Setup of a self-hosted Yubico OTP validation server

This document will guide you through setting up a validation server for validating OTPs from YubiKeys. If you’re not interested in running your own server, you can use the YubiCloud service instead.


There are two main components in a Yubico OTP validation server, the Key Storage Module (KSM), and the Validation Server. Both of these are required for OTP validation, and either one can be replicated for redundancy. You could have a single server running both of these, multiple servers each running both KSM and Validation Server, or separate servers for each instance of KSM, and for each instance of Validation Server, all depending on your needs and network topology.

Key Storage Module (KSM)

The KSM is the keeper of the individual YubiKey secrets. For each Yubico OTP credential in use by the system, there exists an AES key, as well as a private identity. These are associated with the public ID of the credential, and must be kept secret. Using these secret values an OTP can be decrypted and validated, which ensures the authenticity of the OTP. More precisely, that a given OTP was generated on a specific YubiKey. Once decrypted and validated, the KSM extracts the counters and timer data from the OTP.

Any time a new Yubico OTP credential is added to the system, the secret values need to be added to the KSM. You can optionally use a YubiHSM USB device to keep these secret values secure, even in the event of a KSM server becoming compromised. Due to the increased safety gained by using a YubiHSM, this is the approach we recommend.

Validation Server

While the KSM decrypts and validates the authenticity of OTPs, it does not keep a record of which authentic OTPs are invalid due to previous use. To ensure that each OTP can only be used once, and that older OTPs are invalidated once a later OTP is used, we have a Validation Server. The Validation server keeps track of the last seen counter values for each YubiKey credential, and enforces that these continue to increment for each new OTP. The purpose of this is to prevent replay attacks from being possible.


For this guide we start with a fresh installation of Ubuntu Server 16.04 (TLS). Because we will be using the latest versions available of Yubico software, we add the Yubico PPA:

sudo apt-get install software-properties-common
sudo add-apt-repository ppa:yubico/stable
sudo apt-get update

We will be programming a YubiKey for testing purposes, and for that we will need to install ykpersonalize:

sudo apt-get install yubikey-personalization

Installing the KSM

For the Key Storage Module we will use yhsm-yubikey-ksm, which is part of the python-pyhsm project. This server can be used with or without a YubiHSM device. First, we install the required packages:

sudo apt-get install yhsm-yubikey-ksm

Now, as we will not be using a YubiHSM for in this guide, we need to create a master key for encrypting Now we need to create a master key for decrypting Yubico OTP secrets with, and since we will not be using a YubiHSM in this guide, we do so by creating a plaintext file:

sudo mkdir -p /etc/yubico/yhsm
sudo nano /etc/yubico/yhsm/keys.json

The file should contain a JSON object with key handles mapped to AES keys in hex format, we will use this example:

  "1": "000102030405060708090a0b0c0d0e0f"

We save and close the file, and we now have a keyhandle "1" set up to use a dummy AES key. You will want to replace the value used in this example with a randomly generated key. While you can have multiple key handles, we will stick to using this single one in this guide. Because we want to limit the access to this file, we change ownership and permissions of the file to be readable only by the yhsm-ksmsrv user, which was created during the installation of the software:

sudo chown yhsm-ksmsrv /etc/yubico/yhsm/keys.json
sudo chmod 400 /etc/yubico/yhsm/keys.json

Now, we need to configure the yhsm-yubikey-ksm server to use this file, and to start automatically on boot. Start by editing the configuration file:

sudo nano /etc/default/yhsm-yubikey-ksm

Change the following values:


Then save and close the file.


By default the yhsm-yubikey-ksm daemon will listen on port 8002 on the loopback interface only. This means that you will be able to access the service from the local machine, but not remotely. We recommend keeping this setting this way, and exposing the port only to the Validation Server(s) which will be using it. Remote Validation Servers can access the port by proxying it through another web server (with authentication) or tunneled through SSH, etc. Opening this port to the Internet without authentication will expose the server to DoS attacks (denial of service).

Now let’s start the service, and verify that it is running:

sudo service yhsm-yubikey-ksm restart
curl http://localhost:8002/wsapi/decrypt?otp=
ERR Invalid OTP

The ERR line tells us that the server is running, and the Invalid OTP message is expected, since we didn’t actually send an OTP.

Adding credentials to the KSM

The KSM isn’t very useful until we’ve added some credentials to it. We’ll now do just that, as well as program a YubiKey with one of those credentials. We’ll use the yhsm-generate-keys command for this, which takes several parameters. First off, we need to give it the keys.json file from earlier, as it needs access to the master AES key for encrypting the secrets. Second, we tell it which key-handle to use (we’ll use 1, since that’s the only one we’ve defined. Next we’ll give it an offset of where to start in the public ID namespace, and how many credentials to generate. It’s important to note that each credential must have a unique ID in the system, and if we generate more keys in the future we should take care not to generate any ID collisions. For example, if we choose our starting ID to be 1 and generate 10 credentials, the next invocation we should start at 11. The initial ID can be chosen arbitrarily (but avoid using 0, as it has some compatibility issues), and can be given as a decimal number, or a modhex value.

