user key management

Copyright 2012-2013 Ralf Hemmecke

Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

User key management allows certain users to add and remove keys.

The key management is done using a command called ukm. This command must be enabled for remote use by both the sysadmin and the gitolite-admin (see here for more on this) or look below.

Important Warning!

User key management undermines the fundamental principle of gitolite (see authentication versus authorisation) by allowing certain users to juggle with ssh public keys. Make sure someone (sysadmin?) can login to the server with a password, just in case something breaks and the .ssh/authorized_keys file for the user running gitolite on the server is messed up.

General note

Although gitolite deals in its core only with authorisation, by default it uses ssh as its authentication mechanism. Sure, ssh is not at all part of gitolite and it can be replaced by other means, but still there is a directory gitolite-admin/keydir that is reserved for public ssh keys.

In fact, management of users and multiple keys per user is not actually a gitolite administration stuff. It's external to gitolite. In a future version, ukm could be used as an equivalent of the keydir/ directory from the gitolite-admin repo (currently it just manages that directory) and thus ukm could be seen as such an external tool that does what its name suggests: user (key) management.

In the following description we assume that there is an entry like

Host gitserver
     IdentityFile ~/.ssh/id_rsa    # choose your gitolite key here
     HostName # location where gitolite is installed
     User git                      # user that runs gitolite

in the client's ~/.ssh/config file.

Who might be interested?

The gitolite admin

Adding a new public key to the system means to copy the key into gitolite/keydir commit and push.

With ukm it would be

cat FOO.PUB | ssh gitserver ukm add KEYID

This would be a setup where only the gitolite administrator uses ukm. Not a big benefit, but ukm prevents adding identical keys under different userids. This consistency check might be an advantage. Furthermore, ukm does not allow the gitolite administrator to remove his/her last, i.e., it prevents the administrator from locking him-/herself out of the system. (Note, we assume that the gitolite administrator has no shell access to the server; only the sysadmin has shell access.)

Users that want more control over who can access their repositories

Suppose the gitolite administrator of a research institute has set up gitolite to provide wild repositories for example with a gitolite.conf like this.

repo gitolite-admin
    RW+ = gitadmin

# These people are allowed to create wild repositories.
@creators = alice bob ...

# wildcard repositories for the users
repo CREATOR/..*
    C   = @creators
    R   = READERS

Researchers Alice and Bob want to write an article together. Alice creates a wild repository alice/article and adds Bob via the perms command to the WRITERS of her repository. After a while they realize that Otto from another institute would be a reasonable third author. However, if they cannot give him write access to the repository, they would have to exchange the article via email. Back to the stone age? Better, Alice asks Otto to send her his public ssh key. Alice then forwards that key to the gitolite administrator and asks him to include that key into the system. (Hopefully, all that didn't happen on a holiday or on the weekend.) After 3 days the gitolite administrater finds some time. Since he doesn't know Otto, he simply trusts Alice and adds the public key into the system.

With ukm Alice can save bothering the gitolite administrator and is perhaps even faster in saying:

cat | ssh gitserver ukm add
ssh gitserver perms alice/article + WRITERS

The effect would be the same.

Users that want to manage multiple keys

Suppose, you have different computers and a different ssh key for each of them. You would like to tell gitolite that all these different keys belong to just one gitolite identity.

Your gitolite administrator creates your gitolite identity with one of your keys as your initial key. This key can only be managed by the gitolite administrator, not by you. It basically determines under which name you are known to gitolite.

You can add new keys to this identity and remove them at your will.

How to enable user key management?

The ukm command is contributed code and lives under contrib/commands/ukm in the gitolite source tree. A sysadmin of the gitserver has to copy or link this script to the right location.

cd src/commands
ln -s ../../contrib/commands/ukm .

Furthermore, a sysadmin must add the string 'ukm' to the ENABLE array, i.e.,

ENABLE => [ ..., 'ukm', ... ],

in .gitolite.rc. (That's the preferred way for gitolite starting with version v3.4.)

Instead of the above (in particular in gitolite v3.0-v3.3), add 'ukm' => 1 to the COMMANDS hash.

COMMANDS => {..., 'ukm' => 1, ... },

How to configure user key management and who can use it?

As described above there are three main use cases for ukm. Each of them requires different values in the respective config files.

There are two files where ukm must be configured.

Besides sysadmin and gitolite administrator, ukm knows 3 roles.

Super key managers

When ukm is enabled, nothing else must be configured.

