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October 17, 2014

Renewing an SSL Certificate Without Even Logging in to My Server

Yesterday I renewed the about-to-expire SSL certificate for one of my websites. I did so without running a single command, filling out a single form, taking out my credit card, or even logging into any server. All I did was open a link in an email and click a single button. Soon after, my website was serving a renewed certificate to visitors.

It's all thanks to the auto-renewal feature offered by my SSL certificate management startup, SSLMate, which I finally had a chance to dogfood yesterday with a real, live expiring certificate.

There are two halves to auto-renewals. The first, relatively straightforward half, is that the SSLMate service is constantly monitoring the expiration dates of my certificates. Shortly before a certificate expires, SSLMate requests a new certificate from a certificate authority. As with any SSL certificate purchase, the certificate authority emails me a link which I have to click to confirm that I still control the domain. Once I've done that, the certificate authority delivers the new certificate to SSLMate, and SSLMate stores it in my SSLMate account. SSLMate charges the credit card already on file in my account, just like any subscription service.

But a certificate isn't very useful sitting in my SSLMate account. It needs to be installed on my web servers so that visitors are served with the new certificate. This is the second half of auto-renewals. If I were using a typical SSL certificate vendor, this step would probably involve downloading an email attachment, unzipping it, correctly assembling the certificate bundle, installing it on each of my servers, and restarting my services. This is tedious, and worse, it's error-prone. And as someone who believes strongly in devops, it offends my sensibilities.

Fortunately, SSLMate isn't a typical SSL certificate vendor. SSLMate comes with a command line tool to help manage your SSL certificates. Each of my servers runs the following script daily (technically, it runs from a configuration management system, but it could just as easily run from a cron job in /etc/cron.daily):

#!/bin/sh

if sslmate download --all
then
	service apache2 restart
	service titus restart
fi

exit 0

The sslmate download command downloads certificates from my SSLMate account to the /etc/sslmate directory on the server. --all tells sslmate to look at the private keys in /etc/sslmate and download the corresponding certificate for each one (alternatively, I could explicitly specify certificate common names on the command line). sslmate download exits with a zero status code if new certificates were downloaded, or a non-zero status if the certificates were already up-to-date. The if condition tests for a zero exit code, and restarts my SSL-using services if new certificates were downloaded.

On most days of the year, this script does nothing, since my certificates are already up-to-date. But on days when a certificate has been renewed, it comes to life, downloading new certificate files (not just the certificate, but also the chain certificate) and restarting services so that they use the new files. This is devops at its finest, applied to SSL certificate renewals for the first time.

You may be wondering - is it a good idea to do this unattended? I think so. First, the risk of installing a broken certificate is very low, and certainly lower than when an installation is done by hand. Since SSLMate takes care of assembling the certificate bundle for you, there's no risk of forgetting to include the chain certificate or including the wrong one. Chain certificate problems are notoriously difficult to debug, since they don't materialize in all browsers. While tools such as SSL Labs are invaluable for verifying certificate installation, they can only tell you about a problem after you've installed a bad certificate, which is too late to avoid downtime. Instead, it's better to automate certificate installation to eliminate the possibility of human error.

I'm also unconcerned about restarting Apache unattended. sslmate download contains a failsafe that refuses to install a new certificate if it doesn't match the private key, ensuring that it won't install a certificate that would prevent Apache from starting. And I haven't done anything reckless with my Apache configuration that might make restarts unreliable. Besides, it's already essential to be comfortable with restarting system services, since you may be required to restart a service at any time in response to a security update.

One more thing: this certificate wasn't originally purchased through SSLMate, yet SSLMate was able to renew it, thanks to SSLMate's upcoming import feature. A new command, sslmate import, will let you import your existing certificates to your SSLMate account. Once imported, you can set up your auto-renewal cron job, and you'll be all set when your certificates begin to expire. And you'll be charged only when a certificate renews; importing certificates will be free.

sslmate import is in beta testing and will be released soon. If you're interested in taking part in the beta, shoot an email to sslmate@sslmate.com. Also consider subscribing to the SSLMate blog or following @SSLMate on Twitter so you get future announcements - we have a lot of exciting development in the pipeline.

Posted on 2014-10-17 at 17:34:55 UTC | Comments