Customizing the SSH daemon

Flatcar Linux defaults to running an OpenSSH daemon using systemd socket activation -- when a client connects to the port configured for SSH, sshd is started on the fly for that client using a systemd unit derived automatically from a template. In some cases you may want to customize this daemon's authentication methods or other configuration. This guide will show you how to do that at boot time using a Container Linux Config, and after building by modifying the systemd unit file.

As a practical example, when a client fails to connect by not completing the TCP connection (e.g. because the "client" is actually a TCP port scanner), the MOTD may report failures of systemd units (which will be named by the source IP that failed to connect) next time you log in to the Flatcar Linux host. These failures are not themselves harmful, but it is a good general practice to change how SSH listens, either by changing the IP address sshd listens to from the default setting (which listens on all configured interfaces), changing the default port, or both.

Customizing sshd with a Container Linux Config

In this example we will disable logins for the root user, only allow login for the core user and disable password based authentication. For more details on what sections can be added to /etc/ssh/sshd_config see the OpenSSH manual. If you're interested in additional security options, Mozilla provides a well-commented example of a hardened configuration.

    - path: /etc/ssh/sshd_config
      filesystem: root
      mode: 0600
        inline: |
          # Use most defaults for sshd configuration.
          UsePrivilegeSeparation sandbox
          Subsystem sftp internal-sftp
          UseDNS no

          PermitRootLogin no
          AllowUsers core
          AuthenticationMethods publickey

Changing the sshd port

Flatcar Linux ships with socket-activated SSH daemon by default. The configuration for this can be found at /usr/lib/systemd/system/sshd.socket. We're going to override some of the default settings for this in the Container Linux Config provided at boot:

    - name: sshd.socket
      - name: 10-sshd-port.conf
        contents: |

sshd will now listen only on port 222 on all interfaces when the system is built.

Disabling socket activation for sshd

It may be desirable to disable socket-activation for sshd to ensure it will reliably accept connections even when systemd or dbus aren't operating correctly.

To configure sshd on Flatcar Linux without socket activation, a Container Linux Config file similar to the following may be used:

  - name: sshd.service
    enable: true
  - name: sshd.socket
    mask: true

Note that in this configuration the port will be configured by updating the /etc/ssh/sshd_config file with the Port directive rather than via sshd.socket.

Further reading

Read the full Container Linux Config guide for more details on working with Container Linux Configs, including setting user's ssh keys.

Customizing sshd after first boot

Since Container Linux Configs are only applied on first boot, existing machines will have to be configured in a different way.

The following sections walk through applying the same changes documented above on a running machine.

Note: To avoid incidentally locking yourself out of the machine, it's a good idea to double-check you're able to directly login to the machine's console, if applicable.

Changing the sshd port

The sshd.socket unit may be configured via systemd dropins.

To change how sshd listens, update the list of ListenStreams in the [Socket] section of the dropin.

Note: ListenStream is a list of values with each line adding to the list. An empty value clears the list, which is why ListenStream= is necessary to prevent it from also listening on the default port 22.

To change just the listened-to port (in this example, port 222), create a dropin at /etc/systemd/system/sshd.socket.d/10-sshd-listen-ports.conf

# /etc/systemd/system/sshd.socket.d/10-sshd-listen-ports.conf

To change the listened-to IP address (in this example,

# /etc/systemd/system/sshd.socket.d/10-sshd-listen-ports.conf

You can specify both an IP and an alternate port in a single ListenStream line. IPv6 address bindings would be specified using the format [2001:db8::7]:22.

Note: While specifying an IP address is optional, you must always specify the port, even if it is the default SSH port. The FreeBind option is used to allow the socket to be bound on addresses that are not yet configured on an interface, to avoid issues caused by delays in IP configuration at boot. (This option is required only if you are specifying an address.)

Multiple ListenStream lines can be specified, in which case sshd will listen on all the specified sockets:

# /etc/systemd/system/sshd.socket.d/10-sshd-listen-ports.conf

Activating changes

After creating the dropin file, the changes can be activated by doing a daemon-reload and restarting sshd.socket

$ sudo systemctl daemon-reload
$ sudo systemctl restart sshd.socket

We now see that systemd is listening on the new sockets:

$ systemctl status sshd.socket
‚óŹ sshd.socket - OpenSSH Server Socket
   Loaded: loaded (/etc/systemd/system/sshd.socket; disabled; vendor preset: disabled)
   Active: active (listening) since Wed 2015-10-14 21:04:31 UTC; 2min 45s ago
   Listen: [::]:222 (Stream)
 Accepted: 1; Connected: 0

And if we attempt to connect to port 22 on our public IP, the connection is rejected, but port 222 works:

$ ssh core@[public IP]
ssh: connect to host [public IP] port 22: Connection refused
$ ssh -p 222 core@[public IP]
Flatcar Linux by Kinvolk stable (1353.8.0)
core@machine $

Disabling socket-activation for sshd

Simply mask the systemd.socket unit:

# systemctl mask --now sshd.socket

Finally, restart the sshd.service unit:

# systemctl restart sshd.service

Further reading on systemd units

For more information about configuring Flatcar Linux hosts with systemd, see Getting Started with systemd.