Checking a server’s SSH host fingerprint with the web console

Before you dismiss that error message about your server’s SSH host key changing, follow this simple procedure to make sure all is as it should be.
Explaining the host key

Explaining the host key

One of the fundamentals of SSH is that it uses a "fingerprint" generated using a server's unique "host key" to identify the server to a client. You may have seen a warning sometime related to the host fingerprint, either that it can't be verified or that it has changed.

The host key is randomly generated when the SSH server is set up and is used to identify the server you're connecting to. Warnings about it are more than just a devilish developer's effort to inconvenience users (though it's difficult to rule that motivation out entirely).

No, the host key is actually central to the security provided by SSH when you make a connection to your server. If someone malicious tries to set up a program to intercept your connection and steal your login credentials - a "man in the middle" attack - then the only warning you'll get is your SSH client complaining that the host key has changed.

Why the host key might change

The more innocent explanations for a changed host key include recompiling or upgrading SSH, rebuilding the server, or just using a different address to get to the same host. When your system stores the host key it records it by address, so even if "localhost" and "127.0.0.1" point to the same server an SSH client will treat them as entirely different entries.

Thus, sometimes that message is expected. But even an expected warning doesn't mean that there couldn't be a man-in-the-middle attack in progress. It sounds a little paranoid, but that's good security for you - anything can happen, at any time, and the more you do to rule out any variables the better.

So let's look at when and how to check the host fingerprint without using an SSH connection. We'll do it by going in through the server's web console.

A dire warning

First we’ll look at the error message that probably brought you to this article, a warning that the host’s identification has changed:

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@
@    WARNING: REMOTE HOST IDENTIFICATION HAS CHANGED!     @
@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@
IT IS POSSIBLE THAT SOMEONE IS DOING SOMETHING NASTY!      
Someone could be eavesdropping on you right now (man-in-the-middle attack)!
It is also possible that the RSA host key has just been changed.           
The fingerprint for the RSA key sent by the remote host is                 
xx:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx.                           
Please contact your system administrator.
Add correct host key in /home/demo/.ssh/known_hosts to get rid of this message.
Offending key in /home/demo/.ssh/known_hosts:15                                
RSA host key for 1.2.3.4 has changed and you have requested strict checking.
Host key verification failed.

The warning can be summed up as: The fingerprint that identifies the SSH server is different from what it was the last time you connected to it. Expected or not, you'll want to check on that.

How to check

If you have your server's SSH fingerprint written down somewhere you can compare it to what SSH shows you to make sure you're connecting to the right machine. Most of us don't write that down, but it's a pretty good idea to do so if you connect from multiple machines or from unfamiliar computers (like from a consulting client's desktop or server).

If you don't have the host fingerprint handy you can use the control panel's web console to find it.

The web console

The web console lets you connect to your server as if you were, well, sitting at the console. If anything weird is going on with SSH it won't interfere with you connecting directly to the console through the SliceManager.

In the SliceManager

First connect to the SliceManager:

https://manage.slicehost.com/

In the list of slices click on the one you want to check. Look for the "Console" option at the top of the details screen:

 

Once you get into the web console hit "enter" a couple times and you should get a login prompt. Log in with an existing username and password.

If you don't have a username and password to use (if you've disabled passwords for all accounts, for example) you can use the SliceManager to reset your slice's root password. Then you can use the new credentials to get in.

In the console

Now that you're on the server it's time to get that host key fingerprint.

The best way

The official way to get that fingerprint is to run the "ssh-keygen" command against the server's public key, as in:

ssh-keygen -l -f /etc/ssh/ssh_host_rsa_key.pub

The "-l" option tells ssh-keygen you want to list the fingerprint, and the "-f /etc/ssh_host_rsa_key.pub" part tells ssh-keygen where it can find the host's public key file. That location is typical for Linux servers, but you may need to poke around a bit to find the file if it's not in that default location.

The output should be reminiscent of the fingerprint your SSH client showed you earlier:

2048 xx:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx /etc/ssh/ssh_host_rsa_key.pub (RSA)

The first number indicates the strength of the key (in this case, 2048 bits). The fingerprint follows, along with the location of the key it analyzed and the type of key it's using (usually RSA).

The not-best way

This isn't a bad method to getting the fingerprint, it's just not as technical and fancy as the official way. It also only works when the SSH server is actively running on the machine. It's handy if you can't find the host's public key file easily.

