HTTPS Everywhere: Deep Dive Into Making the Switch
In the previous articles, HTTPS Everywhere: Security is Not Just for Banks and HTTPS Everywhere: Quick Start With CloudFlare, I talked about why it’s important to serve even small websites using the secure HTTPS protocol, and provided a quick and easy how-to for sites where you don’t control the server. This article is going to provide a deep dive into SSL terminology and options. Even if you are offloading the work to a service like Cloudflare, it’s good to understand what’s going on behind the scenes. And if you have more control over the server you’ll need a basic understanding of what you need to accomplish and how to go about it.
At a high level, there are a few steps required to set up a website to be served securely over HTTPS:
Decide what type of certificate to use.
Install a signed certificate on the server.
Configure the server to use SSL.
Review your site for mixed content and other validation issues.
Redirect all traffic to HTTPS.
Monitor the certificate expiration date and renew it when it expires.
Your options are dependent on the type of certificate you want and your level of control over the website. If you self-host, you have unlimited choices, but you’ll have to do the work yourself. If you are using a shared host service, you’ll have to see what SSL options your host offers and how they recommend setting it up. Another option is to set up SSL on a proxy service like the Cloudflare CDN, which stands between your website and the rest of the web.
I’m going to go through these steps in detail.
Decide Which Certificate to Use
Every distinct domain needs certificates, so if you are serving content at www.example.com and blog.example.com, both domains need to be certified. Certificates are provided by a Certificate Authority (CA). There are numerous CAs that will sell you a certificate, including DigiCert, VeriSign, GlobalSign, and Comodo. There are also CAs that provide free SSL certificates, like LetsEncrypt.
There are several certificate validation levels available.
Domain Validation (DV)
degree certificate indicates that the applicant has control over the specified DNS domain. DV certificates do not assure that any particular legal entity is connected to the certificate, even if the domain name may imply that. The name of the organization will not appear next to the lock in the browser since the controlling organization is not validated. DV certificates are relatively inexpensive, or even free. It’s a low level of authentication but provides assurance that the user is not on a spoofed copy of a legitimate site.
Organization Validation (OV)
OV certificates verify that the applicant is a legitimate business. Before issuing the SSL certificate, the CA performs a rigorous validation procedure, including checking the applicant’s business credentials (such as the Articles of Incorporation) and verifying the accuracy of its physical and Web addresses.
Extended Validation (EV)
Extended Validation certificates are the newest type of certificate. They provide more validation than the OV validation level and adhere to industry-wide certification guidelines established by leading Web browser vendors and Certificate Authorities. To clarify the degree of validation, the name of the verified legal identity is displayed in the browser, in green, next to the lock. EV certificates are more expensive than DV or OV certificates because of the extra work they require from the CA. EV certificates convey more trust than the other alternatives, so are appropriate for financial and commerce sites, but they are useful on any site where trust is important.
In addition to the validation levels, there are several types of certificates available.
Single Domain Certificate
An individual certificate is issued for a single domain. It can be either DV, OV or EV.
A wildcard certificate will automatically secure any sub-domains that a business adds in the future. They also reduce the number of certificates that need to be tracked. A wildcard domain would be something like *.example.com, which would include www.example.com, blog.example.com, help.example.com, etc. Wildcards work only with DV and OV certificates. EV certificates cannot be provided as wildcard certificates, since every domain must be specifically identified in an EV certificate.
Multi-Domain Subject Alternative Name (SAN)
A multi-domain SAN certificate secures multiple domain names on a single certificate. Unlike a wildcard certificate, the domain names can be totally unrelated. It can be used by services like Cloudflare that combine a number of domains into a single certificate. All domains are covered by the same certificate, so they have the same level of credentials. A SAN certificate is often used to provide multiple domains with DV level certification, but EV SAN certificates are also available.
Install a Signed Certificate
The process of installing a SSL certificate is initiated on the server where the website is hosted by creating a 2048-bit RSA public/private key pair, then generating a Certificate Signing Request (CSR). The CSR is a block of encoded text that contains information that will be included in the certificate, like the organization name and location, along with the server’s public key. The CA then uses the CSR and the public key to create a signed SSL certificate, or a Certificate Chain. A certificate chain consists of multiple certificates where each certificate vouches for the next. This signed certificate or certificate chain is then installed on the original server. The public key is used to encrypt messages, and they can only be decrypted with the corresponding private key, making it possible for the user and the website to communicate privately with each other.
Obviously, this process is something that only works if you have shell access or a control panel UI to the server. If your site is hosted by a third party, it will be up to the host to determine, how, if at all, they will allow their hosted sites to be served over HTTPS. Most major hosts offer HTTPS, but specific instructions and procedures vary from host to host.
As an alternative, there are services, like Cloudflare, that provide HTTPS for any site, no matter where it is hosted. I discussed this in more detail in my previous article, HTTPS Everywhere: Quick Start With CloudFlare.
