11.6. Setting Up an SSL Server
Secure Sockets Layer
) is a cryptographic protocol that allows a server and a client to communicate securely. Along with its extended and improved version called Transport Layer Security
), it ensures both privacy and data integrity. The Apache HTTP Server in combination with
, a module that uses the OpenSSL toolkit to provide the SSL/TLS support, is commonly referred to as the SSL server
Unlike a regular HTTP connection that can be read and possibly modified by anybody who is able to intercept it, the use of
mod_ssl prevents any inspection or modification of the transmitted content. This section provides basic information on how to enable this module in the Apache HTTP Server configuration, and guides you through the process of generating private keys and self-signed certificates.
11.6.1. An Overview of Certificates and Security
Secure communication is based on the use of keys. In conventional or symmetric cryptography, both ends of the transaction have the same key they can use to decode each other's transmissions. On the other hand, in public or asymmetric cryptography, two keys co-exist: a private key that is kept a secret, and a public key that is usually shared with the public. While the data encoded with the public key can only be decoded with the private key, data encoded with the private key can in turn only be decoded with the public key.
To provide secure communications using SSL, an SSL server must use a digital certificate signed by a Certificate Authority
). The certificate lists various attributes of the server (that is, the server hostname, the name of the company, its location, etc.), and the signature produced using the CA's private key. This signature ensures that a particular certificate authority has issued the certificate, and that the certificate has not been modified in any way.
When a web browser establishes a new SSL connection, it checks the certificate provided by the web server. If the certificate does not have a signature from a trusted CA, or if the hostname listed in the certificate does not match the hostname used to establish the connection, it refuses to communicate with the server and usually presents a user with an appropriate error message.
By default, most web browsers are configured to trust a set of widely used certificate authorities. Because of this, an appropriate CA should be chosen when setting up a secure server, so that target users can trust the connection, otherwise they will be presented with an error message, and will have to accept the certificate manually. Since encouraging users to override certificate errors can allow an attacker to intercept the connection, you should use a trusted CA whenever possible. For more information on this, see Table 11.22, “CA lists for most common web browsers”
When setting up an SSL server, you need to generate a certificate request and a private key, and then send the certificate request, proof of the company's identity, and payment to a certificate authority. Once the CA verifies the certificate request and your identity, it will send you a signed certificate you can use with your server. Alternatively, you can create a self-signed certificate that does not contain a CA signature, and thus should be used for testing purposes only.