Secure Server login via SSH

Lukas Oppermann
4 min readJul 3, 2017


Disabling password login and disallowing login with the root user mitigates the risk of attackers compromising your server.

This article starts with the assumption that you have a clean installation of Ubuntu on your server. I am working on 16.04 but the steps should be similar for other versions. For other Linux distributions you might need to research the correct commands.

First login

If you did not add an ssh key via the GUI when creating the server, you will have either created a root password, or you will have gotten it via other means, like email with digital ocean. (Note that digital ocean will not send a password and automatically disabled password logins if you add an ssh key via the GUI.)

To log into your server use the ssh command replacing with your servers ip. (Passwords are never visible in the command line, so just type away.)

ssh root@ The authenticity of host ' (' can't be established. 
ECDSA key fingerprint is SHA256:mX1fCAc5cyf2bG7BZnBPhrrmIKANdBtWzk676MgqhSs.
Are you sure you want to continue connecting (yes/no)? yes Warning: Permanently added '' (ECDSA) to the list of known hosts. root@'s password: You are required to change your password immediately (root enforced)

You will be asked to add the server to your list of known hosts, confirm this by typing yes and hitting return.

Afterwards you must enter your root user password. You will mist likely be asked to change you password before continuing (at least if you got a random password via email).

Normally you will first need to enter your current password and afterwards enter a new password as well as confirm it by entering it again.

Changing password for root. 
(current) UNIX password:
Enter new UNIX password:
Retype new UNIX password:

Creating a sudo user

We still want to be able to log in and work on the server, so we need to create a new user with sudo privileges.

My user is named lukas, the --ingroup flag allows us to assign the user to one group (if you leave it out a group with the users name will be created). The --gecos flag allows us to assign details like a phone number. Since this is not interesting, we just provide an empty string "" to avoid answering all the questions.

You will be asked to enter a password and confirm it. Make sure it is a secure password and that you remember it. It will be needed to use the sudo command.

Before we move on, make sure it all worked.

$ su lukas 
$ sudo -v [sudo] password for lukas: Sorry, user lukas may not run sudo on veare.localdomain.

To disconnect from the server simply type exit and hit return.

Allow access via SSH

If you are using services like github you probably already have an ssh key on your computer. To see if and which keys you have, run the following command:

$ ls ~/.ssh/ authorized_keys config id_rsa known_hosts

The default private key is in id_rsa and the public key in I recommend using them because you will not have to specify which key to use when logging in.

Creating a new key pair

If you have no key pair yet, or want to create a new key pair you can use the ssh-keygen command. You will be asked where to store it. In the example below I am creating a pair named devserver_rsa. If you have no key pair yet, just hit return and stick to the default.

However if you do already have one, do not overwrite your old pair. Choose a different name for your new pair.

$ ssh-keygen -t rsa Generating public/private rsa key pair. 
Enter file in which to save the key (/Users/YOURUSERNAME/.ssh/id_rsa): /Users/YOURUSERNAME/.ssh/devserver_rsa
Enter passphrase (empty for no passphrase): Enter same passphrase again: Your identification has been saved in /Users/YOURUSERNAME/.ssh/devserver_rsa. Your public key has been saved in /Users/YOURUSERNAME/.ssh/devserver_rsa. The key fingerprint is: …

Transferring the key pair

We must copy the public key pair to the home directory of both our root and our sudo user ( lukas for me) on our server, to allow them to log using ssh. Make sure to replace with your servers ip.

In the examples below I am using the default public key, if you create one with a different name, replace with your name, e.g.

$ cat ~/.ssh/ | ssh root@ "mkdir -p ~/.ssh && cat >> ~/.ssh/authorized_keys" 
$ cat ~/.ssh/ | ssh lukas@ "mkdir -p ~/.ssh && cat >> ~/.ssh/authorized_keys"

I connect with both user simultaneously so that ~ refers to each users home directory. Alternatively you could just use root and copy the other users ssh key into /home/lukas.

Verifying the SSH login via ssh-key

You should now be able to login without using a password. To do so, simply run the ssh command again. Try this for both users.

$ ssh root@ 
$ exit
$ ssh lukas@
$ exit

Disabling Root-Login and login via password

Once you verified that login via ssh-key (without password) works, and you can use sudo with your new user, you should disable login using passwords as well as the root user login.

This is a security precaution. The ssh key is a secret that needs to be stolen from your computer while a password can be brute-forced or socially, which makes it less secure. Disabling it means only users with your ssh key can log into the server.

The root user has god-like powers on your server, which can pose quite a security risk as well as making it easy for you to break something on accident. Once logged in a root user can run sudo-like commands without a password, while a sudo user needs to enter the password (kind of 2-factor).

Originally published at on July 3, 2017.



Lukas Oppermann

Product designer with a love for complex problems & data. Everything I post on Medium is a copy — the originals are on my own website: