“SSH” stands for the Secure Shell. It is both an application and a protocol. A protocol is a standard or set of common codes that disparate developers can use in order to create compatible programs without directly collaborating; an application is an executable program that performs a function.
SSH was originally developed for the Unix operating system. A shell is a Command Line Interpreter (CLI) that provides the commands that users can type in on Unix computer. The original shell is the Bourne shell, which is abbreviated to “sh.” The “sh” naming convention was adopted by the producers of other shells: Korn shell is “ksh,” Almquist shell is “ash,” and Debian-Almquist shell is “dash,” for example. So, the abbreviation of “Secure Shell” follows a standard used for all shell types in its abbreviation “SSH.”
Secure Shell creates a command line environment with those commands executed on a remote computer, rather than on the computer that you are sitting at. This is a very similar operating procedure to FTP, the File Transfer Protocol.
As the SSH commands are executed on a remote computer, the user has to log into that remote device in order to fully use the Secure Shell. SSH was designed as a secure replacement of rsh and rlogin, which were standard Unix systems for remote access that had no security measures. Encryption of the connection was an integral part of SSH from its inception.
The original developer of SSH, Tatu Ylönen, set up a company, called SSH Communications Security in 1995. The standard was originally distributed as freeware, but the company gradually moved over to a commercial model and charged for a software implementation of the protocol. However, the framework for the protocol was already in circulation and so the developers of OpenBSD (a flavor of Unix) went back to a free version of SSH and created their own fork of it. At the same time, the Internet Engineering Task Force commissioned a protocol to be developed that codified and then adapted the original definition of SSH.
Thanks to the two parallel efforts to create free versions of SSH, there are now three types of the system. The original version is known as SSH1. The IETF protocol is referred to as SSH2. Anyone can use the IETF protocol, which is available for free, as a template to develop their own implementation of SSH. SSH1 and SSH2 are also sometimes written as SSH-1 and SSH-2.
The version of SSH that was created by the OpenBSD developers is known as OpenSSH. This is the basis for many SSH GUI programs that run in Windows-like environments. OpenSSH is now built into Windows as of Windows 10 version 1709. SSH is also now built into the operating systems of all Linux flavors, Mac OS, FreeBSD, NetBSD, OpenBSD, Solaris, and OpenVMS Unix.
SSH Communications Security now offers a paid-for SSH client, called SSH Tectia and hasn’t allowed access to its code since 1996. The SSH1 system, which is still in circulation dates back to 1995 and it hasn’t evolved since then. If you are offered a choice of SSH versions, you should opt for SSH2 or OpenSSH.
Uses for SSH
The primary use for SSH is as a safe way to connect to a remote server. This capability of SSH is actually becoming more important in the world of IT in recent years thanks to the rapid use of Cloud server space rental.
SSH2 and OpenSSH include secure file transfer utilities. The transfer of files across the internet has become a major purpose of the use of long-distance connections and so the lack of any security procedures in the widely-implemented FTP file transfer protocol makes the SSH file transfer system really important. The two types of secure transfer systems that you can use with SSH are SFTP, which stands for “SSH File Transfer Protocol” and SCP, which stands for “Secure Copy.”
Both SFTP and SCP will serve you well when you need to protect your server from attack and prevent snoopers from reading the contents of your files while they are in transit. Both of these utilities require user authentication and both encrypt data in transit. The security services are provided by SSH.
If you manage a WAN and need to log into remote servers and transfer files to and from them, then you will use SSH, SFTP, and SCP regularly. The difference between SCP and SFTP is that the first is just a copy command that can copy a file to or from a remote location. With SFTP, you also get a command language that enabled you to rename, create, move, or delete files on the remote server and also create and delete directories. You don’t get those abilities with SCP. However, as the basic SSH command language includes all of these functions, you could quite easily work well with a combination of SSH and SCP available to you.
VPNs are popular for getting past regional restrictions on websites. Regional restrictions are particularly prevalent on video streaming websites and they prevent people from getting access from overseas. Unfortunately, many governments oppose the use of VPNs and try to block them. You can protect your VPN traffic with SSH. In short, SSH offers a good way to protect any type of transaction that you want to perform over the internet.
How to Get SSH
SSH is probably built into your operating system. To check, open a terminal window and type ssh at the prompt. This is not the right way to use the utility because you are supposed to add parameters to the command. However, if SSH is available to you, the result of the command will be a response showing the structure of the command.
