Paranoid Penguin - Secured Remote Desktop/Application Sessions

Run graphical applications from afar, securely.
Virtual Network Computing (VNC)

Now that I've shown you the preferred way to run remote X Window System applications, let's discuss how to control an entire remote desktop. In the Linux/UNIX world, the most popular tool for this is Virtual Network Computing, or VNC.

Originally a project of the Olivetti Research Laboratory (which was subsequently acquired by Oracle and then AT&T before being shut down), VNC uses a protocol called Remote Frame Buffer (RFB). The original creators of VNC now maintain the application suite RealVNC, which is available in free and commercial versions, but TightVNC, UltraVNC and GNOME's vino VNC server and vinagre VNC client also are popular.

VNC's strengths are its simplicity, ubiquity and portability—it runs on many different operating systems. Because it runs over a single TCP port (usually TCP 5900), it's also firewall-friendly and easy to tunnel.

Its security, however, is somewhat problematic. VNC authentication uses a DES-based transaction that, if eavesdropped-on, is vulnerable to optimized brute-force (password-guessing) attacks. This vulnerability is exacerbated by the fact that many versions of VNC support only eight-character passwords.

Furthermore, VNC session data usually is transmitted unencrypted. Only a couple flavors of VNC support TLS encryption of RFB streams, and it isn't clear how securely TLS has been implemented even in those. Thus, an attacker using a trivially hacked VNC client may be able to reconstruct and view eavesdropped VNC streams.

Luckily, as it operates over a single TCP port, VNC is easy to tunnel through SSH, through Virtual Private Network (VPN) sessions and through TLS/SSL wrappers, such as stunnel. Let's look at a simple VNC-over-SSH example.

Tunneling VNC over SSH

To tunnel VNC over SSH, your remote system must be running an SSH dæmon (sshd) and a VNC server application. Your local system must have an SSH client (ssh) and a VNC client application.

Our example remote system, remotebox, already is running sshd. Suppose it also has vino, which is also known as the GNOME Remote Desktop Preferences applet (on Ubuntu systems, it's located in the System menu's Preferences section). First, presumably from remotebox's local console, you need to open that applet and enable remote desktop sharing. Figure 2 shows vino's General settings.

Figure 2. General Settings in GNOME Remote Desktop Preferences (vino)

If you want to view only this system's remote desktop without controlling it, uncheck Allow other users to control your desktop. If you don't want to have to confirm remote connections explicitly (for example, because you want to connect to this system when it's unattended), you can uncheck the Ask you for confirmation box. Any time you leave yourself logged in to an unattended system, be sure to use a password-protected screensaver!

vino is limited in this way. Because vino is loaded only after you log in, you can use it only to connect to a fully logged-in GNOME session in progress—not, for example, to a gdm (GNOME login) prompt. Unlike vino, other versions of VNC can be invoked as needed from xinetd or inetd. That technique is out of the scope of this article, but see Resources for a link to a how-to for doing so in Ubuntu, or simply Google the string “vnc xinetd”.

Continuing with our vino example, don't close that Remote Desktop Preferences applet yet. Be sure to check the Require the user to enter this password box and to select a difficult-to-guess password. Remember, vino runs in an already-logged-in desktop session, so unless you set a password here, you'll run the risk of allowing completely unauthenticated sessions (depending on whether a password-protected screensaver is running).

If your remote system will be run logged in but unattended, you probably will want to uncheck Ask you for confirmation. Again, don't forget that locked screensaver.

We're not done setting up vino on remotebox yet. Figure 3 shows the Advanced Settings tab.

Figure 3. Advanced Settings in GNOME Remote Desktop Preferences (vino)

Several advanced settings are particularly noteworthy. First, you should check Only allow local connections, after which remote connections still will be possible, but only via a port-forwarder like SSH or stunnel. Second, you may want to set a custom TCP port for vino to listen on via the Use an alternative port option. In this example, I've chosen 20226. This is an instance of useful security-through-obscurity; if our other (more meaningful) security controls fail, at least we won't be running VNC on the obvious default port.

