No Frills SSL Certificates are Inexpensive and Useful

SSL De Facto for Securing Connections

SSL, short for Secure Socket Layer, is a cryptographic protocol for securing network traffic that is the de facto mechanism for securing transactions on the web and many other protocols including email (SMTP/IMAP/POP), IM (Jabber/XMPP), VoIP (SIP), and SSL-based VPNs. The topic of SSL certificates is a bit arcane, but the much of security of our everyday online purchases depends on SSL. Yet, fewer services use SSL than one might hope. It is possible to buy a basic no-frills SSL certificates from a universally accepted certificate authority very inexpensively–less than $15 a year–if you shop around. In most cases, it makes no sense to use a self-signed certificate, to purchase a certificate from a second tier provider, or to purchase a chained certificate. This article is a substantial revision of an article in Messaging News from a few years ago. I receive some requests for an update and have also found an even more inexpensive provider in the meantime, which make the update worthwhile.

Securing a connection requires that at a minimum both the client and server application support SSL and that the server application must have a digital certificate with a digital signature from a Certificate Authority (CA). This is the most basic and the most common form of SSL Public Key Infrastructure (PKI), which a client to securely authenticate a server. Nearly every online shopping transaction uses this form of SSL to secure the payment details from the user’s browser to the merchants servers. One quick aside, the Transport Layer Security (TLS) protocol released in 1999 superseded the last version of SSL released in 1996, but nearly everyone still calls the protocol SSL.

The January 2009 Netcraft SSL Server Survey found nearly 2.1 million sites that responded to a request for a SSL certificate, but only about 40% of those were valid third-party certificates. Netcraft has been collecting SSL certificates since 1996 and reports that in recent years, use SSL has been growing at a rate of 30% a year. Still the August 2010 Netcraft Web Server Survey found over 210 million sites, which means the number of SSL enabled sites is a small percentage overall.

Why Is Server-Side Adoption of SSL So Low?

Given that nearly every consumer web browser and email client is SSL-enabled, why is server side adoption of SSL so low? In addition there are many reasons why businesses and even technically inclined individuals would want SSL certificates. There is substantial debate around the efficacy of the security provided by SSL for many common configurations, especially with its ability to prevent phishing and man in the middle attacks. Still, the security of an endless number of services such as small webmail providers, dashboards for managing blogs, and web-based router configuration consoles would all benefit from SSL. The majority of high volume ecommerce vendors use SSL, but I regularly see services that ask for credit card numbers over (shudder) unencrypted connections.

The relatively low use of SSL is due in part to the expense and difficulty of purchasing SSL certificates, the complexity of installing them, and the need for a static IP address. For small and medium businesses and individuals no-frills SSL certificates are affordable, especially if you are willing to shop around. The inexpensive certificates provide the same level of functional security for network traffic as the inexpensive certificates. The no-frills certificates are typically domain validated meaning someone just needs to be able to receive and email or possibly respond to an automated phone call in order to validate the domain, which makes the process fast but does not offer any particular assurance the certificate owner is who they say they are.

Other features beyond the level of security provided to network traffic are important for some business. For example, a business handling large numbers of consumer transactions may consider the branding of the certificate or the site seal important, or they may want the green bar shown by sites with Extended Validation (EV) certificates, or a Unified Communications (UC) certificates for an Exchange server. In these cases, then the no-frills route is probably the best one. No matter what kind of SSL certificate you want the process of purchasing them is frustrating and it is difficult to make any sense of the actual differences between the certificates by reading the marketing literature.

Certificate authority certificates, any intermediate certificates, and server certificates form a certificate chain that are verifiable through the SSL Public Key Infrastructure (PKI). It is possible for anyone to set up a private certificate authority and produce a “self-signed certificate.” This is often done for personal use or development purposes.

Inexpensive Certificates

Self-signed certificates require the same amount of effort to install and configure as a commercial certificate, they also require additional work to install and configuring a local certificate authority to sign the certificate. Self-signed certificates are not verifiable through the public PKI chain and most applications will produce warning messages that the certificate is not valid unless the user explicitly loads the credentials for the private certificate authority into each browser. Many second tier SSL providers offer chained SSL certificates, which are more complicated to install in many configurations and are typically less compatible on older browsers and mobile browsers. This said, chained certificates theoretically offer the certificate authority more security as they may revoke a compromised intermediate certificate with far less disruption than the root certificate.

RapidSSL is one of most economical of the top tier SSL certificates. RapidSSL has a bit of a convoluted history, but it is part of the GeoTrust family of certificate authorities, which is far and away the largest digital certificate vendor. GeoTrust was purchased by Verisgin in 2006 and in May 2010 VeriSign’s sold its certificate authority business to Symantec. Luckily, for the purposes of my argument the history is not important. What is important is that the GeoTrust family of certificates is recognized by nearly every browser.

