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Making HTTPS Certificates

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The latest website I'm working on needs to run over HTTPS, the secure version of HTTP. Turns out that getting HTTPS set up properly is really difficult! Even worse, I need to set up HTTPS on not just one domain, but an infinite number: I need to support wildcard subdomains! Getting this to work right involved a lot of searching the web, a lot of wasted time, and a lot of frustration. I'm writing it down to make life easier for you, me, and everyone else that might run into this problem.


Let's start at the beginning. HTTPS is about security, and when you're talking about computers, security generally means encryption. HTTP is an unencrypted protocol, so anyone who is connected to your network can see everything you're doing — including all your passwords and secret information! HTTPS encrypts all of that data before it leaves your computer, so that even if someone snoops on your connection, they can't understand what's going on.

Encryption generally means using OpenSSL, a widely-used open source toolkit for anything and everything involving encryption. For many years, the gold standard of encryption protocols was "secure sockets layer", known as SSL, which is how OpenSSL got its name. However, computers keep getting faster and faster, and security researchers keep finding new ways to circumvent and break encryption.1 As a result, SSL is no longer considered secure, and the new gold standard is called "transport layer security", or TLS. However, it's too late to change OpenSSL's name, so we still use it for TLS encryption.

In order to set up HTTPS, we need to use OpenSSL to create a TLS certificate. This certificate is a special file that is used to encrypt and decrypt information between the web server and the person viewing the website.

A Basic Certificate

OpenSSL has been around for a long time, and its command line interface was designed before common design patterns around command line interfaces had been created. As a result, OpenSSL doesn't respect some basic conventions of the command line, like double dashes in front of long flags and single dashes in front of single-character flags. This contributes to OpenSSL's reputation for being hard to use.

Here's a command that will create a basic TLS certificate for your website, suitable to be used for HTTPS:

$ openssl req -x509 -nodes -days 365 -newkey rsa:2048 -sha256 \
  -keyout batman.key -out batman.crt -subj \
  '/C=US/ST=New York/L=Gotham/O=Wayne Enterprises/OU=Batman/'

Whoa, that command is massive! It should all be run on one line: the line breaks that you see above are just for clarity. (If you take them out, though, take out the slashes at the end of each line, as well!) Let's break down how this command works.

  • openssl: the first word in the command tells the computer that we want to run the openssl executable, and pass the rest of the command to it.
  • req: this tells OpenSSL that we want to it operate in certificate request mode. Normally, TLS certificates operate with two people involved: one person to request the certificate, and one person to sign the request and grant the certificate. However...
  • -x509: this flag tells OpenSSL that actually, one person is going to play both roles. You are going to request the certificate from yourself, and then you are going to sign that request and grant yourself a certificate. I know, it's weird and confusing. We'll come back to this later.
  • -nodes: this isn't the word "nodes", like a node in a graph. This flag actually means "no DES". DES is another layer of encryption that OpenSSL generally applies to TLS certificates, which sets a password on the certificate itself. When the DES layer is applied, you have to type in that password before the web server can use this certificate for HTTPS, which is not what we want.
  • -days 365: a certificate has a lifetime that is generally measured in days. After this lifetime is up, the certificate is no longer considered trustworthy: the longer a certificate is in use, the more likely it is that someone has found a way to hack it. (The people who make OpenSSL are paranoid. They're also right.) This flag sets the certificate lifetime to one year.
  • -newkey rsa:2048: because we're playing both roles (requester and signer), we need to also make an RSA encryption key to sign the request with. This is not wasted work -- when we use this certificate for HTTPS, the webserver will need this RSA key as well. The 2048 refers to the number of "bits" that are used in creating this key. More bits are more secure, and 2048 is plenty.
  • -sha256: this tells OpenSSL to use the SHA-256 hashing function when constructing the certificate, instead of the default (weaker) SHA-1 hashing function.
  • -keyout batman.key: this tells OpenSSL to save the RSA key that it generates in a file named batman.key. You can put in a different file name, if you want.
  • -out batman.crt: this tells OpenSSL to save the TLS certificate that it generates in a file named batman.crt. You can put in a different file name, if you want.

The last part of the command is the -subj flag, which takes a string as an argument. This string is called a "distinguished name" (don't ask me why), and it must follow a specific format, that has exactly seven parts separated by slashes:

  • C: short for "country". This is the two-letter country code of the country you live in.
  • ST: short for "state". This is the name of the state that you live in.
  • L: short for "locality". This is the name of the city, town, or general area that you live in.
  • O: short for "organization". This is the name of the company you represent, or if you don't represent a company, then it could be your own name.
  • OU: short for "organizational unit". This is generally your department within the company you represent. (OpenSSL can get a little too specific.)
  • CN: short for "common name". This is important! You must put in the fully-qualified domain name of the website you are making this certificate for.
  • emailAddress: an email address. In case someone needs to contact you, I guess?

