INFO: Root Backdoor to VMware ESXi Host

Administering the virtual infrastructure has been the focus of my administrative tasks as of late. It has been a challenge learning and understanding the technology at first. It comes with the same set of rules that govern physical machines, as well as extend technology (and imagination) -- really giving meaning to the acronym elastic sky x (or ESX). While the name might be gibberish, the technology it stands for is way, way interesting.

While ESXi is an advanced technology, it does have its own set of quirks and limitations. On top of this list is the root password protection. Never forget the root password, or else.. Although there are proven steps to "crack" (for the lack of a better word) the root password, it is far too complex for beginners.

On the VMware knowledge base site, we read this:

ESXi 3.5, ESXi 4.x, and ESXi 5.x
Reinstalling the ESXi host is the only supported way to reset a password on ESXi. Any other method may lead to a host failure or an unsupported configuration due to the complex nature of the ESXi architecture. ESXi does not have a service console and as such traditional Linux methods of resetting a password, such as single-user mode do not apply.

While reinstalling is not that long, it requires tedious re-configuration right after. So never forget the root password.. Again, never forget the root password.. But this statement is never fool-proof.

It helps to anticipate, so way before the forgetfulness hits you will need to setup a backdoor to the ESXi host -- passwordless SSH. And here's how to set it up.

First, you'll need to generate SSH keys. It is outlined in our previous article outlined for passwordless SSH. If you already have SSH keys in place, skip this step.

Next, you will need to copy the generated public key to the ESXi host. In order to do that, execute the command below:

cat ~/.ssh/id_rsa.pub | ssh root@[ESXi HOST] 'cat >> /etc/ssh/keys-root/authorized_keys'

Input the root password when prompted.

NOTE: Replace the string [ESXi HOST] with the fully qualified domain name of the ESXi host or its corresponding IP address.

There are other ways to do this as well. To me the above hits the spot in one line.

To verify, try to SSH to the ESXi host and see passwordless SSH do its wonders. If the above fails, make sure that the ESXi host is not in lockdown mode and/or its SSH service is running.

To increase security and protect the ESXi host from that backdoor, disable SSH service and/or put the host in lockdown mode. To turn on the backdoor, use the configuration controls via vSphere Server.

Just note that whenever an ESXi host experiences a configuration reset, the passwordless SSH settings are wiped out. Although this rarely happens, a backdoor needs to be setup again.

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