cert-authority-demo

# That will print out the two keys we created earlier including the name of
# the key. The name of the key is a big path that begins with projects/. We
# need to copy this entire path into our sign_certd_config.json as the
# PrivateKeyFile for the environment. A minimal example showing only dev:

  "dev": {
      "NumberSignersRequired": -1,
      "MaxCertLifetime": 86400,
      "PrivateKeyFile": "gcpkms:///projects/YOUR_GOOGLE_PROJECT_ID/locations/us-central1/keyRings/ssh-cert-authority-demo/cryptoKeys/dev/cryptoKeyVersions/1",
      "AuthorizedSigners": {
          "a7:64:9e:35:5d:ae:c6:bd:79:f1:e3:c8:92:0b:9a:51": "bvz"
      "AuthorizedUsers": {
          "a7:64:9e:35:5d:ae:c6:bd:79:f1:e3:c8:92:0b:9a:51": "bvz"

Encrypting a CA Key Using Amazon's KMS

Amazon's KMS (Key Management Service) provides an encryption key management service that can be used to encrypt small chunks of arbitrary data (including other keys). This project supports using KMS to keep the CA key secure.

The recommended deployment is to launch ssh-cert-authority onto an EC2 instance that has an EC2 instance profile attached to it that allows it to use KMS to decrypt the CA key. A sample cloudformation stack is forthcoming to do all of this on your behalf.

Create Instance Profile

In the mean time you can set things up by hand. A sample EC2 instance profile access policy:

    "Statement": [
            "Resource": [
            "Action": [
            "Effect": "Allow"
    "Version": "2012-10-17"

Create KMS Key

Create a KMS key in the AWS IAM console. When specifying key usage allow the instance profile you created earlier to use the key. The key you create will have an id associated with it, it looks something like this:


Save that for the next step.

Launch Instance

Now launch an instance and use the EC2 instance profile. A t2 class instance is likely sufficient. Copy over the latest ssh-cert-authority binary (you can also use the container) and generate a new key for the CA using ssh-cert-authority. The nice thing here is that the key is never written anywhere unencrypted. It is generated within ssh-cert-authority, encrypted via KMS and then written to disk in encrypted form.

ssh-cert-authority encrypt-key --generate-rsa \
    --key-id arn:aws:kms:us-west-2:881577346222:key/d1401480-8220-4bb7-a1de-d03dfda44a13 \
    --output ca-key-${environment}.kms

The output of this is two files: ca-key-production.kms and The kms file should be referenced in the ssh cert authority config file, as documented elsewhere in this file, and the .pub file will be used within authorized_keys on servers you wish to SSH to.

--generate-rsa will generate a 4096 bit RSA key. --generate-ecdsa will generate a key from nist's p384 curve.

Requesting Certificates

See USAGE.rst in this directory.

Signing Requests

See USAGE.rst in this directory.

All in one basic happy test case:

go build && reqId=$(./ssh-cert-authority request --reason testing --environment test --quiet) && \
./ssh-cert-authority sign --environment test --cert-request-id $reqId && \
./ssh-cert-authority get --add-key=false --environment test $reqId`


An implementation of an SSH certificate authority.




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