When you run this command, OpenSSL will create two files for you: batman.crt and batman.key. To verify that it worked properly, you can ask OpenSSL to read these files and pull out the information you put in, like this:

$ openssl x509 -text -in batman.crt

You'll get some output that looks like this:

        Version: 3 (0x2)
        Serial Number:
        Signature Algorithm: sha256WithRSAEncryption
        Issuer: C=US, ST=New York, L=Gotham, O=Wayne Enterprises, OU=Batman,

Your serial number will be different, and this initial data is followed by lots more data that we don't actually care about.

Putting the Certificate In Place

Now that you have a certificate, the next step is to give it to your web server, so that it can use it to encrypt and decrypt HTTPS requests. I generally use nginx as a reverse proxy: an HTTPS request hits nginx, nginx decrypts the HTTPS into unencrypted HTTP, and forwards that HTTP request along to another webserver running my application. (This is a pretty common use-case for Nginx, and it's designed to handle it.) Fortunately, Nginx has some great documentation on setting up HTTPS, using the certificate file and the key file that you just generated.


The next step is setting up your domain with DNS or something like it. Your browser will only accept your certificate as valid if the URL matches the "common name" you created for your certificate. If you're running your website locally for testing purposes, and you need to point to your local computer, you can use the hosts file to make that domain point to your computer. If you're running on Mac, or Linux, you can run this command:

$ echo "" | sudo tee -a /etc/hosts

That will add a line to the /etc/hosts file on your computer. That line indicates that should point to, the IP address for your local computer.


Great, now we can visit in the browser, and it should work, right? Nope! Your computer doesn't trust the certificate you've created, and it will show you a big scary warning if you try to visit the website. Why does it do that?

Let's get a bit paranoid. (Security people do that a lot.) What if an attacker found a way to trick your computer into connecting to the wrong website? What if you were trying to connect to your bank's website, and some attacker tricked your computer into connecting to a different website that looks exactly the same, but that the attacker controls? If you put your bank password into that site, the attacker now knows your password, can log into your bank account, and steal all your money. The good news is, HTTPS and TLS are designed to prevent this sort of thing from happening. The bad news is, if you can make a TLS certificate and set up an HTTPS website, what prevents an attacker from doing it? After all, all you need in order to get a TLS certificate is to run a command on your computer. Any attacker with some technical ability could do the same thing.

There is a solution to this problem, and it's called a certificate authority, or CA. A certificate authority is a company or organization that holds the digital keys to the internet, and makes it their job to ensure that those keys are secure. The three biggest CAs are Comodo, Symantec (who owns VeriSign), and GoDaddy, but there are many others. Web browsers are set up to trust these CAs by default2, but not trust just any old certificate.

So what do you do if you're not lucky enough to be a trusted CA, and you want to get a trusted certificate? Well, do you remember the certificate request-and-signing thing that I talked about earlier in this blog post? That's what it's for. Instead of using OpenSSL to generate a certificate directly, you can ask it to generate something called a "certificate signing request", or CSR. You send that CSR to a trusted CA, the CA approves it, and sends you a TLS certificate that is signed by the CA. Then, web browsers can see that the certificate was issued by a trusted CA, so therefore the certificate is trustworthy as well.

I Trust Myself

Well, that's all well and good for other certificates out there on the web, but I know for a fact that this certificate is trustworthy. I know because I generated it myself! So how do I tell my web browser to trust the certificate anyway?

The answer to that question is going to depend on your operating system. I use a Mac, and for that you can use the "Keychain Access" application, or the security command line interface to that application. Here's how you indicate that the certificate should be trusted:

$ security add-trusted-cert batman.crt

You know, after all the time and effort figuring out how to generate the certificate using OpenSSL, I'm shocked at how easy it is to trust it. Thank goodness!


Now, you can visit in your browser, and assuming you've set up your web server correctly, it should work! You'll get a little padlock in the URL bar and everything. Congrats!

Extra Credit: Wildcard Subdomains

For you, this might be enough, but my specific task is more difficult. I need to set up HTTPS not just for one domain, but for an infinite number of them! I need it to work not just with, but also with,,, and so on — and I don't know the full list in advance! This is called a wildcard subdomain, and I need to do something a bit different to get this to work.

