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Protect your SSH servers using Tailscale

What is Secure Shell (SSH)?

The secure shell protocol, or SSH, has been around now for over 25 years. It was designed to securely connect to a server for remote access, directly running commands, or file transfers (using the scp or sftp applications). SSH is a replacement for telnet, rlogin, rcp, rsh and ftp, which were used to perform similar tasks. Those protocols are rarely used today even though some of them eventually added extensions for encryption. There are several open source SSH clients available today for virtually every operating system.

Today, it’s well known that unprotected data transfers over the public internet or open Wi-Fi networks are dangerous; transmissions can be intercepted or modified. The SSH protocol is a useful tool for addressing this problem by creating a secure remote access connection using encryption, but comes with some caveats.

Why use SSH?

If you need to remotely access a server or transfer files, SSH encrypts what you need to send over a public network. It’s based on a rigorously tested protocol, while being easy to use and highly configurable.

What can SSH do?

An SSH client is a local application that is used to connect to a remote computer, typically for secure logins as well as secure file transfers. This functionality is provided by the secure shell protocol, which is a cryptographic network protocol.

SSH also has VPN-like capabilities built into it: SSH supports port forwarding (the client can ask the remote SSH server to forward an outgoing connection), reverse port forwarding (the client can request that the remote SSH server forward an incoming connection), dynamic port forwarding (the client creates port forwarding connections on-demand using the SOCKS protocol) and tunnel device forwarding (the client and server can relay packets to each other, which when combined with additional configuration can act as a VPN).

SSH has some less frequently used features that are sometimes disabled as they can be security concerns: it can forward X11 connections (showing remote graphical applications on your client machine) and forward its authentication agent (which permits connecting to other SSH servers using the saved credentials from your client machine).

All of the SSH features can be used simultaneously, enabling the use of multiple sessions over one connection. If a new session is desired (and the ssh client supports that feature), then it can attach to an existing connection without needing to re-authenticate, which can be very convenient.

How can I use SSH clients securely?

To use SSH securely, users first need to verify the host key of the server they’re trying to reach. If the host key is not checked, there is no proof that the user is connecting to the server that they expected. The SSH server then needs to verify either the user’s password or authentication key. If the SSH server only accepts connections from a private network (either because the server is behind a NAT router or to improve security), the user also needs to connect through another server connected to both the public Internet and the private network, usually known as a SSH bastion but sometimes called a SSH jump host, or SSH jump box.

Used alone, following SSH best practices can be difficult: host keys are often left unchecked, user keys and passwords are rarely rotated, and connecting through a SSH bastion can be inconvenient. Tailscale can help mitigate the first two issues and avoid the last issue entirely.

How can I run SSH servers securely?

Although you can permit SSH connections from the public Internet, any public SSH server will be subject to automated and possibly targeted attacks. The automated login attempts often begin within minutes: there are many compromised servers that are constantly scanning the public Internet for SSH servers with easily guessed usernames and passwords. The greatest risk comes from weak passwords, which is why the modern best practice is to disable passwords entirely.

There is also a smaller risk of compromise through bugs in the SSH server software. Known bugs in older versions of SSH server software may allow unauthorized access, and there is always the risk of new bugs being discovered in up-to-date software. An administrator must ensure that the server is kept up-to-date.

While authentication keys are a stronger alternative to passwords, SSH doesn’t force users to ever rotate keys. In practice, almost no one does. Worse, SSH authentication private keys are often stored as normal files, making them easy to copy. This puts many SSH servers at risk, as the possibility of an authentication key being stolen increases over time as the server accumulates infrequently or never rotated authentication keys.

Authentication keys stored on a hardware token (such as those sold by Yubikey, Touch ID, smart cards, and other FIDO2 tokens) cannot be copied, which significantly reduces the risk of the authentication key being stolen: the token must be physically taken (making purely remote attacks difficult or impossible). Hardware tokens are an excellent choice when available, but it can be expensive to supply them to all employees and provisioning them is extra administrative overhead: each token generates its own authentication key and the tokens themselves can be misplaced, lost or stolen. The price of these tokens has dropped over time but their use is still unfortunately not ubiquitous.

Some SSH servers can authenticate sessions using certificates from a trusted private certificate authority. Certificates combine normal authentication keys with a signature from the certificate authority and an expiration time. The main difference from normal authentication keys is that the server only needs to store the certificate authority’s public key and trusts that users' authentication keys are acceptable if the certificate authority has issued a certificate. This solves the biggest usability issue of key rotation: updating the servers is no longer required. Additional security comes from automatically enforced key rotation because the certificates expire. A certificate authority can also sign SSH host keys, which addresses the problem of verifying the host key when a user connects, as long as the SSH client trusts the certificate authority.