Configure the Server to Use SSL
The next step is to make sure the website server is configured to use SSL. If a third party manages your servers, like a shared host or CDN, this is handled by the third party and you don’t need to do anything other than determine that it is being handled correctly. If you are managing your own server, you might find Mozilla’s handy configuration generator and documentation about Server Side TLS useful.
One important consideration is that the server and its keys should be configured for PFS, an abbreviation for either Perfect Forward Security or Perfect Forward Secrecy. Prior to the implementation of PFS, an attacker could record encrypted traffic over time and store it. If they got access to the private key later, they could then decrypt all that historic data with the private key. Security around the private key might be relaxed once the certificate expires, so this is a genuine issue. PFS ensures that even if the private key gets disclosed later, it can’t be used to decrypt prior encrypted traffic. An example of why this is important is the Heartbleed bug, where PFS would have prevented some of the damage caused by Heartbleed. If you’re using a third-party service for SSL, be sure it uses PFS. Cloudflare does, for instance.
Normally SSL certificates have a one-to-one relationship to the IP address of their domains. Server Name Indication (SNI) is an extension of TLS that provides a way to manage multiple certificates on the same IP address. SNI-compatible browsers (most modern browsers are SNI-compatible) can communicate with the server to retrieve the correct certificate for the domain they are trying to reach, which allows multiple HTTPS sites to be served from a single IP address.
Test the server’s configuration with Qualys’ handy SSL Server Test. You can use this test even on servers you don’t control! It will run a battery of tests and give the server a security score for any HTTPS domain.
Review Your Site for HTTPS Problems
Once a certificate has been installed, it’s time to scrutinize the site to be sure it is totally valid using HTTPS. This is one of the most important, and potentially time-consuming, steps in switching a site to HTTPS.
To review your site for HTTPS validation, visit it by switching the HTTP in the address to HTTPS and scan the page source. Do this after a certificate has been installed, otherwise, the validation error from the lack of a certificate may prevent other validation errors from even appearing.
This is something that can be fixed even before switching the site to HTTPS, since HTTP pages can use HTTPS resources without any problem, just not the reverse.
There used to be a recommendation to use protocol-relative links, such as //example.com instead of http://example.com, but now the recommendation is to just always use HTTPS, if available since a HTTPS resource works fine under either protocol.
Absolute internal links should not conflate HTTP and HTTPS references. Ideally, all internal links should be relative links anyway, so they will work correctly under either HTTP or HTTPS. There are lots of other benefits of relative links, and few reasons not to use them.
Hard-coded HTTP links in custom block content.
Hard-coded HTTP links added by content authors in body, text, and link fields.
Hard-coded HTTP links in custom menu links.
Hard-coded HTTP links in templates and template functions.
Contributed modules that hard-code HTTP links in templates or theme functions.
Redirect all Traffic to HTTPS
Once you’ve assured yourself that your website passes SSL validation, it’s time to be sure that all traffic goes over HTTPS instead of HTTP. You need 301 redirects from your HTTP pages to HTTPS, especially when switching from HTTP to HTTPS. If a website was already in production on HTTP, search engines have already indexed your pages. The 301 redirect ensures that search engines understand the new pages are a replacement for the old pages.
If you haven’t already, you need to determine whether you prefer the bare domain or the www version, example.com vs www.example.com. You should already be redirecting traffic away from one to the other for good SEO. When you include the HTTP and HTTPS protocols, at a minimum you will have four potential addresses to consider: http://example.com, https://example.com, https://example.com, and https://www.example.com. One of those should survive as your preferred address. You’ll need to set up redirects to reroute traffic away from all the others to that preferred location.
Specific details about how to handle redirects on the website server will vary depending on the operating system and configuration on the server. Shared hosts like Acquia Cloud and Pantheon provide detailed HTTPS redirection instructions that work on their specific configurations. Those instructions could provide useful clues to someone configuring a self-hosted website server as well.
HTTP Strict Transport Security (HSTS)
The final level of assurance that all traffic uses HTTPS is to implement the HTTP Strict Transport Security (HSTS) header on the secured site. The HSTS header creates a browser policy to always use HTTPS for the specified domain. Redirects are good, but there is still the potential for a Man-in-the-Middle to intercept the HTTP communication before it gets redirected to HTTPS. With HSTS, after the first communication with a domain, that browser will always initiate communication with HTTPS. The HSTS header contains a max-age when the policy expires, but the max-age is reset every time the user visits the domain. The policy will never expire if the user visits the site regularly, only if they fail to visit within the max-age period.
If you’re using Cloudflare’s SSL, as in my previous article, you can set the HSTS header in Cloudflare’s dashboard. It’s a configuration setting under the “Crypto” tab.
Local, Dev, and Stage Environments
A final consideration is whether or not to use HTTPS on all environments, including local, dev, and stage environments. That is truly HTTPS everywhere! If the live site uses HTTPS, it makes sense to use HTTPS in all environments for consistency.
HTTPS Is Important
Hopefully, this series of articles provides convincing evidence that it’s important for sites of all sizes to start using the HTTPS protocol, and some ideas of how to make that happen. HTTPS Everywhere is a worthy initiative!
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