Implement Multi-Factor Authentication on CloudRaya Linux VM

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Implement Multi-Factor Authentication on CloudRaya Linux VM

SSH authentication typically employs passwords, but most SSH security guidelines recommend using an SSH key instead. While an SSH key offers enhanced security, it still falls under the umbrella of single-factor authentication. Just like when someone tries to guess your password, there’s also a risk that your SSH key might be stolen. This could be a threat to the security of your remote systems.

This guide will show you how to add an extra layer of security to your SSH logins using Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA). We will use SSH key and VM password, along with OATH-TOTP app. So logging into your VM will need three steps, making it safer than just using a password or SSH key. We’ll also explore some handy tips.


To follow this guide, make sure you have a Linux cloud server up and running. Additionally, you’ll need:

  • A Linux VM that’s up-to-date.
  • A Linux VM with a standard user account that can use sudo.
  • An SSH key configured on the VM.
  • A smartphone or tablet with an OATH-TOTP app installed, such as Google Authenticator, Microsoft Authenticator, Authy, or FreeOTP.

Install Google Authenticator PAM

In this step, we’ll set up Google’s PAM for authentication. PAM, short for Pluggable Authentication Module, is a system used on Linux to verify a user’s identity.

Login to your Linux server as a non-root user with sudo access. Follow the instructions based on your Linux distribution to install the Google Authenticator PAM module.

Ubuntu, Debian, and other apt-based Distributions

Install with apt.

				$ sudo apt-get install libpam-google-authenticator


Install with yum.

				$ sudo yum install google-authenticator

CentOS, Rocky Linux, Alma Linux and Other RHEL-Compatible Distributions

Install the EPEL Repository.

				$ sudo yum install epel-release


Install with yum.

				$ sudo yum install google-authenticator

Setup the Google Authenticator

Notes: Each user connecting to the server needs to perform these steps individually.

				$ google-authenticator

You can run the setup interactively with the command as shown above. Alternatively, you can use these options to make it simpler:

				$ google-authenticator -t -f -d -w 3 -e 5 -r 3 -R 30

Here are the explanations for the given options:

  • t: Use TOTP verification.
  • f: Save the settings. to ~/.google_authenticator without asking.
  • d: Prevent the reuse of of previously used tokens.
  • w 3: Tokens normally expire every 30 seconds. With a window size of 3, you can use the token before and after the current one, accommodating potential clock differences. It provides flexibility within a time window of 90 seconds (3 tokens * 30 seconds), allowing the use of previous, current, and next tokens during authentication.
  • e 5: Generate 5 emergency backup codes.
  • r 3: Allow 3 login attempts to enter the correct code.
  • R 30: Users have 30 seconds after the last valid token to try entering the correct code. In this context, it serves as a time limit for login attempts after receiving the last valid token.

To see all the options, you can type google-authenticator --help

This setup will show a few things: a QR code that you can scan with many authenticator apps, and a secret key. If you can’t scan the QR code, just type in the secret key into your app.

After scanning the QR code, type the code from the app into the terminal to display the 5 one-time emergency codes. Keep these codes in a safe place. If you have to reset your code, just run the program again.

Configuring SSH to Use MFA

Now that Google’s PAM is installed and configured, the next step is to configure SSH to use your TOTP key. We’ll need to tell SSH about the PAM and then configure SSH to use it.

Notes: To avoid accidental lockouts and maintain an active SSH connection while modifying SSH settings. Utilize a separate SSH session for testing purposes. Once everything functions correctly, close the sessions. Additionally, back up the system files you intend to modify before making any changes.
In case of an SSH configuration error preventing login, utilize the CloudRaya web console.

Just to be on the safe side, copy the sshd config file for easy rollback.

				$ sudo cp /etc/pam.d/sshd /etc/pam.d/sshd.bak

Get in there and open the file using nano or your favorite editor

				$ sudo nano /etc/pam.d/sshd

Add the following line to the bottom of the file:

				. . .

# Standard Un*x password updating.
@include common-password
auth required nullok
auth required

This configuration allows users to log in with either an SSH key or an OATH-TOTP token. If a user doesn’t have an OATH-TOTP token yet, the nullok option lets them log in with just their SSH key. Later, when everyone has an OATH-TOTP token, you can remove nullok to make two-factor authentication mandatory. acts as a fallback, allowing logins even if users haven’t yet configured the OATH-TOTP token. Think of it like a two-factor door with two keys: the SSH key and the OATH-TOTP token. Normally, both keys are required, but nullok provides a grace period for missing the second key. This lets step in and authorize the login.

Once you’re done making changes, save and close the file.

Let’s set up SSH for key-based authentication. Back up the file first.

				$ sudo cp /etc/ssh/sshd_config /etc/ssh/sshd_config.bak

Now open the SSH configuration file for editing:

				$ sudo nano /etc/ssh/sshd_config

Look for KbdInteractiveAuthentication (keyboard-based interactive authentication) and set its value to yes.

				. . .
# Change to yes to enable challenge-response passwords (beware issues with
# some PAM modules and threads)
KbdInteractiveAuthentication yes
. . .

Since we will be using MFA (Three Factor Authentication ) in this guide, let’s tell SSH to use both an SSH key, password and a verification code for login. Add the following line to the bottom of the file:

				. . .
AuthenticationMethods publickey,password publickey,keyboard-interactive

Save and close the file.

Once you’ve made changes to your SSH configuration file, you’ll need to restart the SSH service for them to take effect. You can use the following command. (Restarting the service won’t disconnect your current SSH session.)

				$ sudo systemctl restart sshd.service

To make sure everything is working correctly, open another terminal window and try logging in over SSH from there. It’s important to keep your original SSH session open while testing, otherwise you might lock yourself out and need to use the web console to get back in.

Use -v option with SSH to enable verbose mode and see detailed process information.

You will find that you now need access using 3-factor authentication.

Recovering Access to MFA

With increased security comes increased responsibility. In the case of TOTP, this means safeguarding your secret key and ensuring access to your TOTP app. However, unforeseen circumstances can lead to the loss of these keys or apps, potentially locking you out.

In this guide, we will explore various methods and scenarios related to recovering access.

Losing Your TOTP Secret Key (or Losing Access to the TOTP App)

In the event that your TOTP app is unavailable or you’ve lost it, you can still log in to your server using the emergency codes you were given when you first set up your account.

Note: Each code is for one-time use only.

Deactivate TOTP AUTH for a particular user

Make sure you log in as root user.

Navigate to the user’s home directory and remove the file .google_authenticator.

				# rm /home/theusername/.google_authenticator

Deactivate TOTP AUTH for All Users

				# nano /etc/ssh/sshd_config

Edit the sshd config again.

Back to this following line:

				. . .
AuthenticationMethods publickey,password publickey,keyboard-interactive

Remove the keyboard-interactive method so that only the publickey and password publickey methods remain.

				. . .
AuthenticationMethods publickey,password publickey

Save the changes and restart SSH.

				# systemctl restart sshd.service


This tutorial guided you through securing your server with three-factor authentication. Now, you require your SSH key, VM password, and a temporary code from your phone to log in, significantly reducing the risk of unauthorized access.

For more tutorials on maximizing CloudRaya usage, please visit our Knowledge Base or our Youtube channel.

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