Guest key managers

The gitolite administrator defines guest key managers by creating a group @guest-key-managers in gitolite-admin/conf/gitolite.conf and adding (trusted) users to this group.

WARNING: If the gitolite administrator includes @all into this list, it allows guests to add new public keys. If, additionally, there is @creators=@all, it basically allows the initial guest key managers to start a hierarchy of new users with the same rights as the initial users.

The system administrator must configure ukm for guest key managers in .gitolite.rc by adding something like


to the %RC hash.

If FORBIDDEN_GUEST_PATTERN is missing, it defaults to the following.


Any KEYID that matches this pattern is rejected, i.e., the default value basically allows only the super key managers to add/del keys.

If ukm is supposed to work for guest key managers, FORBIDDEN_GUEST_PATTERN must be set to some reasonable value.

If your company has email addresses of the form you might want to write something like this


which would only allow KEYIDs in the form of email addresses that do not come from your company.

For the very brave only!!!

The variable REQUIRED_GUEST_PATTERN is optional. It is strongly discouraged to set it. However, if you know, what you are doing, it allows for a bit more flexibility.

Don't complain if you modify the default value!!!

REQUIRED_GUEST_PATTERN defaults to a regular expression that only allows KEYIDs in the form of email addresses (see the source code if you want to see this regular expression).

You can write


with the meaning that the KEYID must match


(note that ^ and $ are automatically added to the pattern) and must not match


in order for ukm to proceed with this KEYID for a guest key manager.

Gitolite's namespace for USERIDs is flat. The REQUIRED_GUEST_PATTERN and FORBIDDEN_GUEST_PATTERN serve two purposes.

  1. Restrict permissions for what guest key managers can do.

  2. Patterns that cannot be used for guests can still be used by super key managers. In other words, those patterns are reserved for in-house USERIDs.

Self key managers

The gitolite administrator defines self key managers by creating a group @self-key-managers in gitolite-admin/conf/gitolite.conf and adding (trusted) users to this group.

WARNING: A gitolite administrator shouldn't include @all into this list. If guest key management is enabled, then also guests would be allowed to add their own keys. Since guest key managers would have no access to those keys, only gitolite administrators would be able to remove those additional keys. In fact, ukm was designed to allow only one key per guest. Don't complain, if you enable a setup where guests can have multiple keys. It's a security issue. (Suppose Alice has added a guest and MrBad generates a new ssh key and adds it under to the list of his guests. That would give MrBad all the permissions that has.)

The system administrator must enable ukm for self key managers in .gitolite.rc by adding


to the %RC hash.

Since by design self keys start with an @ sign, and thus cannot conflict with guest keys (which are not allowed to start with an @), there is no problem to enable self key and guest key management at the same time.


How to use user key management?

There are three subcommands of ukm, namely list (the default),add, and del.

Depending on whether or not the respective KEYID starts with an @ sign, ukm distinguishes between guest and self key management. Self keys start with @ and are followed by letters and/or digits.

For super key managers there is not such a distinction. Rather, the KEYID is the full path of the actual public key file relative to gitolite-admin/keydir/ with the .pub file extension removed.

By convention, take as guest key the proper email address of the guest. That not only makes for a unique ID, it also gives you a hint to whom this key belongs.

List managed keys

A guest key manager and self key manager can list all their personally managed keys via:

ssh gitserver ukm


ssh gitserver ukm list

If this command is issued by a super key manager, it lists all keys that are stored under keydir/.

The result will show the fingerprints of the keys, the corresponding USERID and the KEYID by which one can refer to the key on the commandline.

Add a new public key

Add a new key as a super key manager

A super key manager can nearly add any key, but ukm does not accept a different key, i.e., different fingerprint, for the same KEYID. Also a double dot is not allowed in the KEYID.

Add a new key as a guest key manager

The command for this is:

cat | ssh gitserver ukm add

There are several situations when the above command fails, i.e., rejects to add the key.

  • The KEYID does not match the pattern given by REQUIRED_GUEST_PATTERN in .gitolite.rc.

  • The KEYID matches the pattern given by FORBIDDEN_GUEST_PATTERN in .gitolite.rc.

  • The public key is already known to the system and does not belong to the USERID

  • The KEYID is already in use and it corresponds to a key with another public key. In other words, ukm will not simply override a key. One has to delete the old key first and then add a new one.

  • The KEYID contains a / character or two @ characters, i.e., guest key managers are not allowed to add multiple keys for one user.

