» Vault SSH Secrets Engine: One-Time SSH Password

In a distributed cloud environment, tenant and system is increasingly important part of the online security. If an attacker gains access to your virtual machines, they can get control of most running applications, local data as well as its connected machines and systems.

The Vault SSH secrets engine provides secure authentication and authorization for access to machines via the SSH protocol. It supports signed SSH certificate and one-time SSH password modes. This guide demonstrates the one-time SSH password mode.

» Reference Material

» Estimated Time to Complete

10 minutes

» Personas

The end-to-end scenario described in this guide involves two personas:

  • operations with privileged permissions to setup SSH secrets engine
  • client trusted entity to request SSH OTP from Vault

» Challenge

By default, SSH servers use password authentication with optional public key authentication. If any user on the system has a fairly weak password, this allows an attacker to hijack the SSH connection.

» Solution

Vault can create a one-time password (OTP) for SSH authentication on a network every time a client wants to SSH into a remote host using a helper command on the remote host to perform verification.

SSH OTP Workflow

An authenticated client requests an OTP from the Vault server. If the client is authorized, Vault issues and returns an OTP. The client uses this OTP during the SSH authentication to connect to the desired target host.

When the client establishes an SSH connection, the OTP is received by the Vault helper which validates the OTP with the Vault server. The Vault server then deletes this OTP, ensuring that it is only used once.

» Prerequisites

To perform the tasks described in this guide, you need to have a Vault environment. Refer to the Getting Started guide to install Vault.

» Policy requirements

To perform all tasks demonstrated in this guide, your policy must include the following permissions:

# To view in Web UI
path "sys/mounts" {
  capabilities = [ "read", "update" ]

# To configure the SSH secrets engine
path "ssh/*" {
  capabilities = [ "create", "read", "update", "delete", "list" ]

# To enable secret engines
path "sys/mounts/*" {
  capabilities = [ "create", "read", "update", "delete" ]

If you are not familiar with policies, complete the policies guide.

» Steps

You will perform the following:

  1. Install vault-ssh-helper
  2. Setup the SSH Secrets Engine
  3. Request an OTP
  4. Establish an SSH session

» Step 1: Install vault-ssh-helper

(Persona: operations)

The SSH secrets engine uses Vault SSH Helper to verify the OTP used during the SSH authentication. Therefore, the helper agent must be installed onto every target host.

  1. Download and install the latest version of vault-ssh-helper from releases.hashicorp.com.


    # Download the vault-ssh-helper
    $ wget https://releases.hashicorp.com/vault-ssh-helper/0.1.4/vault-ssh-helper_0.1.4_linux_amd64.zip
    # Unzip the vault-ssh-helper in /user/local/bin
    $ sudo unzip -q vault-ssh-helper_0.1.4_linux_amd64.zip -d /usr/local/bin
    # Make sure that vault-ssh-helper is executable
    $ sudo chmod 0755 /usr/local/bin/vault-ssh-helper
    # Set the usr and group of vault-ssh-helper to root
    $ sudo chown root:root /usr/local/bin/vault-ssh-helper
  2. Create a Vault SSH Helper configuration file, /etc/vault-ssh-helper.d/config.hcl.

    vault_addr = "<VAULT_ADDRESS>"
    ssh_mount_point = "ssh"
    ca_cert = "/etc/vault-ssh-helper.d/vault.crt"
    tls_skip_verify = false
    allowed_roles = "*"

    Where the <VAULT_ADDRESS> is the address of the Vault server generating the OTP.


    vault_addr = ""
    ssh_mount_point = "ssh"
    ca_cert = "/etc/vault-ssh-helper.d/vault.crt"
    tls_skip_verify = false
    allowed_roles = "*"

    Refer to the documentation for the entire list of configuration properties.

  3. Modify the /etc/pam.d/sshd file as follows:

    # PAM configuration for the Secure Shell service
    # Standard Un*x authentication.
    #@include common-auth
    auth requisite pam_exec.so quiet expose_authtok log=/tmp/vaultssh.log /usr/local/bin/vault-ssh-helper -dev -config=/etc/vault-ssh-helper.d/config.hcl
    auth optional pam_unix.so not_set_pass use_first_pass nodelay

    NOTE: common-auth is the standard Linux authentication module which is commented out in favor of using our custom configuration.

    Refer to the documentation for details about these parameter settings.

  4. Modify the /etc/ssh/sshd_config file.

    ChallengeResponseAuthentication yes
    PasswordAuthentication no
    UsePAM yes

    This enables the keyboard-interactive authentication and PAM authentication modules. The password authentication is disabled.

