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Introduction

OpenSSL is a free and open-source cryptographic library that provides several command-line tools for handling digital certificates. Some of these tools can be used to act as a certificate authority.

A certificate authority (CA) is an entity that signs digital certificates. Many websites need to let their customers know that the connection is secure, so they pay an internationally trusted CA (eg, VeriSign, DigiCert) to sign a certificate for their domain.

In some cases it may make more sense to act as your own CA, rather than paying a CA like DigiCert. Common cases include securing an intranet website, or for issuing certificates to clients to allow them to authenticate to a server (eg, Apache, OpenVPN).

 

Create the root pair

Acting as a certificate authority (CA) means dealing with cryptographic pairs of private keys and public certificates. The very first cryptographic pair we’ll create is the root pair. This consists of the root key (ca.key.pem) and root certificate (ca.cert.pem). This pair forms the identity of your CA.

Typically, the root CA does not sign server or client certificates directly. The root CA is only ever used to create one or more intermediate CAs, which are trusted by the root CA to sign certificates on their behalf. This is best practice. It allows the root key to be kept offline and unused as much as possible, as any compromise of the root key is disastrous.

Note

It’s best practice to create the root pair in a secure environment. Ideally, this should be on a fully encrypted, air gapped computer that is permanently isolated from the Internet. Remove the wireless card and fill the ethernet port with glue.

Prepare the directory

Choose a directory (/root/ca) to store all keys and certificates.

# mkdir /root/ca

Create the directory structure. The index.txt and serial files act as a flat file database to keep track of signed certificates.

# cd /root/ca
# mkdir certs crl newcerts private
# chmod 700 private
# touch index.txt
# echo 1000 > serial
Prepare the configuration file

You must create a configuration file for OpenSSL to use. Copy the root CA configuration file from the Appendix to /root/ca/openssl.cnf.

The [ ca ] section is mandatory. Here we tell OpenSSL to use the options from the [ CA_default ] section.

[ ca ]
# `man ca`
default_ca = CA_default

The [ CA_default ] section contains a range of defaults. Make sure you declare the directory you chose earlier (/root/ca).

[ CA_default ]
# Directory and file locations.
dir               = /root/ca
certs             = $dir/certs
crl_dir           = $dir/crl
new_certs_dir     = $dir/newcerts
database          = $dir/index.txt
serial            = $dir/serial
RANDFILE          = $dir/private/.rand

# The root key and root certificate.
private_key       = $dir/private/ca.key.pem
certificate       = $dir/certs/ca.cert.pem

# For certificate revocation lists.
crlnumber         = $dir/crlnumber
crl               = $dir/crl/ca.crl.pem
crl_extensions    = crl_ext
default_crl_days  = 30

# SHA-1 is deprecated, so use SHA-2 instead.
default_md        = sha256

name_opt          = ca_default
cert_opt          = ca_default
default_days      = 375
preserve          = no
policy            = policy_strict

We’ll apply policy_strict for all root CA signatures, as the root CA is only being used to create intermediate CAs.

[ policy_strict ]
# The root CA should only sign intermediate certificates that match.
# See the POLICY FORMAT section of `man ca`.
countryName             = match
stateOrProvinceName     = match
organizationName        = match
organizationalUnitName  = optional
commonName              = supplied
emailAddress            = optional

We’ll apply policy_loose for all intermediate CA signatures, as the intermediate CA is signing server and client certificates that may come from a variety of third-parties.

[ policy_loose ]
# Allow the intermediate CA to sign a more diverse range of certificates.
# See the POLICY FORMAT section of the `ca` man page.
countryName             = optional
stateOrProvinceName     = optional
localityName            = optional
organizationName        = optional
organizationalUnitName  = optional
commonName              = supplied
emailAddress            = optional

Options from the [ req ] section are applied when creating certificates or certificate signing requests.

[ req ]
# Options for the `req` tool (`man req`).
default_bits        = 2048
distinguished_name  = req_distinguished_name
string_mask         = utf8only

# SHA-1 is deprecated, so use SHA-2 instead.
default_md          = sha256

# Extension to add when the -x509 option is used.
x509_extensions     = v3_ca

The [ req_distinguished_name ] section declares the information normally required in a certificate signing request. You can optionally specify some defaults.

[ req_distinguished_name ]
# See <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Certificate_signing_request>.
countryName                     = Country Name (2 letter code)
stateOrProvinceName             = State or Province Name
localityName                    = Locality Name
0.organizationName              = Organization Name
organizationalUnitName          = Organizational Unit Name
commonName                      = Common Name
emailAddress                    = Email Address

# Optionally, specify some defaults.
countryName_default             = GB
stateOrProvinceName_default     = England
localityName_default            =
0.organizationName_default      = Alice Ltd
#organizationalUnitName_default =
#emailAddress_default           =

The next few sections are extensions that can be applied when signing certificates. For example, passing the -extensions v3_ca command-line argument will apply the options set in [ v3_ca ].

We’ll apply the v3_ca extension when we create the root certificate.

[ v3_ca ]
# Extensions for a typical CA (`man x509v3_config`).
subjectKeyIdentifier = hash
authorityKeyIdentifier = keyid:always,issuer
basicConstraints = critical, CA:true
keyUsage = critical, digitalSignature, cRLSign, keyCertSign

We’ll apply the v3_ca_intermediate extension when we create the intermediate certificate. pathlen:0 ensures that there can be no further certificate authorities below the intermediate CA.