Setting up the certificate authority infrastructure required to grant, revoke and manage certificates is quite complex and the certificate authority’s private key must be very well protected. Today, certificates for SSH are not commonly used outside of large enterprises.

A SSH bastion (sometimes called a SSH jumphost or SSH jumpbox) is used by some organizations or users as a gateway to a protected internal network. Users must connect to this bastion first before they can access the protected servers. The bastion typically has extra monitoring in place to detect intrusions. Unfortunately, bastions are often inconvenient, high-latency and cannot get at the root of the key rotation problem without additional administrative controls.

Advantages of using SSH with Tailscale

Tailscale works well with SSH clients and SSH servers, improving security and offering a better user experience.

Tailscale replaces the SSH bastion, reducing latency and avoiding bottlenecks

If you have a global footprint, your traffic might have to traverse a long distance to pass through the bastion before reaching the SSH server, adding significant latency and sometimes limiting throughput as well. Alternatively, you can operate multiple bastions, which adds complexity.

Tailscale removes the need for a bastion entirely by keeping SSH servers on a private mesh network that has peer-to-peer connections and end-to-end encryption. Not only is SSH more secure this way, it’s also typically faster than using a bastion.

Automatic key rotation for the private network

While Tailscale does not manage your SSH authentication keys, it does manage access to the private network that permits access to the SSH servers. The Tailscale client rotates its keys according to a configurable time interval.

If a client device is lost or stolen, the device can be immediately deleted from the admin console. If not deleted from the admin console, then when the device’s key expires, it can no longer access the Tailscale network. In either case, the device loses access until an authorized user successfully logs back into the Tailscale client. Multi-factor authentication is required during login if enabled in your SSO configuration, providing additional security.

Verify connections and users

Normally upon first connection to an SSH server you are shown the SSH host key and you are expected to verify that the key is correct (most SSH clients save the host key after the first connection). If the key is not correct, that is an indication that your connection was intercepted by some other server.

Tailscale’s server distributes public Tailscale key information to all of the Tailscale clients and ensures that if you successfully connect to a Tailscale IP address, you are connected to the correct device, not an imposter. Therefore although it is still best practice to verify the SSH host key, you can be assured that the connection is not being intercepted.

Tailscale also helps the SSH server verify the identity of the user connecting to it. When a Tailscale IP address appears in the server’s logs, an administrator can later look up which user that IP address belongs to. For maximum security, the SSH server can be configured to restrict which IP addresses a username can connect from. Since the Tailscale IP address of a user’s device remains fixed unless it is deleted from the Tailscale network, this can be used as additional proof of the user’s identity.

Only authorized users can connect to the SSH server

Normally when using SSH, anyone on a public or private network can try to connect to the SSH server. Using SSH with Tailscale, only people who are part of your network and authorized by your network’s ACLs can connect to the SSH server. By removing SSH access from the public Internet, the risk posed by automated scanning attacks (or random users trying to connect to your SSH server) is eliminated because there is nothing for them to connect to.

Tailscale ACLs ensure that only authorized users have access to connect to the SSH server. By explicitly stating which users are allowed to access the SSH server, it is significantly more difficult to be compromised by a stolen authentication key or weak password (however this is not a substitute for managing authentication keys and passwords).

Smoothly switch between networks

The Tailscale client is able to detect network changes and can switch which network connection it uses to reach other Tailscale clients without affecting the applications using the Tailscale network. In other words, if you switch between Ethernet and Wi-Fi, between Wi-Fi networks, or between Wi-Fi and a cellular network, then if your SSH client is connected through Tailscale, it may pause briefly but will stay connected (assuming that the network switch occurs reasonably quickly).

Future plans for SSH with Tailscale

Because Tailscale securely authenticates users and their devices, we believe that SSH can be made even easier to use in the future, while maintaining security best practices. Stay tuned!

Getting started with SSH over Tailscale

Tailscale is a zero-configuration VPN that installs on any device in minutes, manages firewall rules for you, and works from anywhere.

To get started:

Step 1: Install and activate Tailscale on the SSH server

Tailscale is available for essentially any modern Linux distribution, though the installation instructions may vary slightly.

For more sophisticated access controls, consult our ACL documentation. If desired, configure the SSH server with an ACL tag.

Step 2: Install and activate Tailscale on the client machine

Step 3: Connect to the SSH server using Tailscale

On the SSH server, look up its Tailscale IP using tailscale ip. Assuming that your account name is username and the IP address is 100.101.102.103:

If MagicDNS is enabled on your Tailscale network, simply connect to the SSH server’s hostname. For example, for a server named myserver: ssh [email protected]

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