My first pass at using SecureCRT for OS X

Yes, SecureCRT for OS X is here. I have already found a few things I would fix, and here is my letter to VanDyke:

Suggestions for an OS X world…

One thing that Mac users expect, more so than Windows users, is interoperation between applications and existing OS X services. A prime example of this would be the Keychain, and for some applications the existing ssh client and config files.

I know that SecureCRT for Win32 has had to maintain its own known_hosts and key files, but that was because Windows did not have these built in to begin with. While it would be logically consistent to keep certain features as similar as possible between the Win32 and OS X versions, I would like to make a case for why you should leverage the native OS X functionality to improve the product on the OS X platform.

Right after installing, the first thing I noticed was that when I connected to a system I regularly use, I was prompted to confirm and save the host key. This tells me that SecureCRT is ignoring my existing ~/.ssh/known_hosts file, even though it exists and already contains the keys for all of the hosts I regularly connect to. I would strongly recommend that SecureCRT use the standard known_hosts file on OS X, rather than re-inventing the wheel. If you decide to make use of the known_hosts file, please do not just import it into your own db format; that will not solve the long term goals of application interoperability.

The second thing I noticed was that I was prompted for my password. This tells me that SecureCRT is ignoring my ~/.ssh/id_dsa file. Really? If the user already has existing ssh keys, why not make use of them? Again, I would suggest NOT just importing existing keys when detected. That won’t be useful later on down the road if the user updates their keys.

In fact, I tried to manually select my existing ~/.ssh/id_dsa file for a session, but the file browser options used by SecureCRT don’t allow me to see, let alone select, the .ssh directory. Sure, I could jump through hoops and create a non-dot-named symlink, but I shouldn’t have to.

I have no evidence whether you are already doing this, but I suggest integration with Keychain. Let me give you an example of Keychain integration. My ssh key has a password. I never have to type it in. As long as I am logged in as myself, the native ssh application polls Keychain for the key password, and it all happens behind the scenes. If someone were to copy my key file off my laptop, and try to use it, they would be prompted for my password. Again, this is functionality that didn’t exist in Windows and that if you utilize it in your OS X version you will make a better product.

Here is an example demonstrating why it is useful for SecureCRT to utilize existing ssh files, and OS X services like Keychain:

I use a file transfer program called Transmit. It supports ftp, sftp, webdav, and a huge list of other protocols. If I connect to a server that I already connect to via ssh using my ssh key, I need only enter the host name and my user name. It automatically checks known_hosts, and then uses my existing ssh key. It also either polls ssh, or the Keychain, I don’t know which, for my ssh key; so I don’t need to type it in as long as I am logged in as myself to my OS X box.

Multiple OS X programs all rely on the existing, industry standard, ~/.ssh/ configuration files. For SecureCRT to completely ignore these files and re-invent the wheel is counter-productive to developing on the platform.

This reminds me a lot of when SecureCRT first adde the feature to upload a user’s pubkey to the server. This feature required that the admin install VanDyke’s ssh server on the host system. I wrote to support and asked why, since they already had a shell open to the host, they didn’t just utilize the connection to issue a couple of shell commands so that they could send the pubkey over the connection and have the shell commands pick it up from STDIN and append it to the authorized_keys file. The response I got was “why would we do that?” The answer is two-fold: Increased compatibility and reduced development effort.

These are little things that OS X power-users take for granted, and since SecureCRT is geared towards power-users I wanted to recommend them. I know you guys are largely a Windows development house, so I hope my input as a sysadmin who heavily uses ssh based services on OS X can help make SecureCRT for OS X a better product.

-Chris

If you agree with me that my suggestions would lead to a better OS X offering, please write them as well at support@vandyke.com

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