Telnet vs SSH

In our last blog series we discussed multiple access commands that can be configured on a router or a switch. These commands included cosmetic commands such as logging synchronous and exec-timeout that can be configured on the console port. We also discussed configuring security features such as banners that can be used for legal purposes.

For this discussion we will compare Telnet and Secure Shell protocol (SSH). Both protocols can be used for remote access but their differences are important to any network technician or engineer.

First, to gain remote access to the Virtual Terminal Teletype lines (VTY), a router or switch must be reachable with a given routed protocol. This would include IPv4 or IPV6. (This seems obvious but it will be quite useful later in a future discussion.) Additionally, for the access lines you must configure either a line password, or local user database for the way to authenticate to the device. In example 1 you will see our basic access to setup the default telnet lines to this router.


As you can see, a basic password has been configured. The other option (shown in example 2) is to use the local user database.


In either case, if someone need to gain access to this device they will have to login with the authentication type that was specified.

Second, by default Telnet is associated with the VTY lines. Telnet uses TCP port number 23 and is one of the most commonly used protocols for remote access. However, telnet doesn’t have any type of confidentiality. In other words, it has no encryption mechanism. Eavesdroppers can easily discover messages that are passed between two devices using telnet, in fact programs such as Wireshark or Ethereal can see the passwords inside the telnet packets. In example 3 you can see that the router on the right (ROUTER 0) is telneting to the router on the left (ROUTER 1). Notice that I created an enable password of cisco on ROUTER1.


Example 4 displays the vulnerability of telnet. As shown, I have a Wireshark looking at the messages that are going between these two routers. The frame that was captured shows inside the telnet data, the password cisco being sent in one of the messages.


(Ok, it says “cisc”, but frame 66 contains the letter “o” so with work, a skilled hacker or even a novice can see these messages sent in clear text.)

The other common application for remote access to Cisco routers and switches is Secure Shell protocol (SSH). SSH runs on TCP protocol number 22 and unlike telnet, does include encryption. SSH also uses a more commands for setup in comparison to telnet. The first necessary command is to configure a local user database as illustrated in example 2. The next command is mandatory, SSH needs to have a key for its connection. This key is derived from the ip domain-name command. Example 5 displays creating a unique (local) domain-name for the router.


After this is done you must generate a key. This is done with the command crypto key generate rsa. Examples 6 and 7 display two different ways to use the command it’s configuration for the rsa keys.



Example 6 is the full blown way of configuring the general key. Example 7 displays the more interactive version of this command. This is useful for those that don’t know which key size may be necessary for a given application. Also, demonstrated in example 8 is the crypto key zeroize command which will erase the key.


Next, you must enable an SSH version and apply it to the VTY Lines. First with the global configuration commands ip ssh version <1 or 2>, you can specify which version of ssh will be used for access. Second, you must configure the vty lines for authentication to the local database with the line command login local and specify that only ssh will be permited to access these lines with the command transport input ssh (transport input ssh telnet means only these two protocols will have access to the VTY lines. The default is transport input all for all types of protocols.) These commands are displayed in the next example.


The most common ssh client program used is called putty. It is a freeware application that is used for telnet, ssh and other programs. Example 10 demonstrates basic configuration and successful access of ssh via putty.


Example 11 below, is a contrast to example 4. You can see that the passwords aren’t shown and that the datagrams are encrypted above the layer 4 header. This gives SSH the advantage compared to telnet in all remote access scenarios.


This now concludes our comparison of Telnet vs SSH. You can clearly see the advantages of SSH and why it becoming a well recognized security standard and accepted practice in the computer networking industry.

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  1. Eric McWilliams Reply

    Alright I see your point in Telnet vs SSH you don’t want your router passwords captured by someone sniffing your network. But what if I am using TACAS and a one time token for my auth? Is there any reason besides “you don’t want people to see your configurations in a sniffed session”?

    1. Jason T Wyatte Reply

      Hello Eric! That is a very good point. In your situation then the password is protected. So the vulnerability of password discovery is eliminated.

      However any other configuration parameter such as an IP addresses on interfaces may be discovered when the administrator displays show commands . The most common command that most administrators will type after logging into a router or a switch is show run and any detail of the configuration may be use against the router. Also if show version is entered, then there may be some hardware information that can be used by an an onlooker to find specific vulnerability of that given system.

      Additionally, Eavesdroppers may passively use captured information from the config file to discover pitfalls based on BGP policies, firewall/ips/acl configuration, vpn configuration or qos policies. This could allow someone to exploit the trust relationship that a router may have for a given function (such as router authentication) which they can use to exploit by injecting bogus routes to influence other path selections or act as a denial of service attack. Many IGP’s such as OSPF or EIGRP cant support over 32000 routes in their routing and topology tables and would crash for the lack of memory and CPU usage.

      Lastly, hackers could use this information to cover their trails for other devices that can be compromised pass that point on the network.

      So the use of telnet itself isn’t just vulnerable for the system passwords that can be sniffed, but the overall working configuration that may be gathered and used by an over imaginative, resourceful hacker that plans to attack a network. Using a strong version of SSH is the best way to deter that threat.

      Thank you again for commenting on my blog!

      Jason T. Wyatte

  2. Mario Reply

    Nice article! This has clear my mind, is there anything stronger than the solution you are mentioning for remote connections to a cisco device?

  3. Jason T. Wyatte Reply

    Hello Mario!

    SSH version 2, VPN using ESP (Encapsulating Security Payload), SNMP version 3 (with the RFC 3826 enhancements) all have the ability to use Advanced Encryption Standard with 256 bits worth of encryption. AES has been approved since 2004 by the NSA for secure data communication. These protocols all provide the necessary security credentials which provides secure access in comparison to DES (Data Encryption Standard) or 3DES which uses 56 bits and 168 bits of encryption respectfully.

    SSL is also an option for security on cisco devices, though at first glance one would say it’s mainly used for secure web access. However with Cisco IOS operating systems, its possible to copy files to and from routers and switches using HTTPS.

    Thank you again for commenting on my blog!

    Jason T. Wyatte