The OpenSSH Protocol under the Hood

The nitty-gritty details as to what OpenSSH is and why it is ubiquitous.
Description of Each Component

Let's take a look at the OpenSSH family before we proceed.

Figure 4. Stars in the OpenSSH Galaxy

As you can see in Figure 4, there are many executables and players in the grand scheme of things. However, the interplay is not a complex one. Everything I discussed above is actually implemented by SSH and sshd components (client and server, respectively). The other components are used rarely for key generation, agent forwarding and so on.

sftp-server is the subsystem for SSH. This is an FTP-like protocol, but it is highly secure and efficient, unlike the broken FTP protocol.

scp is a marvelously popular and convenient file transfer mechanism built on top of the SSH infrastructure. Because integrity protection is built in to the SSH wire protocol, file integrity is guaranteed. However, it does not have a resume feature for broken transfers, so you have to use it with rsync to get that facility.

Security Analysis and Attacks

Now, let's look at the kind of attacks and threat models SSH helps us guard against.

One of the most critical components of any cryptographic protocol is the quality of the random number generator. Because computers are deterministic devices, obtaining truly random data is a challenge. Common sources of entropy include disk access, keyboard and mouse input, process lifetimes and so forth. An incredibly large number of traditional UNIX programs have relied on the gettimeofday(2) system call. SSH also uses sound mechanisms to check the randomness of the pool of data.

One interesting attack specific to SSH is using control character sequences to terminate sessions and interfere with pty interactions, so we have to filter out suspicious character sequences.

The most critical and, unfortunately, the weakest point of SSH is server/host authentication. Reality and typical user negligence proves that we just say yes whenever a new host key is added to our trusted list. Efforts are underway to make this more secure and easier. If this is not ensured, different types of man-in-the-middle attacks are possible.

Girish Venkatachalam is a cryptographer with nearly a decade of experience working on various modern UNIX systems. He has developed IPSec from scratch on the Nucleus OS for a router and worked with the guts of Apache, OpenSSL and SSH. He can be reached at