Syncing SSH keys on Cisco IOS-XR with a custom Ansible module

Vincent Bernat

The cisco.iosxr collection from Ansible Galaxy provides an iosxr_user module to manage local users, along with their SSH keys. However, the module is quite slow, do not display a diff for changed SSH keys, never signal change when a key is modified, and does not delete obsolete keys. Let’s write a custom Ansible module managing only the SSH keys while fixing these issues.


I recommend that you read “Writing a custom Ansible module” as an introduction.

How to add an SSH key to a user#

Adding SSH keys to users in Cisco IOS-XR is quite undocumented. First, you need to encode the key with the “ssh-rsa” key ASN.1 format, like an OpenSSH public key, but without the base64-encoding:

$ awk '{print $2}' \
    | base64 -d \
    > publickey_vincent.raw

Then, you upload the key with SCP to harddisk:/publickey_vincent.raw and import it for the current user with the following IOS command:

crypto key import authentication rsa harddisk:/publickey_vincent.b64

However, if you want to import a key for another user, you need to be part of the root-system group:

username vincent
 group root-lr
 group root-system

With the following admin command, you can attach a key to another user:

admin crypto key import authentication rsa username cedric harddisk:/publickey_cedric.b64


The module has the following signature and it installs the specified key for each user and remove keys from retired users—the ones we do not specify.

    vincent: ssh-rsa AAAAB3NzaC1yc2EAA[…]ymh+YrVWLZMJR
    cedric:  ssh-rsa AAAAB3NzaC1yc2EAA[…]RShPA8w/8eC0n


Unlike the iosxr_user module, our custom module only handles SSH keys, one per user. Therefore, the user definitions have to already exist in the running configuration.1 Moreover, the user defined in ansible_user needs to be in the root-system group. The cisco.iosxr collection must also be installed as the module relies on its code.

When running the module, ansible_connection needs to be set to network_cli and ansible_network_os to iosxr. These variables are usually defined in the inventory.

Module definition#

Starting from the skeleton described in the previous article, we define the module:

module_args = dict(
    keys=dict(type='dict', elements='str', required=True),

module = AnsibleModule(

result = dict(

Getting the installed keys#

The next step is to retrieve the keys currently installed. This can be done with the following command:

# show crypto key authentication rsa all
Key label: vincent
Type     : RSA public key authentication
Size     : 2048
Imported : 16:17:08 UTC Tue Aug 11 2020
Data     :
 30820122 300D0609 2A864886 F70D0101 01050003 82010F00 3082010A 02820101
 00D81E5B A73D82F3 77B1E4B5 949FB245 60FB9167 7CD03AB7 ADDE7AFE A0B83174
 A33EC0E6 1C887E02 2338367A 8A1DB0CE 0C3FBC51 15723AEB 07F301A4 B1A9961A
 2D00DBBD 2ABFC831 B0B25932 05B3BC30 B9514EA1 3DC22CBD DDCA6F02 026DBBB6
 EE3CFADA AFA86F52 CAE7620D 17C3582B 4422D24F D68698A5 52ED1E9E 8E41F062
 7DE81015 F33AD486 C14D0BB1 68C65259 F9FD8A37 8DE52ED0 7B36E005 8C58516B
 7EA6C29A EEE0833B 42714618 50B3FFAC 15DBE3EF 8DA5D337 68DAECB9 904DE520
 2D627CEA 67E6434F E974CF6D 952AB2AB F074FBA3 3FB9B9CC A0CD0ADC 6E0CDB2A
 6A1CFEBA E97AF5A9 1FE41F6C 92E1F522 673E1A5F 69C68E11 4A13C0F3 0FFC782D
 27020301 0001

[…] contains a run_commands() function we can use:

command = "show crypto key authentication rsa all"
out = run_commands(module, command)
out = out[0].replace(' \n', '\n')

A common library to parse a command output is textfsm: a Python module using a template-based state machine for parsing semi-formatted text.

template = r"""
Value Required Label (\w+)
Value Required,List Data ([A-F0-9 ]+)

 ^Key label: ${Label}
 ^Data\s+: -> GetData

 ^ ${Data}
 ^$$ -> Record Start

re_table = textfsm.TextFSM(io.StringIO(template))
got = {data[0]: "".join(data[1]).replace(' ', '')
       for data in re_table.ParseText(out)}

got is a dictionary associating key labels, considered as usernames, with a hexadecimal representation of the public key currently installed. It looks like this:

>>> pprint(got)
{'alfred': '30820122300D0609[…]6F0203010001',
 'cedric': '30820122300D0609[…]710203010001',
 'vincent': '30820122300D0609[…]270203010001'}

Comparing with the wanted keys#

Let’s now build the wanted dictionary using the same structure. In module.params['keys'], we have a dictionary associating usernames to public SSH keys in the OpenSSH format:

>>> pprint(module.params['keys'])
{'cedric': 'ssh-rsa AAAAB3NzaC1yc2[…]',
 'vincent': 'ssh-rsa AAAAB3NzaC1yc2[…]'}

We need to convert these keys in the same hexadecimal representation used by Cisco above. The ssh-keygen command and some glue can do the conversion:2

$ ssh-keygen -f -e -mPKCS8 \
   | grep -v '^---' \
   | base64 -d \
   | hexdump -e '4/1 "%0.2X"'

Assuming we have a ssh2cisco() function doing that, we can build the wanted dictionary:

wanted = {k: ssh2cisco(v)
          for k, v in module.params['keys'].items()}

Applying changes#

Back to the skeleton described in the previous article, the last step is to apply the changes if there is a difference between got and wanted when not running with check mode. The part comparing got and wanted is taken verbatim from the skeleton module:

if got != wanted:
    result['changed'] = True
    result['diff'] = dict(

if module.check_mode or not result['changed']:

Let’s copy the new or changed keys and attach them to their respective users. For this purpose, we reuse the get_connection() and copy_file() functions from

conn = get_connection(module)
for user in wanted:
    if user not in got or wanted[user] != got[user]:
        dst = f"/harddisk:/publickey_{user}.raw"
        with tempfile.NamedTemporaryFile() as src:
            decoded = base64.b64decode(
            copy_file(module,, dst)
    command = ("admin crypto key import authentication rsa "
               f"username {user} {dst}")
    conn.send_command(command, prompt="yes/no", answer="yes")

Then, we remove obsolete keys:

for user in got:
    if user not in wanted:
        command = ("admin crypto key zeroize authentication rsa "
                   f"username {user}")
        conn.send_command(command, prompt="yes/no", answer="yes")

The complete code is available on GitHub. Compared to the iosxr_user module, this one displays a diff when running with --diff, correctly signals a change, is faster, 3 and deletes unwanted SSH keys. However, it is unable to create users and cannot configure passwords or multiple SSH keys.

  1. In our environment, the Ansible playbook pushes a full configuration, including the user definitions. Then, it synchronizes the SSH keys. ↩︎

  2. Despite the argument provided to ssh-keygen, the format used by Cisco is not PKCS#8. This is the ASN.1 representation of a Subject Public Key Info structure, as defined in RFC 2459. Moreover, PKCS#8 is a format for a private key, not a public one. ↩︎

  3. The main factors for being faster are:

    • not creating users, and
    • not reuploading existing SSH keys.

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