A Guide to Free CA-Signed Certificates

Jan 31, 2016

Securing a website used to be an expensive process. Although certificates have been slowly getting cheaper, they’ve still on par with the cost of the domain name that they’re protecting, and getting one issued was often complex and error prone. Furthermore, in a pre-SNI world, HTTPS connections needed to be terminated at a unique IP address, making it prohibitively expensive for hosts to offer low cost encryption to their users.

In an attempt to unwind some of the mistakes that were made around security in the earlier ages of the Internet, browsers are starting to prod service providers in the right direction. For example, in the near future Chrome will start shaming websites that aren’t encrypted and Firefox will start red flagging login forms that come in over HTTP.

The good news is that we’re now living in a golden age of secure connections. The price of CA-signed certificates is trending toward zero, and if you’re a savvy user who knows where to look, you can easily get one for free already today. Support for SNI is now widespread enough that hosts have a cheap mechanism for offering secure termination for all their users. Encryption may be especially critical for banks and Facebook, but it belongs on every site online: shopping sites (even pre-checkout), blogs, marketing landing pages, personal websites, and everything in between. Hopefully by reading this guide, you’ll realize that there aren’t any excuses for running an insecure website anymore, so come on, let’s encrypt!

Website: www.cloudflare.com

Although CloudFlare is largely known for being a CDN, they’ve been more quietly offering a great certificate-issuing and TLS terminating service for some time now. It’s easy to use, and is especially ideal for anyone who’s hosting content on another service that already offers secure termination (like Heroku or GitHub pages), but who would like to have a custom domain name. You also get the added benefit of CloudFlare’s CDN services, which can be had for free.

The good:

  • Unbelievably easy. Especially if you’re already hosting your DNS with them, getting a secured endpoint involves as little as creating a new record, specifying a target origin, and clicking the little cloud icon to turn it on.
  • Automatic rotation. You don’t even have to know or understand what’s happening, but can restly safely reassured that your users will have continued access to your services without suddenly getting hit with a red expired certificate page because one of your ops people forgot to get a new one issued.

The bad:

  • Certificates are local to CloudFlare, and you can’t export them and bring them with you. Using CloudFlare’s CDN services is appropriate to just about everyone though, so that’s fine for a lot of different cases, but
  • CloudFlare still defaults to “flexible mode” that allows a target origin server to be serving content over HTTP even if CloudFlare itself is terminating over HTTPS. This option is provided for user convenience (and it should be noted that it’s still better than no TLS), but allows unwary users to unwittingly build themselves an unsafe setup.

I should also note for the pundits that CloudFlare’s magic works by by SNI, and as such may not work for clients that are using absolutely ancient technology for browsing. As of today, “Can I Use …?” estimates support at 97+% globally, so an SNI-based solution is probably appropriate for you as long as you’re running an operation that’s smaller than Google.

Website: letsencrypt.com

Let’s Encrypt is free CA run by the ISRG (Internet Security Research Group) with the charter of providing free certificates in an open and transparent way to help secure the Internet. They’re been making waves lately, and the turning point that we’re seeing around the cost of CA-signed certificates on the Internet could reasonably be attributed to their work.

The good:

  • Let’s Encrypt is by far the most flexible of any of these solutions in that they’ll issue a certificate with private key and all. That means you can take these certificates with you and use them with any other service of your choice.
  • They’ve built out a great set of tools that allow you to easily get a certificate safely installed for common web servers like Nginx or Apache.
  • They’ve been working hard on building a standardized protocol to verify domain ownership and issue certificates called ACME which will help further commoditize Internet security, and curb user error during the issuing process.
  • Let’s Encrypt is a project built in collaboration with the Linux Foundation, and they don’t have any hidden agendas (or relative to any of these other services as least). You can feel good about yourself for using the service.

The bad:

  • No wildcard certificates for the foreseeable future. That said, a great API that allows for easy automation goes a long way towards compensating for this.

Website: aws.amazon.com/certificate-manager

A brand new entrant is AWS Certificate Manager (ACM), which finally gives us the missing link for building secure services on Amazon. ACM is AWS-only, but is easy to use through either their API or web console, and plugs right into a CloudFront distribution or ELB (Elastic Load Balancer).

The good:

  • ACM will issue wildcard certificates for free, a feature which isn’t currently available from any other provider. This isn’t a profound difference given that certificates are free anyway, but it saves you from having to re-issue a certificate for every new domain you deploy. It’s perfect if you have a microservices-like setup hosted on AWS.
  • Like with CloudFlare, you automatic certificate rotation. This kind of peace of mind is worth paying for, but you’ll get it for free.
  • ACM finally gives us a free (or at least low-cost) way of protecting statically built websites served out of S3 buckets. Just create a bucket, a certificate in ACM, and a CloudFront distribution, link them all together, and you’re done.

The bad:

  • Like CloudFlare, certificates are local to Amazon and can’t be exported. But if you’re on Amazon, there’a a pretty good chance that you’re all on Amazon, and this won’t be a huge problem.

Website: www.startssl.com

Important update (2018/03/12): I’ve left this section in place for historical reference, but StartSSL is no longer issuing certificates after a series of questionable practices led to their root certificates being revoked from Chrome and Firefox. You can read more about the sordid details on Wikipedia.

Event though StartSSL is probably not what most people want to use to get certificates created these days, I’m still going to give them an honorable mention because they were the original free issuer, and really helped to get the ball rolling towards a better future.

The good:

  • This operation has been around for years and they know what they’re doing. Being a fully fledged certificate authority, you’ll get an easy upgrade path if you need something a little heavier like an EV cert.

The bad:

  • Getting certificates issued is a totally manual process and someone will need to walk through it periodically to make sure your services stay online. This used to be an unavoidable reality, but we’ve got much better options these days.

The ugly:

  • StartCom uses a client certificate system to log into their control panel and the certificate issuing flow is long and fairly obtuse. Only more advanced users will be able to understand what’s going on here and get a certificate issued safely.

There’s a lot of information above, so here’s a simple heuristic that should do the trick for most people:

  • If you’re hosted on Amazon, you should use ACM.
  • If you’re hosted on another service that gives you some kind of secure terminate (like Heroku or GitHub Pages), you should use CloudFlare.
  • Otherwise, you should use [Let’s Encrypt][lets-encrypt].

For example, this site runs on Heroku. I have my domain terminated by CloudFront at “https://brandur.org”, and CloudFront securely transports content from my HTTPS Heroku address at “https://brandur-org-next.herokuapp.com”.

That’s it! Now please go out and secure your web properties.

Did I make a mistake? Please consider sending a pull request.