If you don’t have SSH on your Unix, Mac OS, or Linux system, you could install OpenSSH, which is now available for just about any operating system. If you want to install it on Windows, you also need to install Cygwin to emulate Unix on your computer. This includes SCP and SFTP. However, the interface is not so user-friendly and there are much better SSH servers available today.
Recommended SSH tools
There are a lot of very good SSH interfaces available on the market right now. These apps are a lot easier to use than the command line utility. So, if you don’t want to have to go to the command line to use SSH, or you just don’t have SSH in your operating system, you will find that one of these easy-to-use SSH systems will be the answer.
Here is our list of the best SSH tools:
ZOC is an option for you if you want to access remote computers securely with SSH from a Mac. The tool will run on Windows as well as on Mac OS. This utility combines a terminal emulator for direct access and SCP for file transfers. The tabbed interface enables you to access several open sessions and the Options screen gives you options over which terminal emulation standard you can use. ZOC is able to implement the TN3270, TN5250, VT220, Xterm, VT220, Wyse, and QNX terminal emulation standards.
Businesses have to pay for ZOC, but you can get it for free for home use.
This SSH facility runs on Android devices, so you can securely access remote computers as you travel around. This is a great tool for checking in with your work computer or your computer at home. The ability to securely access other computers gives you the opportunity to greatly expand your use of mobile devices with limited storage. This is also a good facility for BYOD policies and companies. This is because the SSH involvement imposes user authentication and the encryption used on connections makes up for the security weaknesses of external wifi systems.
Related: Ultimate guide to BYOD
JuiceSSH is particularly good for protecting all activities on your Android device, even those that execute automatically in the background. This feature was built specifically with Cloud syncing in mind, so you can access files on cloud servers and even work on copies offline when you are in areas that have no internet service. You can download and install JuiceSSH for free from Google Play.
If you want an SSH client for iOS, probably your best option would be Termius. This isn’t the only SSH client system available for iOS and probably not the best — Prompt 2 probably has that distinction. However, Termius is one of the very few SSH clients that you can use for free. This utility allows you to connect to your home computer or work even over public wifi networks because it includes full connection encryption and user authentication before you can access the remote computer.
The SSH client can connect to any other operating system. Termius also includes Mosh, which is an alternative secure connection system for iOS devices. Termius will cover syncing functions to cloud servers and it also includes an SFTP implementation to cover your file transfers. Termius is available for Windows, Linux, Mac OS, and Android. You can use the app for free on one device. That version doesn’t include SFTP or secure syncing, though. The paid version is very cheap and is paid for on a monthly subscription. That plan allows you to run the app on as many devices as you like, and it includes all of the Termius features.
SecPanel is a free SSH client for Linux Gnome environments. This tool offers a GUI interface that makes accessing a remote computer a much easier experience than using the Linux command line free tool. SecPanel doesn’t implement SSH; it is a front-end to access the native SSH version that is built into the Linux operating system. It uses the free OpenSSH system.
The SecPanel interface is uncomplicated and it doesn’t have the multiple connection tabbed format that other SSH utilities offer. However, the benefit of this is that the program has a very small footprint and doesn’t use much memory or CPU.
The SecPannel interface also gives you access to SCP and SFTP to give you secure file transfer capabilities.
This great terminal emulator is a good choice for those who need to gain access to remote computers regularly and need SSH security protection. The tool is a product of SolarWinds, which is one of the world’s leading producers of system administration tools. The Solar-PuTTY application installs on Windows environments and you can get it for free.
The terminal emulator window allows you to connect multiple sessions in the same interface. The console is tabbed, so you can switch from one session to another by clicking on a tab for each. The application is able to maintain connections to several different remote computers simultaneously.
The tool includes implementations of SCP and SFTP, so you can use it to transfer files to remote computers as well as access them. The attractive presentation of the application is easy on the eye and will help you automate your administration tasks by supporting script transfer and execution.
The commands available in SSH are very similar to the standard Unix commands. In fact, in most cases, they are exactly the same. If you are unfamiliar with working at the command line, you are more likely to access SSH through a Windows-like console. Most graphical interfaces for SSH offer point and click interpretations of the standard commands. However, SSH is available as a command line utility and even on Windows computers; you will need to use these Unix-like commands within the SSH environment. It is useful to have a list of SSH commands in order to get greater control over the tasks that you can perform on a remote computer with SSH.