To get the fingerprint this way, get into the web console and then ssh to localhost:

ssh localhost

If you've never completed an ssh connection to localhost before (you probably haven't) you'll see a warning:

The authenticity of host 'localhost (::1)' can't be established.
RSA key fingerprint is xx:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx.
Are you sure you want to continue connecting (yes/no)?

And there's the fingerprint you wanted.

If you didn't get that message then you've completed an ssh connection to localhost before. To clear the stored key go into your account's ".ssh" directory:

cd ~/.ssh

And then edit the "known_hosts" file. Look for a line that starts with "localhost", delete it, save the file, and try again. You should get the fingerprint this time.

Write it down

Write the fingerprint down or put it in a note on your cell phone or something. You went to all this trouble to get the key, you might as make sure you have it handy in case you need to do this again.

Completing the connection - maybe

Now that we have the host key fingerprint in-hand we can see if the SSH connection is a good one.

First-time connection

If your client was connecting to the server for the first time and you were just confirming the host key before accepting it, you're set. Compare the fingerprint you dug up with what the client is showing you and if they match, accept the key.

If they don't match then don't complete the connection. If you're on a public wi-fi network (like at a coffee shop or a hotel) then disconnect from it and find someplace else to connect from - the interference may have been local, so moving may get the jerk out of your hair. Otherwise it might be a good time to get in touch with our support staff and they can help you figure out your options.

Host key has changed

If the warning you got was that the fingerprint didn't match what the client was expecting then you'll need to edit your client's list of known hosts before you can connect.

Linux and Mac OS X

On Linux, Mac OS X, and other Unix-based operating systems you usually use the "ssh" command to connect to a server via SSH. That should mean there's a directory named ".ssh" in your home directory. Inside that will be the "known_hosts" file that contains the known SSH host keys.

So basically, the file should be at:

~/.ssh/known_hosts

Sometimes you may see a "known_hosts2" file in place of or in addition to "known_hosts". If both are there then "known_hosts2" is usually the file being used when you make a connection.

Once you have the file identified, open it for editing and look for a line that starts with your server's address. It could be the IP address or the domain name, so look for whichever one you use when you're connecting via SSH.

If you were using the IP address to connect to the server at 1.2.3.4 it would look something like:

1.2.3.4 ssh-rsa AAAAB3NzaC1yc2EAAAABIwGAAQEA2Km5iIlopDndzSTbiaQZq8ynh8RPrvzBJ7dICnvAZWuH/YeNO+9DPnngzsOiYazwRD/CRSGEGRY6tS3GLclFO3Ae370aafbcq...

Once you find the line listing the key for your server you can delete the line and save the edited file. The next time you make a connection it will be as if you'd never connected to the server before. Remember to check the host fingerprint again before completing the connection!

Windows and PuTTY

There are a variety of SSH clients that can be used on Windows, but we'll talk about the free and widely-used PuTTY terminal program. If you use another program check your user documentation to find out where the client stores its known host keys.

PuTTY stores its host keys in the Windows registry. That means that before you continue with this you'll want to be sure you're comfortable editing your registry. If you don't have Administrator rights on your workstation then you might need to ask an admin to make this change for you.

To find the known host keys go to the Windows menu, then in the "search" or "run" box enter:

regedit

The registry is arranged as a hierarchy of a whole bunch of folders. The one you want to navigate to is:

HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\SimonTatham\PuTTY\SshHostKeys

And in there, you'll find one or more entries with names like:

rsa2@22:1.2.3.4

That key entry would be for an RSA version 2 encrypted key at port 22, address "1.2.3.4". With that format in mind, look for the one for the address you're connecting to.

Once you find the entry for your server right-click it and select "Delete" from the contextual menu. You'll get a warning that editing the registry can cause problems, are you sure you want to do this? Go ahead and do it. Experience the thrill of registry editing!

Well, maybe that's just me. Moving on.

Exit the registry editor and try your SSH connection again. You should get a warning that the server's host key is unknown and it will show the fingerprint again.

Double-check against the fingerprint you pulled up in the web console, and if it matches, accept the key.

Summary

It took a little poking around, but now you should have your server's host key fingerprint handy in case you need to check it again. At the least, you know how to bring it up some other time.

You might consider making a habit of recording the host key fingerprints of servers when you create them. That way you'll always have a reference handy if you need to check the fingerprint again. It's a little inconvenience at the outset in return for a pretty comforting security check you can run through easily when you connect from a new machine.

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