Review: SecureCRT for Windows SSH Client

Summary: If you’re in need of full-featured,
easy-to-use, Windows-based ssh client, VanDyke’s SecureCRT will fill
the bill. At $99, it’s not cheap, but it makes secure remote access a
snap.

The Secure Shell Protocol (ssh) has become a security umbrella many of
us can’t imagine doing without. As a remote access tool, ssh offers
the security of encrypted connections; as a secure tunneling tool, ssh
provides something approaching a compromise between those charged with
network security and their user-base, which is never comfortable with
some of the restrictions their administrators are forced to impose.

In the UNIX and Macintosh worlds, ssh is ubiquitous and easily
obtained. In the Windows world there are several ssh client options,
as well, most available at no cost, such as TeraTerm, the Cygwin port, and PuTTY,
and NetworkSimplicity’s
port
, which also provides a working OpenSSH server for Windows
2000.

The quality of this collection of clients is uneven. Some exist as
afterthoughts to generic telnet clients, with ssh functionality bolted
on, and some are outdated enough that they only provide the SSH1
protocol, which has been found to contain serious weaknesses. Others
provide full and modern functionality, but little in the way of
graphical configuration.

VanDyke’s SecureCRT manages to provide both a modern implementation
of ssh and ease of use via graphical configuration options, with the
main tradeoff most will notice being the cost: $99 for a single
license.

Getting and Installing SecureCRT

SecureCRT is available as a timed demo, providing full
functionality for 30 days. The download
page
includes a link to the demo as well as attendant warnings on
exporting to (or downloading from) an assortment of sanctioned
countries.

Installation is simple enough via a self-extracting installer.

Looking at SecureCRT

ssh itself is a fairly no-nonsense protocol to use: you access a
remote ssh server, authenticate by either public key pair or password,
and may then either use a text-based shell to do your work or forward
X11-based applications to your local machine.

SecureCRT supports both public-key and password authentication
(offering helpfully, if less securely, to remember usernames and
passwords), and its public key generation wizard makes the process of
creating a keypair fairly simple. Readers familiar with our tips
on public key authentication with SSH
may want to immediately copy
their public identity file to a remote server, but incompatibilities
in the key format between OpenSSH and SSH2 require a quick trip to the
manual, where instructions are given on converting a
SecureCRT-generated public identity to an OpenSSH-readable version.

The documentation for SecureCRT is generally helpful, though it’s
behind the actual functionality of the program as it currently ships
in a few places.

Because remote access often involves a lot of variables peculiar to
individual hosts, SecureCRT allows for the creation of multiple
named sessions, which can be saved for later use. Each of these
sessions can also be saved to the desktop as a shortcut, allowing for
easy access without having to traverse SecureCRT’s (simple) session
selection screen.

Two areas where SecureCRT really shines are in its configurability
and in the ease with which a secure tunnel can be established.

SecureCRT offers both global and per-session configuration
options. The global option set establishes general parameters, such
as the default public keypair to use for connections and the shades of
colors the terminal will use when providing ANSI emulation.

The per-session configuration is much more varied, providing a lot
of fine-tuning for a host of options. There’s also a rudimentary
scripting component that allows for Expect/Respond-With interactions
between the client and server. This can be used as a basic automatic
program launcher by leaving out the “Expect” part of a stanza and
simply providing a command to execute. There’s also a wide variety of
terminal emulation options (from the venerable DEC VT100 to
ANSI/SCOANSI to Linux), an Emacs compatibility toggle that honors the
use of the ALT key as an Emacs Meta-key, and color scheme control,
which makes it very easy to color-code assorted remote hosts for quick
identification. The font used for each session is also configurable.

The port forwarding options make use of SecureCRT for things other
than remote shell access a real pleasure. Port forwarding allows
users to tunnel IP traffic to a remote ssh server. Many corporate
firewalls allow ssh traffic in and out because of the inherent
security of the protocol. This has the added effect of allowing users
to tunnel other protocols (such as POP traffic from outside servers,
access to more permissive web proxies than the one the company
mandates, and sundry other forbidden pleasures) through their ssh
connections.

Under SecureCRT, the configuration tool for port forwarding is
layed out in such a manner that there’s no confusion involved in
building a tunnel to a remote server, and even includes an option to
launch a specific application that might depend on that tunnel once a
connection is opened.

Several other convenience features are present in SecureCRT, as
well: it’s possible to minimize the application to the “Activator” in
the system tray, instead of the taskbar (great for non-interactive
tunneled sessions). It also supports local printing for applications
that support that feature (such as Pine), timeout suppression, and
X.509 smartcard authentication.

Wrapping Up

Some people don’t need a lot in a ssh client, and there’s a
perfectly suitable market bursting with free alternatives for those
with simple needs. Others, however, will have more complex needs or
may simply want the ease a well-crafted GUI-based client can confer.
SecureCRT is an outstanding choice. At $99, it isn’t cheap, but it
provides all of the power of ssh with ease of use and maximum
configurability. We think it’s well worth the price for anyone who
expects to get daily use out of it.


Product: SecureCRT

Release: 3.4.3
Supported Platforms: Windows 95, 98, NT 4.0, 2000, and XP

Publisher: VanDyke Software,
Inc.

Price: $99

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