SSH Command Cheat Sheet
ls: list files and folders in the current directory. Use ls -al to see attributes as well
cd: change directory. Use cd ~ to get to your home directory, cd – to go to the previous directory, cd .. to go to the parent directory
pwd: show the present directory name with its full path
touch: create a file, with the new filename as a parameter, e.g. touch afile.txt
rm: delete a file, e.g. rm afile.txt. Use a wildcard to delete several files at once, limited to deleting all matching files in the current directory, e.g. rm *.txt. You can delete files in a different directory as long as you have permissions for that folder, e.g. rm /usr/bigbob/note.txt. You can also use a wildcard to remove many files in a remote directory.
rm -rf: delete a directory and all of its contents, e.g. rm thatdir
mv: rename or move a file to a different directory. By default the source and target names should be in the current directory, but either could be in a different directory, e.g. mv afile.txt bfile.txt or mv /usr/bigbob/afile.txt /user/alicef/afile.txt
mkdir: create a new directory. The name of the new directory is given as a parameter, e.g. mkdir docs
cp: copy a file from filename1 to filename2 with a directory path optionally added to the front of either or both filename, e.g. cp afile.txt ../afolder/bfile.txt. The wildcard * can be used, but the second parameter should be a directory and not a new file name, e.g. cp *.txt archivedir
cp -R: copy all of the contents of a directory to another directory, e.g. cp -R firstdir otherdir
wc: word count reports on the number of words, lines, and characters in a file. Use the option -w to just get a count of words, -l for the number of lines, or -c for just a character count, e.g. wc afile.txt or wc -l afile.txt
cat: dump the contents of a file, with the file name as the parameter options, e.g. cat afile.txt. Include -n to put a sequence number on the front of each line, e.g. cat -n afile.txt. It is also possible to get the contents of one file after another shown on the screen, e.g. cat afile.txt bfile.txt
cat >: create a file and write to it. After the command, press Return and start typing. Everything you write will be saved to the new file, including carriage returns, until you press CTRL-D, e.g. cat > afile.txt
more: cat with a pause in it. The contents will be shown one screenful at a time. Press the spacebar to get the next section of the file; press q to exit before the end of the file, e.g. more afile.txt
head: show the first 20 lines of a file. The number of lines can be specified by an option, e.g. head afile.txt or head -50 afile.txt. Be careful to only use the command on files that contain plain text
tail: show the last 20 lines of a file or the number of lines specified in an option, e.g. tail afile.txt or tail -50 afile.txt. Use tail -f to get a live view of new files added to a file, e.g. tail -f afile.txt
du: disk usage. Use -sh to get the total disk usage of the current directory. Try -sh * to get the disk space used by each element in the directory, e.g. du or du -sh *.
file: names the file type. Can be used with a wildcard to get a list of all files in the current directory, e.g. file afile.txt or file *.
history: list the last 50 commands executed from that account. Use the -c option to clear the history, e.g. history -c
find: list all instances of files or directory that match a given criteria, e.g. find / -name “afile” finds all files on the computer with the name “afile,” find * -d lists all directory names on the computer.
last: shows recent logins to the computer with the username of each access. Use a number option to specify how many logins to show, add the -a option to see the hostname of each login, e.g. last -10 or last -10 -a
w: show all users currently logged in and where they logged in from.
netstat: shows all current network connections. Use -an option to see the source and destination ports or -rn to see the routing table of the IPs connected to the server, e.g. netstat -an or netstat -rn
top: shows live system processes. While the display is current, use Shift-M to order by memory usage or Shift-P to order by CPU usage.
ps: process status. This shows currently-running processes and their process identifiers (PIDs). Use option U to list all live processes for a given user, e.g. ps U bigbob. Use aux option to see all system processes, optionally in a hierarchy if the – forest option is added, e.g. ps aux or ps aux – forest.
kill: stop a system process. You can add a “signal,” to make the order stronger. There are several options for this parameter, but the strongest is 9. You need to give the PID of the process that you want to kill and you can get that by running ps or top, e.g. kill 492 or kill -9 492, where 492 is the PID of the process that you want to terminate.
grep: identifies a text string in a file or files, e.g. grep aword /usr/bigbob/*.txt. Use -v option to show all lines in a file that don’t contain the pattern, e.g. grep aword afile.txt.
vi: a very well known text editor that was originally written for Unix. Entering the command opens up an environment that includes its own command language.
nano: a simple editor with its own environment.
pico: another text editor.