For example, most recently I purchased certificates from a reseller called Revolution Hosting Pricing, Their pricing SSL certificates follows:

Type 1 Yr  2 Yrs 3 Yrs 5 Yrs
RapidSSL  $14  $24  $33  $50
RapidSSL Wildcard $135 $260 $360 $550
QuickSSL  $45  $86 $126 $300
QuickSSL Premium  $75 $140 $195 $300
True BusinessID $105 $190 $270 $425

Problems Purchasing Certificates

For many organizations, SSL certificates are moderately expensive, complicated to purchase, and even more complicated to install. In my own personal experience, the process of purchasing certificates has not improved greatly over the last decade. Going through the process, it is easy to see why so few sites, especially smaller ones, use SSL certificates. Clearly, there is great room for improvement in the user experience of the purchasing process. Unfortunately, I don’t see the process improving any time soon.

It can be surprisingly difficult to get a list of the certificate authority roots (often called a CA bundle) included in specific browsers and even more difficult to get the root certificate bundles included in most mobile devices. Unless the vendor provides a public list of included certificates, it is difficult to determine what CA’s are supported without extracting the CA bundle and analyzing it, which is a major pain. The lack of detailed information about the root certificates substantially complicates the problem for businesses that wish to determine which certificate may meet the needs of their users.

Because there is effectively no standard CA bundle for applications, operating systems, or mobile devices, each vendor has its own bundle of “trusted” certificates. This means, every application that employs SSL may use a different bundle, even if they are on the same machine. For example, both Windows and Mac OS X have a system-wide list of root certificates, but Firefox will use its own list of root certificates regardless of the platform.

To make matters worse many certificate authorities offer multiple types of certificates that may be signed with different roots. I looked at GeoTrust, Comodo, and GoDaddy, and Network Solutions web sites. Only GeoTrust clearly listed which root certificate signed each type of certificate on the main part of their site and not buried in a support document. The situation with GeoTrust was not always so simple, last time I checked a bit more than a year ago, I had to do quite a bit of work digging around the site to determine which root would sign the certificate I wanted to purchase.

Previously, a quick side project to SSL enable and IMAP server turned into an annoying extended detour after I realized that one of the older smartphones did not include the root certificate used on the IMAP server. While, it was possible to load the certificate manually, the process is too complicated for multiple users, although it could be handled in a bulk provisioning process. I ended up spending a significant amount of time searching for certificate authority lists and extracting certificate bundles for several smartphones to figure out which certificate to purchase that would cover them all.

Some Improvements in Purchasing Certificates

SSL certificate compatibility is gradually improving as applications, systems, and devices with out of date certificate bundles are gradually retired. As root certificates and intermediate certificates begin to time out and certificate authorities issue new root certificates. This means that if you have a server with a multi-year SSL certificate issued several years ago, its root certificate may differ from the current one. This is important if you are trying to connect to your SSL server from machines or devices with out of date certificate bundles.

Unfortunately, a market for automatic certificate installation in common machine configurations never developed. Both Microsoft and Apple have made strides with better GUI administration tools for SSL certificates. A number of web hosting services sell SSL certificates with installation for users who pay for the certificate and a static IP address. Another improvement on the horizon is RFC 3546–the Server Name Indication (SNI) extension for TLS. SNI will effectively allow name-based virtual hosting to use SSL similar to the name-based virtual hosts in HTTP 1.1. One major benefit is that this will allow multiple SSL enabled hosts on the same IP address. These are welcome improvements, but we still have a long way to go.

Appendix: A Brief History of RapidSSL and GeoTrust

GeoTrust became a certificate authority in 2001 when it purchased Equifax Digital Certificate Services from Equifax, which is why many of the GeoTrust root certificates are Equifax. FreeSSL launched in 2001 and offered free SSL certificates with its own single root certificate. These were popular, but only had 92% browser compatibility. In 2002, FreeSSL began to offer chained SSL certificates under the ChainedSSL brand for $35 a year, which was a very low price at the time. In 2003, FreeSSL relaunched and temporarily offered free one year ChainedSSL certificates and ChainedSSL wildcard certificates. In February 2004, FreeSSL launched a new brand called StarterSSL, which was a single root certificate. Also February 2004, FreeSSL relaunched the FreeSSL brand as a 30-day free trial certificate. The FreeSSL root certificate signed both the FreeSSL and StarterSSL certificates. Later in 2004 FreeSSL launched another brand called RapidSSL, which combined the StarterSSL single root certificate and included support.

In 2005 FreeSSL formally changed it’s name to RapidSSL. VeriSign purchased Thawte in 2003 and GeoTrust in 2006. At this point some of the details are fuzzy and involve a number of subsidiaries in Europe and Japan, but GeoTrust now apparently owns RapidSSL. In May 2010 Symantec purchased VeriSign’s Security Certificate Business and now controls all roots from all the prior acquisitions.

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One thought on “No Frills SSL Certificates are Inexpensive and Useful

  1. You can get a free TLS certificate from http://www.startssl.com/, which is the Certifying Authority operated by StartCom (which also manages the StartCom Enterprise Linux distribution).

    I’ve been working on a means to use the already-written X.509/PKIX certificate parsing code to provide services that meet the needs of c2c and b2c communications, as an incremental step over trying to say “you need strong identity” without explaining how it can provide a compelling use case. (Mapping everything to a single non-cryptographically-generated string that is supposed to be globally unique makes very little sense. The key *is* the nym, and there’s no need for any individual, company, or government employer to know about the entire set of keys and nyms that are associated with the same natural person.)

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