I’ve started writing a replacement for SSH.

Why? Because SSH has some drawbacks that sometimes annoy me. I also wanted an authentication scheme that’s more similar to SSL/TLS than what SSH does.

With tlssh you don’t specify username or password, you simply connect to the server using a client-side certificate to log in as the user specified in the certificate. No interaction until you reach the shell prompt on the server.

Of course you can log in using a public key with SSH, but it’s only a public/private key pair, there’s none of the PKI that SSL has.

Specifically, what I was missing in SSH was:

  • Expiring keys, both login-keys and server certificates
  • CRLs. (Certificate Revocation Lists) - wouldn’t it be nice to just revoke the all certificates that were on a compromised machine and they’ll suddenly be unusable everywhere? (I will add OCSP too. Same thing but more “online”)
  • Pureness. Not all these channels and port forwarding features that complicate everything (and adds bugs).
  • TCP MD5. I doubt SSH will ever get this. (temporarily disabled in tlssh)
  • CA-signed server certificate. Use Verisign-signed certificates (if you trust them) and you’ll have none of that “confirm server fingerprint” stuff.
  • Will get some client-side features that I’ve missed in SSH. Like “take a file from the local filesystem as send it as if I typed it”, to avoid having to scp 5 times because you have to transfer a file hop-by-hop. The OpenSSH folks rejected my patch for this.

It’s built on OpenSSL, so as long as there aren’t any bugs in the X.509 parsing in OpenSSL I should be fine. Unfortunately X.509 is a horrible mess of a format so this is not impossible. Activating TCP MD5 before SSL negotiation should lessen the risk, but still.

To log in to a server you create a certificate with CommonName bob.users.example.com, and get it signed by the CA the server trusts. The server will split this CommonName into the user part and the domain part. The domain part must match what the server is expecting. If everything is fine (and the certificate is not in the CRL, and the CRL is not too old), you are presented with a shell as the user mentioned in the user part of the certificate.

To log in as a different user you have to create a second certificate.

Another reason I’m writing tlssh is to learn OpenSSL. The OpenSSL API is horrible, as it turned out.

It’s also fun to code system level stuff, creating terminals and such. You learn that OpenBSD doesn’t seem to care about POSIX or other standards. When some library call is acting funny you can often google your way to some top OpenBSD-developer saying “who cares about POSIX? That was a stupid question” when someone notices the non-compliance. They still don’t have wordexp() for example.


  • Not as portable as OpenSSH. Currently works on Linux, OpenBSD and Solaris.
  • Not as audited (I wholeheartedly invite more eyes, and code too)
  • Because it needs a CA to sign certificates, it’s not initially as plug-and-play as SSH.
  • Like I said X.509 is horrible. Hopefully OpenSSL parses it perfectly, but you never know.