Also, you should check the box next to Lock screen on disconnect, but you probably should not check Require encryption, as SSH will provide our session encryption, and adding redundant (and not-necessarily-known-good) encryption will only increase vino's already-significant latency. If you think there's only a moderate level of risk of eavesdropping in the environment in which you want to use vino—for example, on a small, private, local-area network inaccessible from the Internet—vino's TLS implementation may be good enough for you. In that case, you may opt to check the Require encryption box and skip the SSH tunneling.

(If any of you know more about TLS in vino than I was able to divine from the Internet, please write in. During my research for this article, I found no documentation or on-line discussions of vino's TLS design details whatsoever—beyond people commenting that the soundness of TLS in vino is unknown.)

This month, I seem to be offering you more “opt-out” opportunities in my examples than usual. Perhaps I'm becoming less dogmatic with age. Regardless, let's assume you've followed my advice to forego vino's encryption in favor of SSH.

At this point, you're done with the server-side settings. You won't have to change those again. If you restart your GNOME session on remotebox, vino will restart as well, with the options you just set. The following steps, however, are necessary each time you want to initiate a VNC/SSH session.

On mylaptop (the system from which you want to connect to remotebox), open a terminal window, and type this command:

mick@mylaptop:~$ ssh -L 20226:remotebox:20226 admin-slave@remotebox

OpenSSH's -L option sets up a local port-forwarder. In this example, connections to mylaptop's TCP port 20226 will be forwarded to the same port on remotebox. The syntax for this option is “-L [localport]:[remote IP or hostname]:[remoteport]”. You can use any available local TCP port you like (higher than 1024, unless you're running SSH as root), but the remote port must correspond to the alternative port you set vino to listen on (20226 in our example), or if you didn't set an alternative port, it should be VNC's default of 5900.

That's it for the SSH session. You'll be prompted for a password and then given a bash prompt on remotebox. But, you won't need it except to enter exit when your VNC session is finished. It's time to fire up your VNC client.

vino's companion client, vinagre (also known as the GNOME Remote Desktop Viewer) is good enough for our purposes here. On Ubuntu systems, it's located in the Applications menu in the Internet section. In Figure 4, I've opened the Remote Desktop Viewer and clicked the Connect button. As you can see, rather than remotebox, I've entered localhost as the hostname. I've also entered port number 20226.

Figure 4. Using vinagre to Connect to an SSH-Forwarded Local Port

When I click the Connect button, vinagre connects to mylaptop's local TCP port 20226, which actually is being listened on by my local SSH process. SSH forwards this connection attempt through its encrypted connection to TCP 20226 on remotebox, which is being listened on by remotebox's vino process.

At this point, I'm prompted for remotebox's vino password (shown in Figure 2). On successful authentication, I'll have full access to my active desktop session on remotebox.

To end the session, I close the Remote Desktop Viewer's session, and then enter exit in my SSH session to remotebox—that's all there is to it.

This technique is easy to adapt to other versions of VNC servers and clients, and probably also to other versions of SSH—there are commercial alternatives to OpenSSH, including Windows versions. I mentioned that VNC client applications are available for a wide variety of platforms; on any such platform, you can use this technique, so long as you also have an SSH client that supports port forwarding.



Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Problem with conection

Sherlock_Brett's picture

Thanks for this post, since it's what I needed. But I have a problem when I try the last step of the tutorial (I configured the rest exactly as described here): when I'm filling the fields as in Fig. 4 (with the same port), I receive this message (in Spanish, sorry): "Se cerró la conexión con el equipo «localhost:20226».", which means something like "Conection to localhost:20226 was closed." I don't know what can it be. Maybe the point is that I'm trying to conect Ubuntu 8.04 to 8.10 ¿? (BTW, I'm also using the "ufw" firewall and I opened 20226 ports in both computers, TCP and UDP)

Anyway, thank you in advance for any kind of help.

Free Dummies Books
Continuous Engineering


  • What continuous engineering is
  • How to continuously improve complex product designs
  • How to anticipate and respond to markets and clients
  • How to get the most out of your engineering resources

Get your free book now

Sponsored by IBM

Free Dummies Books
Service Virtualization

Learn to:

  • Define service virtualization
  • Select the most beneficial services to virtualize
  • Improve your traditional approach to testing
  • Deliver higher-quality software faster

Get your free book now

Sponsored by IBM