SSH is the de facto solution for securely accessing remote terminals on Linux and other UNIX-like systems. If you have a remote SSH server you want to access, you’ll have to download an SSH client. Windows doesn’t include one, although Mac OS X, Linux, and even Google’s Chrome OS include built-in SSH clients.
Sure, Windows does include a Telnet client, but Telnet is horrifically insecure and should never be used unless you’re directly connected to the remote system and it’s not exposed to the Internet.
Firefox is known for its powerful browser extensions, and FireSSH is one of them. It’s an SSH client implemented as a Firefox extension that runs within your browser, just as FireFTP adds powerful FTP features to Firefox.
After installing FireSSH, click the Firefox menu button, point to Web Developer, and click FireSSH to launch it. The Main tab allows you to enter the account name, host, and login information you need for your SSH server. The Advanced tab allows you to set up SSH tunneling, so you can tunnel your traffic through the remote SSH server. SSH tunneling has a variety of uses, including preventing yourself from being snooped on on public Wi-Fi, remotely accessing resources on a local network, bypassing web filtering, and browsing the Internet as if you were in another country.
As a Firefox extension, FireSSH also runs on Mac OS X and Linux.
FireSSH is also available for Google Chrome, but Google provides their own official SSH client web app. Just install the Secure Shell app from the Chrome Web store. Although it’s written in web technologies and runs in the Chrome browser, it runs entirely offline so you don’t need Internet access if you want to connect to an SSH server running on a local network.
Secure Shell opens as a browser tab and allows you to connect to a server by entering your username and the hostname (IP address) of the remote SSH server. You can also append additional SSH command-line arguments, if necessary. As with other Chrome web apps, you could open Secure Shell in its own dedicated window to keep it separate from your main browser window. Secure Shell is less flexible than FireSSH for Firefox, as you can’t set up SSH tunneling — Firefox’s extension system is just more powerful.
As Secure Shell is a Chrome web app, it’s also available for Mac OS X, Linux, and even Chrome OS.
PuTTY is the most popular app for connecting to SSH servers on Windows. It’s completely open source and is even available as a portable app, so you can add it to your portable app toolkit and use it anywhere. PuTTY’s interface may seem a bit intimidating and complicated at first, but it’s fairly simple once you start using it.
PuTTY offers more power and options than the other SSH clients above, running as a Windows desktop application. Like FireSSH, PuTTY also offers SSH tunneling features. To use PuTTY, all you really need to do is launch putty.exe, enter the hostname (or IP address) of the remote server, ensure the port is correct, and click Open. PuTTY will connect to the server and prompt you for a username and password. You can also save this session information if you like — click the Default Settings option and click Save and PuTTY will use your saved settings every time it opens.
All of these options are available on the main configuration pane. You probably don’t need to touch any of the other options. If you want to set up SSH tunneling in PuTTY, you’ll find the option under Connection -> SSH -> Tunnels.
If you’re routinely using the standard SSH command on Linux, Mac OS X, and other UNIX-like systems, you may want to install and apply the same command on Windows instead of messing around with graphical programs. OpenSSH isn’t directly compatible with Windows, but it can be installed as part of the Cygwin package of UNIX-like utilities for Windows.
If you’re new to SSH, you’ll probably want to use one of the graphical options above. However, if you’re experienced with using the SSH command on other platforms, you’ll find that the OpenSSH command included with Cygwin works just like it does on other platforms, with the exact same syntax.
Just install Cygwin — it’s a large package because it installs more than just OpenSSH. When you’re prompted to select packages, search for OpenSSH, expand the Net section, and click the “Skip” text to the left of the OpenSSH package. Clicking the Skip option will toggle the package from “Skip” to a version number, ensuring that it will be installed.
After the installation process finishes, you can launch the Cygwin Terminal application and run the same SSH command that you’d run on UNIX-like operating systems.
Which Should You Use?
So which SSH client is the best? Well, that depends on what you’re looking for:
- If you like the idea of an SSH client that runs in your browser, grab FireSSH for Firefox or Secure Shell for Chrome. Bear in mind that Secure Shell for Chrome is the most limited option, and it won’t let you perform SSH tunneling.
- If you want a powerful SSH application with a graphical interface that allows you to configure settings and save session information, use PuTTY. It’s the most popular Windows SSH client for a reason and it’s fairly simple to learn the basics.
- If you want the classic SSH command without a graphical interface, use Cygwin.
If we had to recommend one, we’d say most users should go with PuTTY.
What’s your favorite SSH client on Windows? Leave a comment and let us know — especially if we didn’t mention it above.