Add a new key as a self key manager

Adding a self key is a bit more complicated, since the user must confirm that he/she is in possession of the corresponding private key. The command sequence is as follows. Note that the second call of ssh is done with the key foo and not the default ssh key.

cat | ssh gitserver ukm add @two > session
cat session | ssh -i foo gitserver ukm

If you don't want to create an intermediate file call it like this:

cat | ssh gitserver ukm add @two | (sleep 2; ssh -i foo gitserver ukm)

Make sure that the second ssh call only happens after the fist one has done its job. Otherwise you might be asked for a password of the git user on the gitserver.

After successfully completing the first ssh call, the new key is scheduled for addition and a session key is returned on stdin. That session key must be used to confirm the addition of the new public key as shown above.

Delete a key

A super key manager can delete any key by simply giving its KEYID in a command like this

ssh gitserver ukm del some/dir/

The ukm command, however, prevents a super key manager from removing his/her last key.

Delete a guest key

The command for this is:

ssh gitserver ukm del

If the given KEYID is not among the managed keys of the user who issues the del command, the command will fail.

IMPORTANT! You should not forget to remove from all of your repositories all the permissions you gave to, because this key might still be managed by another guest key manager.

You might want to run

ssh gitserver info -lc \
| perl -e 'chomp($u=<>);$u=~s/hello //;$u=~s/,.*$//;' \
       -e 'while(<>){if(/\s(\S+)\s+$u$/){print "$1\n"}}' \
| while read r; do ssh gitserver perms $r - WRITERS; done

Repeat this for other roles such as READERS instead of WRITERS.

Delete a self key

The command for this is:

ssh gitserver ukm del @two
ssh gitserver ukm del @two

Yes, you have to give that command twice. The first call will bring the key @two into a "pending-del" state. The second time, the command will only delete the key @two, if the login was not done with exactly that key. If logging in with the key corresponding to @two, it will bring back the @two key from its "pending-del" state to a non-pending state.

Note: This safety net is not absolutely necessary, since a self key manager is not allowed to delete his/her initial key (added by the gitolite administrator). The command ukm wants to make sure that the user still has a key that can be used for login. (Think about having lost the passphrase for the initial key. -- Maybe this over complication will be simplified in the future. Losing a passphrase is not a good excuse and should result in removal of the corresponding key from the system, i.e., contacting the gitolite administrator.)

Generic Errors

Key management is done via creating a temporary clone of the gitolite-admin repository, changing, committing, and pushing back. In cases where two people are trying to modify the gitolite-admin repository at the same time, one of the push commands will most probably fail. Then simply redo the command after a while.


  • sysadmin: A person who is able to edit the .gitolite.rc file on the server machine.

  • gitolite administrator: A user with write access to the gitolite-admin repositoriy.

  • super key manager: A user who has write access to the keydir/ inside the gitolite-admin repository. A gitolite administrator is always a super key manager.

Super key managers have no restriction on how KEYIDs must look like. They can do (nearly) everything inside keydir/ that a gitolite administrator can do when pushing to the gitolite-admin repository directly.

  • guest key manager: A user who is a member of the @guest-key-managers group.

A guest key manager can manage a set of guest keys.

  • self key manager: A user who is a member of the @self-key-managers group.

A self key manager can manage a set of his/her own keys.

  • KEYID: an identifier for a key given on the command line

The KEYID is normalized to lowercase letters.

If the script is called by one of the super key managers, then the KEYID is the path to the pubkey file relative to the keydir/ without the .pub extension.

If called by a guest key manager it's an email address and if called by a self key manager, it's an alphanumeric identifier with an @ prepended.

  • USERID: The KEYID given on the command line will be translated into a USERID which is used inside conf/gitolite.conf or for the perms command of gitolite.

Security note

Super key managers can basically add any key. Guest key managers are not allowed to add multiple keys and this restriction is hardcoded.

Suppose Alice adds as and David adds under the keyid (Of course, only Eve and not Bob has the private key correspoinding to This basically gives Eve the same rights as Bob.

Important notes for the admin

Note that ukm clones, changes, and pushes back the gitolite-admin repo. This means, even if you are the only administrator, you should never git push -f, because that might override something ukm did.


The command ukm has been created with also having the keysubdirs-as-groups syntactic sugar in mind. If a super key manager manages the respective keys in sub-directories with names guest-key-managers/ and self-key-managers/, respectively, he/she can use the ukm command to control who is allowed to manage keys.