14.3.3. Creating SSH CA Certificate Signing Keys

Two types of certificates are required, host certificates and user certificates. It is considered better to have two separate keys for signing the two certificates, for example ca_user_key and ca_host_key, however it is possible to use just one CA key to sign both certificates. It is also easier to follow the procedures if separate keys are used, so the examples that follow will use separate keys.
The basic format of the command to sign user's public key to create a user certificate is as follows:
ssh-keygen -s ca_user_key -I certificate_ID id_rsa.pub
Where -s indicates the private key used to sign the certificate, -I indicates an identity string, the certificate_ID, which can be any alpha numeric value. It is stored as a zero terminated string in the certificate. The certificate_ID is logged whenever the certificate is used for identification and it is also used when revoking a certificate. Having a long value would make logs hard to read, therefore using the host name for host certificates and the user name for user certificates is a safe choice.
To sign a host's public key to create a host certificate, add the -h option:
ssh-keygen -s ca_host_key -I certificate_ID -h ssh_host_rsa_key.pub
Host keys are generated on the system by default, to list the keys, enter a command as follows:
~]# ls -l /etc/ssh/ssh_host*
-rw-------. 1 root root  668 Jul  9  2014 /etc/ssh/ssh_host_dsa_key
-rw-r--r--. 1 root root  590 Jul  9  2014 /etc/ssh/ssh_host_dsa_key.pub
-rw-------. 1 root root  963 Jul  9  2014 /etc/ssh/ssh_host_key
-rw-r--r--. 1 root root  627 Jul  9  2014 /etc/ssh/ssh_host_key.pub
-rw-------. 1 root root 1671 Jul  9  2014 /etc/ssh/ssh_host_rsa_key
-rw-r--r--. 1 root root  382 Jul  9  2014 /etc/ssh/ssh_host_rsa_key.pub

Important

It is recommended to create and store CA keys in a safe place just as with any other private key. In these examples the root user will be used. In a real production environment using an offline computer with an administrative user account is recommended. For guidance on key lengths see NIST Special Publication 800-131A.

Procedure 14.1. Generating SSH CA Certificate Signing Keys

  1. On the server designated to be the CA, generate two keys for use in signing certificates. These are the keys that all other hosts need to trust. Choose suitable names, for example ca_user_key and ca_host_key. To generate the user certificate signing key, enter the following command as root:
    ~]# ssh-keygen -t rsa -f ~/.ssh/ca_user_key
    Generating public/private rsa key pair.
    Created directory '/root/.ssh'.
    Enter passphrase (empty for no passphrase):
    Enter same passphrase again:
    Your identification has been saved in /root/.ssh/ca_user_key.
    Your public key has been saved in /root/.ssh/ca_user_key.pub.
    The key fingerprint is:
    11:14:2f:32:fd:5d:f5:e4:7a:5a:d6:b6:a0:62:c9:1f root@host_name.example.com
    The key's randomart image is:
    +--[ RSA 2048]----+
    |       .+.      o|
    |       . o     +.|
    |      o + .   . o|
    |       o + . . ..|
    |        S . ... *|
    |        . . . .*.|
    |         = E  .. |
    |        . o .    |
    |           .     |
    +-----------------+
    Generate a host certificate signing key, ca_host_key, as follows:
    ~]# ssh-keygen -t rsa -f ~/.ssh/ca_host_key
    Generating public/private rsa key pair.
    Enter passphrase (empty for no passphrase):
    Enter same passphrase again:
    Your identification has been saved in /root/.ssh/ca_host_key.
    Your public key has been saved in /root/.ssh/ca_host_key.pub.
    The key fingerprint is:
    e4:d5:d1:4f:6b:fd:a2:e3:4e:5a:73:52:91:0b:b7:7a root@host_name.example.com
    The key's randomart image is:
    +--[ RSA 2048]----+
    |            ..   |
    |           . ....|
    |        . . o +oo|
    |       o .   o *o|
    |        S     = .|
    |             o. .|
    |            *.E. |
    |           +o=   |
    |          .oo.   |
    +-----------------+
    If required, confirm the permissions are correct:
    ~]# ls -la ~/.ssh
    total 40
    drwxrwxrwx. 2 root root 4096 May 22 13:18 .
    dr-xr-x---. 3 root root 4096 May  8 08:34 ..
    -rw-------. 1 root root 1743 May 22 13:15 ca_host_key
    -rw-r--r--. 1 root root  420 May 22 13:15 ca_host_key.pub
    -rw-------. 1 root root 1743 May 22 13:14 ca_user_key
    -rw-r--r--. 1 root root  420 May 22 13:14 ca_user_key.pub
    -rw-r--r--. 1 root root  854 May  8 05:55 known_hosts
    -r--------. 1 root root 1671 May  6 17:13 ssh_host_rsa
    -rw-r--r--. 1 root root 1370 May  7 14:30 ssh_host_rsa-cert.pub
    -rw-------. 1 root root  420 May  6 17:13 ssh_host_rsa.pub
  2. Create the CA server's own host certificate by signing the server's host public key together with an identification string such as the host name, the CA server's fully qualified domain name (FQDN) but without the trailing ., and a validity period. The command takes the following form:
    ssh-keygen -s ~/.ssh/ca_host_key -I certificate_ID -h -Z host_name.example.com -V -start:+end /etc/ssh/ssh_host_rsa.pub
    The -Z option restricts this certificate to a specific host within the domain. The -V option is for adding a validity period; this is highly recommend. Where the validity period is intended to be one year, fifty two weeks, consider the need for time to change the certificates and any holiday periods around the time of certificate expiry.
    For example:
    ~]# ssh-keygen -s ~/.ssh/ca_host_key -I host_name -h -Z host_name.example.com -V -1w:+54w5d /etc/ssh/ssh_host_rsa.pub
    Enter passphrase:
    Signed host key /root/.ssh/ssh_host_rsa-cert.pub: id "host_name" serial 0 for host_name.example.com valid from 2015-05-15T13:52:29 to 2016-06-08T13:52:29