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Mini tutorial for configuring client-side SSL certificates.

Client-side SSL

For excessively paranoid client authentication.

Updated Apr 5 2019:

because this is a gist from 2011 that people stumble into and maybe you should AES instead of 3DES in the year of our lord 2019.

some other notes:

I've noticed that across platforms, some browsers/devices like like PFX bundles, others like PEMs, some things will import ECC certs just fine but fail to list them in the "select certificate" menu when the server wants it. Server-side stuff seems good, with most things supporting ECC, but clients are a crapshoot. I'd say unless you've got some time to experiment, you may want to stick to RSA.

(In my own dev servers i just ended up configuring both an RSA CA and an ECC CA and using them both on the server, and provisioning one of each type for each client and trying them both. if, like nginx, your server only lets you use one CA cert root, you can concatenate multiple CA PEMs together and then use that combined file.)

Using self-signed certificate.

Create a Certificate Authority root

This'll represent you / your org / your server -- basically the thing that vouches for the validity of a key.


# OPTION ONE: RSA key. these are very well-supported around the internet.
# you can swap out 4096 for whatever RSA key size you want. this'll generate a key
# with password "xxxx" and then turn around and re-export it without a password,
# because genrsa doesn't work without a password of at least 4 characters.
# some appliance hardware only works w/2048 so if you're doing IOT keep that in
# mind as you generate CA and client keys. i've found that frirefox & chrome will
# happily work with stuff in the bigger 8192 ranges, but doing that vs sticking with
# 4096 doesn't buy you that much extra practical security anyway.

openssl genrsa -aes256 -passout pass:xxxx -out ca.pass.key 4096
openssl rsa -passin pass:xxxx -in ca.pass.key -out ca.key
rm ca.pass.key

# OPTION TWO: make an elliptic curve-based key.
# support for ECC varies widely, and support for the predefined curves also varies.
# it's "secp256r1" in this case, which is as well-supported as it gets but if you want to
# avoid NIST-provided things, or if you want to go with bigger/newer keys, you can
# swap that out:
# * check your openssl supported curves: `openssl ecparam -list_curves`
# * check client support for whatever browser/language/system/device you want to use:

openssl ecparam -genkey -name secp256r1 | openssl ec -out ca.key

###### END  "PICK ONE" SECTION ######

# whichever you picked, you should now have a `ca.key` file.

# now generate the CA root cert
# when prompted, use whatever you'd like, but i'd recommend some human-readable Organization
# and Common Name.
openssl req -new -x509 -days 3650 -key ca.key -out ca.pem

Create the Client Key and CSR

# client_id is *only* for the output filenames
# incrementing the serial number is important

###### (instrux in the CA section above) ######
# rsa
openssl genrsa -aes256 -passout pass:xxxx -out ${CLIENT_ID}.pass.key 4096
openssl rsa -passin pass:xxxx -in ${CLIENT_ID}.pass.key -out ${CLIENT_ID}.key
rm ${CLIENT_ID}.pass.key
# ec
openssl ecparam -genkey -name secp256r1 | openssl ec -out ${CLIENT_ID}.key
###### END  "PICK ONE" SECTION ######

# whichever you picked, you should now have a `client.key` file.

# generate the CSR
# i think the Common Name is the only important thing here. think of it like
# a display name or login.
openssl req -new -key ${CLIENT_ID}.key -out ${CLIENT_ID}.csr

# issue this certificate, signed by the CA root we made in the previous section
openssl x509 -req -days 3650 -in ${CLIENT_ID}.csr -CA ca.pem -CAkey ca.key -set_serial ${CLIENT_SERIAL} -out ${CLIENT_ID}.pem

Bundle the private key & cert for end-user client use

basically , with the entire trust chain

cat ${CLIENT_ID}.key ${CLIENT_ID}.pem ca.pem > ${CLIENT_ID}.full.pem

Bundle client key into a PFX file

Most browsers will happily use this if they don't like the raw ascii PEM file. You'll possibly need to set a password here, which you'll need on the browser/client end when you import the key+cert PFX bundle.

openssl pkcs12 -export -out ${CLIENT_ID}.full.pfx -inkey ${CLIENT_ID}.key -in ${CLIENT_ID}.pem -certfile ca.pem

Install Client Key on client device (OS or browser)

Use client.full.pfx (most commonly accepted in GUI apps) and/or client.full.pem. Actual instructions vary.

Install CA cert on nginx

So that the Web server knows to ask for (and validate) a user's Client Key against the internal CA certificate.

ssl_client_certificate /path/to/ca.pem;
ssl_verify_client optional; # or `on` if you require client key

Configure nginx to pass the authentication data to the backend application:

See also:

Using CACert Keys


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concise and helpful. Right to the point. Many thanks for this

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Thank you so much!

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CassianoSF commented May 24, 2019

I'am trying to connect to a MariaDB instance hosted on AWS RDS, my application requires ca.pem, client-cert.pem and client-key.pem, and Amazon only gives me a rds-combined-ca-bundle.pem

I don't know much about TLS. I need to generate those files?

When I follow the Create the Client Key and CSR it outputs:
CA certificate and CA private key do not match

${CLIENT_ID}.key is equivalent to client-key.pem?
${CLIENT_ID}.csr is equivalent to client-cert.pem?

Any one can give me a light?

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It needs a lot of time spent + expertise to be able to tackle something as cryptic (for me) as creating own chain of certificates and present it in such a plain way :) thanks for the hard work - worked like a charm for internal UCP

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Helpfull, thanks.

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Diaoul commented Oct 11, 2019

I suggest using -CAserial file instead of -set_serial which will eventually get out of sync.

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This has got to be one of the best examples I have read, but I am still getting an error:
2021/04/28 20:35:52 [info] 792584#792584: *1 SSL_do_handshake() failed (SSL: error:14094418:SSL routines:ssl3_read_bytes:tlsv1 alert unknown ca:SSL alert number 48) while SSL handshaking, client:, server:

I am using with mqtt, and I used the pem file 01-alice.full.pem to sign rather than supplying CAFile, key and crt as I used to

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