For starters, I'll need to generate a new certificate, and this will be tricker. If I just needed to support the wildcard subdomain, then I could just re-run the command above and replace with CN=*, but if I do that, the certificate will only be valid for the subdomains, and it will not be valid for without any subdomains. We need to go deeper!

Subject Alternate Names

We already have a veritable alphabet soup of cryptographic names and acronyms, but for this, we need to add two more: "X.509 Extensions" and "Subject Alternate Names". X.509 is a cryptographic standard that we already used earlier: the ridiculously long openssl command had a -x509 flag in there. This standard uses a few optional extensions to add new features, and one of those is called "Subject Alternate Names", or SAN.

SANs are used to indicate that there are multiple different ways to refer to the same thing. In my case,,,, and so on all refer to my website, so they can be seen as alternate names for the same thing. In order to create a new TLS certificate with OpenSSL that uses SANs, we need to set up a config file for OpenSSL. Create a file named "batman.cnf" with the following content:

x509_extensions = v3_req

basicConstraints = CA:FALSE
keyUsage = nonRepudiation, digitalSignature, keyEncipherment
subjectAltName = @alt_names

DNS.1 =
DNS.2 = *

As you can see, this file is divided into three sections: req, v3_req, and alt_names. req references the fact that we are running OpenSSL in certificate request mode — it's the second part of the long openssl command we ran earlier. Within that section, we indicate that information about X.509 extensions is available in the v3_req section.

The v3_req section is mostly copied from the default configuration. I'll be honest, I have no idea what basicConstraints and keyUsage are for, I just left them at their default values from the /System/Library/OpenSSL/openssl.cnf file on my computer. However, the last line of that section is subjectAltName, which is exactly what we want to configure. You could pass a comma-separated list of values, but it's clearer to reference another section, as I've done here with the name @alt_names.

Finally, the alt_names section has all the alternate names that this TLS certificate should support. They need to be ordered, which is why one of them is DNS.1 and the other is DNS.2. You can also use IP addresses, if you prefer.

Making the Certificate

Now that we've made the config file, we need to tell the openssl command to read it. Fortunately, that's not hard — we just need to add a -config flag to the command, along with the path to that file we just created. So, if you're running this command in the same directory as the file you've created, then it's going to be:

$ openssl req -config batman.cnf -x509 -nodes -days 365 -newkey rsa:2048 -sha256 \
  -keyout batman-san.key -out batman-san.crt -subj \
  '/C=US/ST=New York/L=Gotham/O=Wayne Enterprises/OU=Batman/'

This time, we'll get batman-san.key and batman-san.crt. Let's verify that it worked properly!

$ openssl x509 -text -in batman-san.crt

This time, if you scroll down through the output of that command, you'll see the following section:

X509v3 extensions:
    X509v3 Basic Constraints:
    X509v3 Key Usage:
        Digital Signature, Non Repudiation, Key Encipherment
    X509v3 Subject Alternative Name:, DNS:*

Perfect! Put the new certificate in nginx, mark it as trusted in your operating system, and view your website. Now you've got HTTPS with wildcard subdomains!

Wrap Up

Security is hard to understand, and the tools don't make it any easier. Tell me what is still confusing about this process, and maybe I can make it clearer! Do you need to set up HTTPS on your site? Have you run into trouble? Leave a comment on this post! Write your own blog post! Talk about it with others! The more we communicate and collaborate, the more we all learn.

  1. Some people think that anyone trying to break encryption is a criminal. After all, if someone is trying to get access to your private data, they're probably out to get you, right? However, security researchers are actually good people, who try to prove that the encryption techniques used to keep your information safe are actually secure and effective. If a criminal discovers that a particular encryption technique is not effective, that criminal would try to exploit that knowledge to steal information and cause harm. By contrast, if a security researcher discovers that a particular encryption technique is not effective, that researcher will disclose that information to the right people, help them replace their faulty encryption with better and more secure encryption, and then let the world know that the encryption technique can no longer be considered secure.

    Criminals will try to steal information and cause harm, regardless of if researchers try to figure out how they're doing it. Researchers are the ones who can discover and prevent criminals from stealing information and causing harm, and they do so by helping people replace bad encryption with good encryption.

  2. But what happens if a trusted certificate authority shows themselves to be untrustworthy? Then the other CAs come together and collectively revoke trust in the untrustworthy CA, and that information flows quickly from the CAs to every browser in the world. It's actually a pretty nifty system.