SSHv2 internals

The following paragraphs provide a condensed version of the RFCs that specify SSHv2.

A good definition of what SSH is comes from the SSH Protocol Architecture RFC4251 (which is a good read to get an overview of SSHv2):

Secure Shell (SSH) is a protocol for secure remote login and other secure network services over an insecure network. It consists of three major components:

o The Transport Layer Protocol [SSH-TRANS] provides server authentication, confidentiality, and integrity. It may optionally also provide compression. The transport layer will typically be run over a TCP/IP connection, but might also be used on top of any other reliable data stream.

o The User Authentication Protocol [SSH-USERAUTH] authenticates the client-side user to the server. It runs over the transport layer protocol.

o The Connection Protocol [SSH-CONNECT] multiplexes the encrypted tunnel into several logical channels. It runs over the user authentication protocol.

The client sends a service request once a secure transport layer connection has been established. A second service request is sent after user authentication is complete. This allows new protocols to be defined and coexist with the protocols listed above.

Graphically the architecture of SSH can be visualized as follows.

### : SSH-CONNECT SSH connection protocol, RFC4254
+++ : SSH-USERAUTH User authentication, RFC4252
=== : SSH-TRANS Transport layer, RFC4253

      #### SSH-CONNECT ######### Channel 1 "session" ########### (the channel id is arbitrary)
      #### SSH-CONNECT ######### Channel 2 "tcpip-forward" ##### (              ''           )
      #### SSH-CONNECT ######### Channel n "..." ############### (              ''           )

    ++++++++++++++++ SSH-USERAUTH ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++   (User authentication)

=============================  SSH-TRANS ============================== (Server authentication & link security)

SSH is designed to be flexible, and modular. The communication between client and server is message based. Algorithms and methods are defined by interfaces (e.g. USER-AUTH), and identified by string names (see chapter 6). These names are split into e-mail like namespaces “name@domainname”, e.g. “” or “”. Names defined in RFCs have no suffix (“3des-cbc”).


From the RFC4253:

The SSH transport layer is a secure, low level transport protocol. It provides strong encryption, cryptographic host authentication, and integrity protection.

Authentication in this protocol level is host-based; this protocol does not perform user authentication. A higher level protocol for user authentication can be designed on top of this protocol.

The protocol has been designed to be simple and flexible to allow parameter negotiation, and to minimize the number of round-trips. The key exchange method, public key algorithm, symmetric encryption algorithm, message authentication algorithm, and hash algorithm are all negotiated. It is expected that in most environments, only 2 round-trips will be needed for full key exchange, server authentication, service request, and acceptance notification of service request. The worst case is 3 round-trips.

In summary the connection starts with the Protocol Version Exchange where the server announces its version. Then the key exchange (server keys, not user keys) takes place.

After the key exchange the to be used algorithms are negotiated and the client requests a service by its name.

The RFC defines two services for the transport protocol:

  • ssh-userauth - A summary of RFC4252 follows in the next section.
  • ssh-connection - A summary of RFC4254 is found further below.


Cited from RFC4252:

The SSH authentication protocol is a general-purpose user authentication protocol. It is intended to be run over the SSH transport layer protocol [SSH-TRANS]. This protocol assumes that the underlying protocols provide integrity and confidentiality protection.


The ‘service name’ for this protocol is “ssh-userauth”.

When this protocol starts, it receives the session identifier from the lower-level protocol (this is the exchange hash H from the first key exchange). The session identifier uniquely identifies this session and is suitable for signing in order to prove ownership of a private key. This protocol also needs to know whether the lower- level protocol provides confidentiality protection.

User authentication starts ith the client sending a request to authenticate with the none method. The server replies with a list of the allowed authentication methods (e.g. publickey,password). The user is free to choose any of the offered methods to authenticate. The server may require several authentication methods in succession (‘partial success’), e.g. first a valid publickey authentication, followed by a one time password authentication with a hardware token.