  5. Restart the SSH service:

    $ sudo systemctl restart sshd

» Step 2: Setup the SSH Secrets Engine

(Persona: operations)

On the Vault server, you must enable the SSH secrets engine before you can perform the operation. Then you are going to create a role named, otp_key_role.

» CLI command

First, enable the SSH secrets engine.

$ vault secrets enable ssh

Next, create a role.

$ vault write ssh/roles/otp_key_role key_type=otp \
        default_user=ubuntu \

This creates otp_key_role with ubuntu as its default username for which a credential will be generated.

» API call using cURL

Enable ssh secret engine using /sys/mounts endpoint:

$ curl --header "X-Vault-Token: <TOKEN>" \
       --request POST \
       --data <PARAMETERS> \

Where <TOKEN> is your valid token, and <PARAMETERS> holds configuration parameters of the secret engine.


The following example enables SSH secret engine at sys/mounts/ssh path, and passed the secret engine type (ssh) in the request payload.

$ curl --header "X-Vault-Token: ..." \
       --request POST \
       --data '{"type":"ssh"}' \

Now, create a role using the ssh/roles/otp_key_role endpoint.

$ tee payload.json <<EOF
  "key_type": "otp",
  "default_user": "ubuntu",
  "cidr_list": ""

$ curl --header "X-Vault-Token: ..." \
       --request POST \
       --data @payload.json   

This creates otp_key_role with ubuntu as its default username for which a credential will be generated.

» Web UI

Open a web browser and launch the Vault UI (e.g. and then login.

  1. Select Enable new engine and select SSH from Secrets engine type drop-down list.

  2. Click Enable Engine.

  3. Select Create role.

  4. Enter otp_key_role in the Role name field, select otp from the Key type drop-down list, and then enter ubuntu in the Default user field.

  5. Select More options to expand the optional parameter fields, and then enter in the CIDR list field.

Create Role

  1. Click Create role.

» Step 3: Request an OTP

(Persona: client)

The client must have the following permission to request an OTP for otp_key_role.

path "ssh/creds/otp_key_role" {
  capabilities = [ "update" ]

» CLI command

To generate an OTP credential for an IP of the remote host belongs to the otp_key_role:

$ vault write ssh/creds/otp_key_role ip=<REMOTE_HOST_IP>


$ vault write ssh/creds/otp_key_role ip=
Key                Value
---                -----
lease_id           ssh/creds/otp_key_role/234bb081-d22e-3762-3ae5-744110ea4d0a
lease_duration     768h
lease_renewable    false
key                f1cb47ad-6255-0be8-6bd8-5c4b3b01c8df
key_type           otp
port               22
username           ubuntu

The key value is the OTP to use during SSH authentication.

» API call using cURL

To generate an OTP credential for an IP of the remote host belongs to the otp_key_role:

$ curl --header "X-Vault-Token: ..." \
       --request POST \
       --data '{"ip": "<REMOTE_HOST_IP>"}'   


$ curl --header "X-Vault-Token: ..." \
       --request POST \
       --data '{"ip": ""}'  | jq
   "request_id": "83327e6b-cffb-ce77-c4e1-74a60dd69436",
   "lease_id": "ssh/creds/otp_key_role/aebd080e-51a1-0fc6-ef5c-1e1c95ca729a",
   "renewable": false,
   "lease_duration": 2764800,
   "data": {
     "ip": "",
     "key": "6e472878-721a-b066-2cec-1bed0127ad44",
     "key_type": "otp",
     "port": 22,
     "username": "ubuntu"

The key value is the OTP to use during SSH authentication.

» Web UI

To generate an OTP credential for an IP of the remote host belongs to the otp_key_role:

  1. Select ssh under Secrets Engines.

  2. Select otp_key_role and enter ubuntu in the Username field, and enter the target host's IP address (e.g. in the IP Address field.

  3. Click Generate.

  4. Click Copy credentials. This copies the OTP (key value).

» Step 4: Establish an SSH session

Simply, use the OTP generated at Step 3 to authenticate:

$ ssh ubuntu@
Password: <Enter OTP>

NOTE: If sshpass is installed, you can create a new OTP and SSH into the target host with single line of CLI command:

$ vault ssh -role otp_key_role -mode otp -strict-host-key-checking=no ubuntu@

» Next steps

Read the Signed SSH Certificates documentation if you want to use signed SSH certificate so that the clients can use their local SSH keys to connect to the target hosts.