Enable HTTP/2 in nginx

Enabling HTTP/2 in nginx is quite simple. You need to add the http2 parameter to the listen 443 directive. So find the line that looks like:

listen 443 ssl;

and change it into

listen 443 ssl http2;

And reload your nginx configuration:

$ sudo systemctl reload nginx.service 

Few notes:

  • You only need to enable http2 in one of your server blocks. You don’t need to do so for every virtual server (unless they use a different port). See here.
  • Don’t add http2 to your port 80. Browsers don’t support unencrypted.

Let’s Encrypt: Reload Nginx after Renewing Certificates

Today I had an incident which caused my webserver to serve expired certificates. My blog relies on Let’s Encrypt for SSL/TLS certificates, which have to be renewed every 3 months. Usually, the cronjob which runs certbot --renew takes care of it automatically. However, there is one step missing, the server must reload the renewed certificates. Most of the time, the server gets reloaded often enough so everything is okay, but today, its been a quite a while since the last time since the nginx server was restarted, so expired certificates were served and the blog became unavailable.

To workaround it, we can make sure nginx reloads it configuration after each successful certificate renewal. The automatic renewal is defined in /etc/cron.d/certbot. The default contents under Debian Jessie are as follows:

# /etc/cron.d/certbot: crontab entries for the certbot package
# Upstream recommends attempting renewal twice a day
# Eventually, this will be an opportunity to validate certificates
# haven't been revoked, etc.  Renewal will only occur if expiration
# is within 30 days.

0 */12 * * * root test -x /usr/bin/certbot && perl -e 'sleep int(rand(3600))' && certbot -q renew

The last line makes sure certificate renewal runs twice a day. Append --renew-hook "/etc/init.d/nginx reload" to it, so it looks like this:

0 */12 * * * root test -x /usr/bin/certbot && perl -e 'sleep int(rand(3600))' && certbot -q renew --renew-hook "/etc/init.d/nginx reload"

The --renew-hook runs the next argument after each successful certificate renewal. In our case we use it to reload the nginx configuration, which also reloads the newly renewed certificates.

Update 2019-02-27:

renew-hook has been deprecated in recent versions of certbot. Plus, debian moved from using cronjobs for automatic renewals to systemd timer if they are available. On the other hand, now certbot supports having hooks in configuration files. So, instead of what is described above, i would suggest creating a file /etc/letsencrypt/renewal-hooks/deploy/01-reload-nginx with the following content:

#! /bin/sh
set -e

/etc/init.d/nginx configtest
/etc/init.d/nginx reload

don’t forget to make the file executable.

nginx and SNI

Server name indication (SNI) allows you serve multiple sites with different TLS/SSL certificates using a single IP address. Nginx has support for SNI for quite some time and actually setting it up is easy, simply add server entries for the corresponding sites. There is one caveat, the server_name entry must come before the server_certificate in order for SNI to be activated:

server {
    listen          443 ssl;
    server_name     www.example.com;
    ssl_certificate www.example.com.crt;

server {
    listen          443 ssl;
    server_name     www.example.org;
    ssl_certificate www.example.org.crt;

is good, but

server {
    listen          443 ssl;
    ssl_certificate www.example.com.crt;
    server_name     www.example.com;

server {
    listen          443 ssl;
    ssl_certificate www.example.org.crt;
    server_name     www.example.org;

will serve the wrong certificate for www.example.org.

Securing Access using TLS/SSL Client Certificates

This tutorial will guide you in setting up authentication using TLS/SSL Client Certificates. It is a simple one as it would not delve into details about integration with server-side apps. Instead, it simply gives you instructions on how to set up Client Certificate as means to prevent unwanted parties from accessing your website.

For example, one such scenario where it may come useful, is limiting access to sensitive things on the server, like phpMyAdmin. phpMyAdmin for example handles sensitive data (such as database authentication) and does in plain HTTP, which may pose several security risks. Even if the data would be encrypted, someone with access to the application, might find vulnerabilities in it and exploit the relatively high-privileges it got to compromise the server. The solution to this, is also limit who has access to the application at all. A possible solution, which I’ve used, is to limit access to only to the local machine and using SSH or a VPN Tunnel to access phpMyAdmin. A better solution would be to use TLS/SSL Client Certificates. They operate on the connection level and provide both encryption and authentication. They are easier to setup than VPN tunnels and easier to use.

