Hopefully everyone is familiar with ESXi's Lockdown Mode and what it means from a security standpoint. Here is a table of the behavior between normal and Lockdown Mode:
In ESXi 5, the use of SSH keys is officially supported without having to manually create any hacks to preserve .ssh directory as you did with prior releases of ESXi. If you use Lockdown Mode, there is an additional caveat to be aware of in which the use of SSH keys is able to by-pass the Lockdown Mode configuration for an ESXi 5 host.
Here is a quick example demonstrating the process from VMware's VCVA (vCenter Virtual Appliance):
Step 1 - Create SSH keys
vcenter50-1:~ # ssh-keygen -t dsa
Generating public/private dsa key pair.
Enter file in which to save the key (/root/.ssh/id_dsa):
Enter passphrase (empty for no passphrase):
Enter same passphrase again:
Your identification has been saved in /root/.ssh/id_dsa.
Your public key has been saved in /root/.ssh/id_dsa.pub.
The key fingerprint is:
The key's randomart image is:
+--[ DSA 1024]----+
|=. o . |
| o. .+ o. |
| ..+oo.. . |
|. E=..o S |
|. = + |
| = . |
|. o |
| ..o |
Step 2 - Copy SSH public keys over to destination ESXi 5 host into the authorized file under /etc/ssh/keys-root/authorized_keys
vcenter50-1:~ # scp .ssh/id_dsa.pub root@vesxi50-4:/etc/ssh/keys-root/authorized_keys
id_dsa.pub 100% 606 0.6KB/s 00:00
Step 3 - Enable Lockdown Mode via vCenter
Step 4 - SSH into locked down ESXi 5 host utilizing SSH keys
By default the support of SSH is enabled, you will need to manually disable it to ensure that you are fully lockdown when you choose to enable Lockdown Mode. To disable SSH key support, you just need to comment the following line in /etc/ssh/sshd_config
# AuthorizedKeysFile /etc/ssh/keys-%u/authorized_keys
The change takes effect right away and you do not need to restart the SSH daemon.
If you are interested in automatically disabling the use of SSH keys or you would like to copy an existing SSH key into your ESXi 5 host via kickstart, take a look at Automating ESXi 5.x Kickstart Tips & Tricks for more details.