Example Message Exchange for Password Authentication

This is a message exchange of the user admin authenticating with password authentication for the usage of an interactive terminal:

Client                                           Server

   |                                                |
   | >------------ SSH_MSG_USERAUTH_REQUEST ------> |
   |         user name:    "admin"                  |
   |         service name: "session"                |
   |         method-name:  "none"                   |
   |                                                |
   | <------------- SSH_MSG_USERAUTH_FAILURE -----< |
   |         name list:    "publickey,password"     |
   |         partial success: FALSE                 |
   |                                                |
   | >------------ SSH_MSG_USERAUTH_REQUEST ------> |
   |         user name:    "admin"                  |
   |         service name: "session"                |
   |         method-name:  "password"               |
   |         change-passwd: FALSE                   |
   |         password:     "s3cr3t"                 |
   |                                                |
   | <------------- SSH_MSG_USERAUTH_SUCCESS -----< |
   |                                                |

       ( the user is now authenticated)


Cited from RFC4254:

The SSH Connection Protocol has been designed to run on top of the SSH transport layer and user authentication protocols ([SSH-TRANS] and [SSH-USERAUTH]). It provides interactive login sessions, remote execution of commands, forwarded TCP/IP connections, and forwarded X11 connections.

The ‘service name’ for this protocol is “ssh-connection”.

Global Requests

Global requests are independent of channels (see below), and allow for example to initialize port forwarding (see section 7 of the RFC).


The connection protocol multiplexes several logical connections (channel) over the tranport connection. Both the client, and the server can open a channel via SSH_MSG_CHANNEL_OPEN requests.

A SSH_MSG_CHANNEL_OPEN request is subtyped by a string name (analogous to the names in user authentication). Both ends of a channel identify the channel by a numeric channel id. These ids can differ between sender and receiver. Channel ids are sometimes shown in ssh debug messages.

Once a channel has been opened, requests (SSH_MSG_CHANNEL_REQUEST) can be sent to the other side of the channel. This could, for example, be the request to open a pty for an interactive session.

Data transfer for a session is done using SSH_MSG_CHANNEL_DATA and SSH_MSG_CHANNEL_EXTENDED_DATA requests. The extended data type SSH_EXTENDED_DATA_STDERR has been defined for stderr data.

Interactive Session

The following mesage exchange shows how a session with a pty is opened:

Client                                           Server
   |                                                |
   | >------------ SSH_MSG_CHANNEL_OPEN ----------> |
   |         channel name:   "session"              |
   |         sender channel: 42                     |
   |                                                |
   | <------------- SSH_MSG_CHANNEL_SUCCESS  -----< |
   |         recipient channel: 67                  |
   |                                                |

(the client channel #42 is now connected to the server channel #67)

   | >------------ SSH_MSG_CHANNEL_REQUEST  ------> |
   |         recipient channel:  67                 |
   |         request name:      "pty-req"           |
   |         want reply:         FALSE              |
   |         TERM:              "xterm-256"         |
   |         [further params]:  "..."               |
   |                                                |

     (the client channel #42 now resembles a pty)

X11 forwarding

See section 6.3.2 of the SSH-CONNECT RFC.

Agent Forwarding

The agent forwrding protocol used by OpenSSH is not defined by an RFC, but by a OpenSSH directly.

Port forwarding

Port forwarding (described in section 7 of the RFC) allows connections to a local or remote port to be tunnled through a channel. Each forwarding rule is initialized via a SSH_MSG_GLOBAL_REQUEST with the request string “tcpip-forward”. SSH will create a new channel for each tcp connection made. E.g. when a local port is forwarded to a remote system, each tcp connection to this port opens a separate channel.


sftp is implemented as SSH subsystem that can be startet by sending a SSH_MSG_CHANNEL_REQUEST with the request name “subsystem”. The Filezilla project also has a good collection of references.


There is no RFC that defines scp.