Note that limiting access based on TLS/SSL Client Certificate can only be done on the sub-domain level, because it happens as part of the connection, before any specific HTTP request can be made.

Most of the tutorial is not HTTP server-specific, however the server configuration part relates to Nginx. As other servers (such as Lighttpd) use a very similar configuration for Client Certificates, adapting the instruction should be straightforward.

Creating a CA

The two commands below will create CA private key and a corresponding self-signed certificate for you to sign the TLS client certificates with.

openssl genpkey -algorithm RSA -pkeyopt rsa_keygen_bits:2048 -aes-128-cbc -out ca.key
openssl req -new -x509 -days 365 -sha256 -key ca.key -out ca.pem

The first command will ask you for a pass phrase for the key. It is used to protect access to the private key. You can decide to not use one by dropping the -aes-128-cbc option from the command.

The second command will ask you to provide some details to be included in the certificate. Those details will be sent to the browser by the web-server to let it know which client certificate to send back when authenticating.

Server Configuration

Upload the ca.pem that was just generated to your server. You should not upload the private key (ca.key).

The following instructions are for Nginx

ssl_client_certificate /path/to/ca.pem;
ssl_verify_client on; # we require client certificates to access

Assuming you already enabled TLS/SSL for the specific sub-domain, your configuration should look something like this:

server {
        server_name subdomain.example.com;

        # SSL configuration
        listen 443 ssl;
        listen [::]:443 ssl;

        ssl_certificate /etc/nginx/example.pem;
        ssl_certificate_key /etc/nginx/example.key;

        ssl_client_certificate /etc/ngingx/ca.pem;
        ssl_verify_client on;

After reloading the server, check that everything is configured correctly by trying to access your site via HTTPS. It should report “400 Bad Request” and say that “No required SSL certificate was sent”.

Creating a Client Certificate

The following commands will create the private key used for the client certificate (client.key) and a corresponding Certificate Signing Request (client.csr) which the owner of the CA certificate can sign (which in the case of this tutorial will be you.

openssl genpkey -algorithm RSA -pkeyopt rsa_keygen_bits:2048 -out client.key
openssl req -new -key client.key -sha256 -out client.csr

You will be asked again to provide some details, this time about you. Those details will be available to server once your browser sends it the client certificate. You can safely leave the “challenge password” empty1.

You can add the flag -aes-128-cbc to the first command if you want the private key for the client certificate to be encrypted. If you opt for it, you will be prompted for a pass phrase just like before.

Signing a Client Certificate

The next step is to sign the certificate signing request from the last step. It is a good practice to overview it and make sure all the details are as expected, so you do not sign anything you would not intend to.

openssl req -in client.csr -text -verify -noout | less

If everything looks just fine, you can sign it with the following command.

openssl x509 -req -days 365 -in client.csr -CA ca.pem -CAkey ca.key \
    -set_serial 0x`openssl rand 16 -hex` -sha256 -out client.pem

You will be prompted for your pass phrase for ca.key if you chose one in the first step.

Installing Client Key

Now comes the final part, where we take the signed client certificate, client.pem and combine it with the private key so in can be installed in our browser.

openssl pkcs12 -export -in client.pem -inkey client.key -name "Sub-domain certificate for some name" -out client.p12

Adjust the -name parameter to your liking. It will be used to identify the certificate in various places such as the browser. If your private key was encrypted, you will be prompted to enter a pass phrase for it. Encrytion for certificates in p12 format is mandatory, so you will be prompted to enter a password for the generated file as well. It is OK to reuse the same password here, as those files are practically equivalent. Once imported to you browser, you would not need the password for normal usage, until you would like to import it to another browser.

GlobalSign provides instruction on how to actually install the p12 client certificate for browsers in Linux and Windows.


  1. It is used to “enhance” the security of certificate revocation request, by requiring not only knowledge of the private key, but also the challenge password. Thus, someone who got hold of your private key cannot revoke the certificate by himself. However, this is also the reason why this option is not used more often: When someone steals your private key, usually they will prefer the certificate not to be revoked.