As with any networking facility, SSH doesn’t always work out of the box. There are settings on other equipment and software running on your network that can interfere with the performance of SSH or even block it. So, you may need to troubleshoot connection failures and delays.
The clarity of information that you get from error messages greatly assists in getting to the root cause of the problem. However, some applications are not built to assist end users and subsequently, their developers don’t think it’s a valid use of their time to add clarity to error reporting. Unfortunately, SSH is one such application.
The most generalized error message that you are likely to face with SSH is “Connection Refused.” Faced with this blank wall, you are going to have to investigate all of the settings of your network and the server that you are trying to connect to in order to get SSH working.
The SSH client should report back with a more meaningful error message. However, the software you use might not be the most comprehensive implementation of the protocol.
Below is a list of the most common errors and their solutions. If you get the “Connection Refused” message, you need to assume that your client is reporting this general error message because the developers didn’t implement more precise error messages. In that case, test to see if the error is caused by one of these more specific problems. Here are the error messages that you are most likely to encounter:
- Access Denied
- Authentication Refused
- Warning: Remote host identification has changed
- Port 22: Connection refused
- Network error: Software caused connection abort
- Network error: Connection reset by peer
- Network error: Connection timed out
The first three errors relate to your account on the server that you are trying to connect to. The first solution to the problem of “Access Denied” or “Authentication Refused” is to make sure you didn’t make spelling mistakes when entering the username and password. Other reasons for these authentication errors relate to the account. The system administrator might have canceled your account, or changed the password for you. So, if you are sure that you haven’t made a typo, contact the administrator of the remote server to check on the status of your account.
“Remote host identification has changed” refers to the SSL security certificate of the server. Note that the message doesn’t say that the certificate is invalid. If you run the remote host, you will know whether the certificate has been changed. If you are trying to connect to someone else’s computer, check with the administrator if the host has a new security certificate. If it does, just accept the error message and allow connections to continue. It is worth verifying the certificate change rather than just accepting the warning blindly because this message is there to alert you to a possible “man in the middle” attack.
The remaining four error messages in the above list all relate to some point of failure between the SSH app on your computer and the remote server, which means that you need to look at every hardware and software element that provides the connection.
“Port 22: Connection refused” is a catch-all error message that expands only slightly on the straight-forward “Connection Refused” message that some clients display. Basically, you are going to have to check everything in order to find the cause of this error.
The three “Network error” messages give you more to work on. In all of these cases either your computer or the remote host timed out and closed the connection, or there was an interruption in the internet service. If the connection dropped because of errors on the line, then there isn’t much you can do about the problem other than just reconnect.
A timeout is more likely to be caused by inactivity on the connection. Look for a “keepalive” option in your SSH interface to prevent this problem from occurring. The message “Write failed: broken pipe” is also a timeout issue. The good news about these errors is that they don’t signify a serious problem. You just need to connect again.
For the “connection refused” problems check for errors in the following areas:
IP address conflict: run arping, arp -a, or arp-scan to search for duplicate addresses.
Firewall block: list SSH as a permitted application in your firewall policy and/or allow traffic to port 22.
Server unavailable: check that the remote host is actually live either by connecting to it through a different application or by contacting the server administrator.
Server port error: the SSH daemon on the server may be experiencing problems; try to connect to port 22 on the server through the SSH server connectivity test site.
SSH port error: use netstat to make sure that sshd is functioning and listening on port 22. If it is listening on any other port, kill the process and check the port settings in your SSH interface.
SSH daemon error: if the daemon isn’t working, shut down your SSH application and open it again. If the SSH daemon still isn’t running, reinstall your SSH applications.
If none of the above quick solutions work, you need to examine whether just the traffic from your SSH application is being blocked or whether there is a general network error. This could either be on your own network or on the internet connection from your computer to the server that you want to contact.
Once you have chosen an SSH implementation, you will need to become familiar with the way that interface works. Many SSH application producers build in a few extras to give their product a distinction in the marketplace. You may find that it is these extra features that make you grow dependent on that one SSH interface and lose interest in continuing your search through all the available products.
Look out for free applications and free trials of paid SSH servers so that you can try out a few options before you settle on one specific server. Do you have a favorite SSH application? Leave a message in the Comments section below to share your experiences.