It is safe to say that most developers in the web sphere have at some point encountered SSH. SSH is one of the most used protocols for safe data exchange. You use SSH for connecting to remote servers, which also includes managing your code using Git and syncing with remote repositories.
Even though it is considered a good practice to have one private-public key pair per device, sometimes you need to use multiple keys and/or you have unorthodox key names.
You might be using one SSH key-pair for working on your company’s internal projects but you might be using a different key for accessing some corporate client’s servers. You might even be using a different key for accessing your own private server.
Managing SSH keys can become cumbersome as soon as you need to use a second key. I hope this article will be of help to anyone who is having issues with SSH key management.
I assume the reader has basic knowledge of Git and SSH. Most examples throughout the article will be using Git. Of course, all of this will apply to any other SSH communication. That being said, there are some Git-specific tricks included.
Strap in, here we go!
Dealing with one SSH key
First, let us see what your workflow might look like before having multiple keys to worry about.
You have one private key stored in
~/.ssh/id_rsa with a corresponding public key
Let us imagine that you want to push/pull code changes to/from a remote Git server – say GitHub, why not. To do so, you first have to add your public key to GitHub.
I will not go over that step, it should be easy enough to find out how to do that. I have also assumed that your name is Steve and you are working on a top-secret project which uses Raspberry Pies to sniff network traffic.
To start your work, you have to clone a git repository using SSH:
git clone firstname.lastname@example.org:steve/raspberry-spy.git
At this moment GitHub will be like: “Yo, this a private repository! We need to encrypt traffic using this public key I have here and your private key.”
You have added the public key to your profile on GitHub, but SSH has to somehow figure out where your corresponding private key is located.
Since we have no clue which private key should be used when SSH-ing into
email@example.com, SSH client tries to find a key in default location, which is
~/.ssh/id_rsa - it’s his best guess. If there is no file in that location, you will get an error:
Cloning into 'raspberry-spy'... Permission denied (publickey). fatal: Could not read from remote repository. Please make sure you have the correct access rights and the repository exists.
If you have some private key stored in file
~/.ssh/id_rsa, SSH client will use that private key for communication encryption. If that key is passworded (as it should be), you will be prompted for a password, like so:
Enter passphrase for key '/Users/steve/.ssh/id_rsa':
If you enter the correct passphrase and if that private key indeed is the one which corresponds to the public key which you attached to your profile, all will go fine and the repository will be cloned successfully.
But what if you named your key differently (ex.
~/.ssh/_id_rsa)? SSH client will not be able to determine where the private key is stored. You will get the same
Permission denied ... error as before.
If you want to use a private key that you named differently, you have to add it manually:
After entering the passphrase you can check if the key was added to
ssh-agent (SSH client) by executing
ssh-add -l. This command will list all keys which are currently available to the SSH client.
If you try cloning the repository now, it will be successful.
So far, so good?
If you are keen-eyed, you might start noticing some potential issues.
Firstly, if you restart your computer,
ssh-agent will restart and you will have to add your not-default-named keys using
ssh-add all over again, typing passwords and all that tedious stuff.
Can we automate adding keys or somehow specify which key to use when accessing certain servers?
Can we somehow save passwords so we don’t have to type them in every time? If only there was something like a keychain for saving password-protected SSH keys 🤔.
Rest assured, there are answers to all those questions.
As it turns out, SSH configuration file is a thing, a thing which can help us out. It is a per-user configuration file for SSH communication. Create a new file:
~/.ssh/config and open it for editing.
Managing custom-named SSH keys
First thing we are going to solve using this
config file is avoid having to add custom-named SSH keys using
ssh-add. Assuming your SSH key is named
~/.ssh/_id_rsa, add following to the
Host github.com HostName github.com User git IdentityFile ~/.ssh/_id_rsa IdentitiesOnly yes
Now make sure that
~/.ssh/_id_rsa is not in
ssh-agent by executing
ssh-add -D. This command will remove all keys from currently active
ssh-agent session. The session gets reset every time you log out or reboot (or if you kill
ssh-agent process manually). We can “simulate” rebooting by executing the mentioned command.
If you try cloning your GitHub repository now, it will be the same as if we added the key manually (like we did before). You will be asked for password:
git clone firstname.lastname@example.org:steve/raspberry-spy.git Cloning into 'raspberry-spy'... Enter passphrase for key '/Users/steve/.ssh/_id_rsa':
You will have noticed that the key for whose password we are prompted for is the same key which we specified in our
config file. After entering the correct SSH key password, repository will be successfully cloned.
Note: if, after successful cloning, you try
git pull, you will be prompted for password again. We will solve that later.
It is important that
Host github.com from
github.com from URI
email@example.com:steve/raspberry-spy.git match. You can also change
config to be
Host mygithub and clone using URI
This opens the floodgates. As you are reding this, your mind is racing and thinking about how all your troubles with SSH keys are over. Here are some useful configuration examples:
Host bitbucket-corporate HostName bitbucket.org User git IdentityFile ~/.ssh/id_rsa_corp IdentitiesOnly yes
Now you can use
git clone git@bitbucket-corporate:company/project.git
Host bitbucket-personal HostName bitbucket.org User git IdentityFile ~/.ssh/id_rsa_personal IdentitiesOnly yes
Now you can use
git clone git@bitbucket-personal:steve/other-pi-project.git
Host myserver HostName ssh.steve.com Port 1111 IdentityFile ~/.ssh/id_rsa_personal IdentitiesOnly yes User steve IdentitiesOnly yes
Now you can SSH into your server using
ssh myserver. How cool is that? You do not need to enter port and username manually every time you execute
Bonus: Per-repository settings
You can also define which specific key should be used for certain repository, overriding anything in SSH
config. Specific SSH command can be defined by setting
[core] sshCommand = ssh -i ~/.ssh/id_rsa_corp
This is possible with git 2.10 or later. You can also use this command to avoid editing the file manually:
git config core.sshCommand 'ssh -i ~/.ssh/id_rsa_corp'
Last piece of the puzzle is managing passwords. We want to avoid having to enter password every time when SSH connection is initiating. To do so, we can utilize keychain management software that comes with MacOS and various Linux distributions.
Start by adding your key to the keychain by passing
-K option to the
ssh-add -K ~/.ssh/id_rsa_whatever
Now you can see your SSH key in the keychain. On MacOS it looks something like this:
If you remove the keys from
ssh-add -D (this will happen when you restart your computer, as mentioned before) and try SSH-ing, you will be prompted for password again. Why? We just added the the key to the keychain. If you check Keychain Access again, you will notice that the key you added using
ssh-add -K is still in the keychain. Weird, huh?
It turns out there is one more hoop to jump through. Open your SSH
config file and add the following:
Host * AddKeysToAgent yes UseKeychain yes
Now, SSH will look for key in keychain and if it finds it you will not be prompted for password. Key will also be added to
ssh-agent. On MacOS this will work on MacOS Sierra 10.12.2 or later. On Linux you can use something like
gnome-keyring and it might work even without this last modification to SSH
config. As for Windows - who knows, right?
I hope someone found this useful. Now go and configure your SSH