[ v3_intermediate_ca ]
# Extensions for a typical intermediate CA (`man x509v3_config`).
subjectKeyIdentifier = hash
authorityKeyIdentifier = keyid:always,issuer
basicConstraints = critical, CA:true, pathlen:0
keyUsage = critical, digitalSignature, cRLSign, keyCertSign

We’ll apply the usr_cert extension when signing client certificates, such as those used for remote user authentication.

[ usr_cert ]
# Extensions for client certificates (`man x509v3_config`).
basicConstraints = CA:FALSE
nsCertType = client, email
nsComment = "OpenSSL Generated Client Certificate"
subjectKeyIdentifier = hash
authorityKeyIdentifier = keyid,issuer
keyUsage = critical, nonRepudiation, digitalSignature, keyEncipherment
extendedKeyUsage = clientAuth, emailProtection

We’ll apply the server_cert extension when signing server certificates, such as those used for web servers.

[ server_cert ]
# Extensions for server certificates (`man x509v3_config`).
basicConstraints = CA:FALSE
nsCertType = server
nsComment = "OpenSSL Generated Server Certificate"
subjectKeyIdentifier = hash
authorityKeyIdentifier = keyid,issuer:always
keyUsage = critical, digitalSignature, keyEncipherment
extendedKeyUsage = serverAuth

The crl_ext extension is automatically applied when creating certificate revocation lists.

[ crl_ext ]
# Extension for CRLs (`man x509v3_config`).
authorityKeyIdentifier=keyid:always

We’ll apply the ocsp extension when signing the Online Certificate Status Protocol (OCSP) certificate.

[ ocsp ]
# Extension for OCSP signing certificates (`man ocsp`).
basicConstraints = CA:FALSE
subjectKeyIdentifier = hash
authorityKeyIdentifier = keyid,issuer
keyUsage = critical, digitalSignature
extendedKeyUsage = critical, OCSPSigning
Create the root key

Create the root key (ca.key.pem) and keep it absolutely secure. Anyone in possession of the root key can issue trusted certificates. Encrypt the root key with AES 256-bit encryption and a strong password.

Note

Use 4096 bits for all root and intermediate certificate authority keys. You’ll still be able to sign server and client certificates of a shorter length.

# cd /root/ca
# openssl genrsa -aes256 -out private/ca.key.pem 4096

Enter pass phrase for ca.key.pem: secretpassword
Verifying - Enter pass phrase for ca.key.pem: secretpassword

# chmod 400 private/ca.key.pem
Create the root certificate

Use the root key (ca.key.pem) to create a root certificate (ca.cert.pem). Give the root certificate a long expiry date, such as twenty years. Once the root certificate expires, all certificates signed by the CA become invalid.

Warning

Whenever you use the req tool, you must specify a configuration file to use with the -config option, otherwise OpenSSL will default to/etc/pki/tls/openssl.cnf.

# cd /root/ca
# openssl req -config openssl.cnf \
      -key private/ca.key.pem \
      -new -x509 -days 7300 -sha256 -extensions v3_ca \
      -out certs/ca.cert.pem

Enter pass phrase for ca.key.pem: secretpassword
You are about to be asked to enter information that will be incorporated
into your certificate request.
-----
Country Name (2 letter code) [XX]:GB
State or Province Name []:England
Locality Name []:
Organization Name []:Alice Ltd
Organizational Unit Name []:Alice Ltd Certificate Authority
Common Name []:Alice Ltd Root CA
Email Address []:

# chmod 444 certs/ca.cert.pem
Verify the root certificate
# openssl x509 -noout -text -in certs/ca.cert.pem

The output shows:

  • the Signature Algorithm used
  • the dates of certificate Validity
  • the Public-Key bit length
  • the Issuer, which is the entity that signed the certificate
  • the Subject, which refers to the certificate itself

The Issuer and Subject are identical as the certificate is self-signed. Note that all root certificates are self-signed.

Signature Algorithm: sha256WithRSAEncryption
    Issuer: C=GB, ST=England,
            O=Alice Ltd, OU=Alice Ltd Certificate Authority,
            CN=Alice Ltd Root CA
    Validity
        Not Before: Apr 11 12:22:58 2015 GMT
        Not After : Apr  6 12:22:58 2035 GMT
    Subject: C=GB, ST=England,
             O=Alice Ltd, OU=Alice Ltd Certificate Authority,
             CN=Alice Ltd Root CA
    Subject Public Key Info:
        Public Key Algorithm: rsaEncryption
            Public-Key: (4096 bit)

The output also shows the X509v3 extensions. We applied the v3_ca extension, so the options from [ v3_ca ] should be reflected in the output.

X509v3 extensions:
    X509v3 Subject Key Identifier:
        38:58:29:2F:6B:57:79:4F:39:FD:32:35:60:74:92:60:6E:E8:2A:31
    X509v3 Authority Key Identifier:
        keyid:38:58:29:2F:6B:57:79:4F:39:FD:32:35:60:74:92:60:6E:E8:2A:31

    X509v3 Basic Constraints: critical
        CA:TRUE
    X509v3 Key Usage: critical
        Digital Signature, Certificate Sign, CRL Sign