How To Set Up SSH Keys

Tutorial Difficulty Level    

SSH keys provide a more secure way of logging into a virtual private server with SSH than using a password alone. While a password can eventually be cracked with a brute force attack, SSH keys are nearly impossible to decipher by brute force alone. Generating a key pair provides you with two long string of characters: a public and a private key. You can place the public key on any server, and then unlock it by connecting to it with a client that already has the private key. When the two match up, the system unlocks without the need for a password. You can increase security even more by protecting the private key with a passphrase.

Step One—Create the RSA Key Pair

The first step is to create the key pair on the client machine (there is a good chance that this will just be your computer):

Step Two—Store the Keys and Passphrase

Once you have entered the Gen Key command, you will get a few more questions:

You can press enter here, saving the file to the user home (in this case, my example user is called demo).

It’s up to you whether you want to use a passphrase. Entering a passphrase does have its benefits: the security of a key, no matter how encrypted, still depends on the fact that it is not visible to anyone else. Should a passphrase-protected private key fall into an unauthorized users possession, they will be unable to log in to its associated accounts until they figure out the passphrase, buying the hacked user some extra time. The only downside, of course, to having a passphrase, is then having to type it in each time you use the Key Pair.

The entire key generation process looks like this:

The public key is now located in /home/demo/.ssh/id_rsa.pub. The private key (identification) is now located in /home/demo/.ssh/id_rsa

Step Three—Copy the Public Key

Once the key pair is generated, it’s time to place the public key on the virtual server that we want to use.

You can copy the public key into the new machine’s authorized_keys file with the ssh-copy-id command. Make sure to replace the example username and IP address below.

Alternatively, you can paste in the keys using SSH:

No matter which command you chose, you should see something like:

Now you can go ahead and log into user@12.34.56.78 and you will not be prompted for a password. However, if you set a passphrase, you will be asked to enter the passphrase at that time (and whenever else you log in in the future).