Now, let’s generate 10 new credentials:

sudo yhsm-generate-keys -D /etc/yubico/yhsm/keys.json --key-handle 1 --start-public-id interncccccc -c 10

The following commands show decrypting of OTP secrets, and handling of secrets on a command line. This example is for testing purposed ONLY. You should take extreme care when handling production secrets and avoid passing them as command line arguments, as they may become visible to other parts of the system or logged.

We now have 10 randomly generated credentials which are encrypted and stored in /var/cache/yubikey-ksm/aeads/1/. Let’s decrypt one of them and program a YubiKey with it:

sudo yhsm-decrypt-aead --aes-key 000102030405060708090a0b0c0d0e0f --key-handle 1 --format yubikey-csv /var/cache/yubikey-ksm/aeads/

The output lists all 10 of our YubiKey credentials in decrypted form. We pick one of the credentials and program a YubiKey with it. In my case, one of the credentials looked like this:


The relevant parts are:

Public ID: interncccccc
Private ID: 9949741dc5c7
Secret AES Key: 60d82797fbcab4c0ef08e79cfdc54a94

We can now use ykpersonalize to program a YubiKey with the credential:

ykpersonalize -1 -ofixed=interncccccc -ouid=9949741dc5c7 -a60d82797fbcab4c0ef08e79cfdc54a94

After confirming, we can run the previous curl command again, but this time we’ll end with an OTP from our newly programmed YubiKey:

curl http://localhost:8002/wsapi/decrypt?otp=interncccccctkbngftibfuvvbihrdjguvnrcdihejut
OK counter=0001 low=5d6e high=cb use=00

Success! The KSM is correctly decrypting OTPs from the YubiKey.

Installing the Validation Server

The YubiKey Validation Server is a PHP application which requires a HTTP server to run, as well as a database to store data in. In this guide we will be using Apache and MySQL.

We start by installing the package with dependencies:

sudo apt-get install yubikey-val libapache2-mod-php

The installation will pull in and configure MySQL, prompting us to set a root password. It will also set up the necessary database tables for us and prompt us for a password for the ykval_verifier user. When everything is set up we will have Apache running on the default port (80), serving the YubiKey Validation Server API, which we again can verify using curl:

curl http://localhost/wsapi/2.0/verify

En error, but expected as we didn’t pass any parameters.

Testing the Validation server

The default configuration of the YubiKey Validation Server should pick up our KSM already, which is already configured for our previously programmed YubiKey, so the Validation Server should be able to validate OTPs immediately. The validation protocol requires a few parameters be sent, so let’s try it out:

curl "http://localhost/wsapi/2.0/verify?id=1&nonce=0123456789abcdef&otp=internccccccvunvcnjucfjefvfkbbjunhutdhucbclt"

Success! The required parameters were a client ID (we used 1), a nonce (needs to be 16-40 characters long), and an OTP from our YubiKey.

Now, let’s verify that the very same OTP isn’t accepted again (that would be a replay attack). We’ll pick a new nonce, but other than that send the same request again, using the same OTP:

curl "http://localhost/wsapi/2.0/verify?id=1&nonce=abababababababab&otp=internccccccvunvcnjucfjefvfkbbjunhutdhucbclt"

As the response clearly shows, the Validation Server correctly identified that this was a replayed OTP.

Using a YubiCloud Connector library

Crafting requests by hand is great for testing and learning about how the system works, but not very practical. There are several libraries and plugins available to validate Yubico OTPs, and to use one of these you will need to provide the URL of your Validation Server, but also a client ID and secret. When we installed the yubikey-val package a single client ID was automatically generated for us, with and ID of 1. We can generate more client ID’s using the ykval-gen-clients command:

sudo ykval-gen-clients --urandom 5

We’ve now generated 5 additional clients, and their IDs and secrets are shown on screen. We can also export existing clients by using the ykval-export-clients command:

sudo ykval-export-clients

…which will print out the entire list of clients, with their respective secrets.

To use a YubiCloud connector library, configure it using the URL for your Validation Server, and a client ID and secret pair. For example, you can use the python yubico-client library like so:

>>> from yubico_client import Yubico
>>> client = Yubico('2', 'a9gs00XkgfNUlOhnsmKiu4ydkcU=', api_urls=('',))
>>> client.verify('internccccccfknfujreehclgcduninhvrcjrbkiglne')

There are several YubiCloud connector libraries for different languages to choose from, some can be found here.