in Code, Tech Trends, Tutorials

Finally! Free SSL Certs!!! Let’s Encrypt!

FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

letsencrypt-logo_0OMFG! From the why-the-hell-did-this-take-so-long department, I bring you an exciting announcement: you may never, ever have to pay for a trusted SSL certificate for your website again! E-ver! I’d like to introduce you to Let’s Encrypt. From their website:

Let’s Encrypt is a free, automated, and open certificate authority (CA), run for the public’s benefit. Let’s Encrypt is a service provided by the Internet Security Research Group (ISRG).

Before I walk you through the process of installing a free trusted SSL certificate signed by a top-level CA on your DigitalOcean droplet, let me explain why this is such a HUGE deal.

The Secure WEb is Coming

Slowly but surely, the entire internet is moving to only use SSL (HTTPS). Some examples:

It is clear that if you haven’t started to do this already, you should definitely begin moving all of your online content onto a server that only uses HTTPS.

Obstacles to the Secure Web

In the past, there have been two main obstacles to using HTTPS:

  1. It was complex to install
  2. It was expensive

Do a search for “how do you install an SSL certificate” and you get a dizzying list of confusing, hard-to-follow tutorials. There are a great number of variables involved in the process, such as what kind of server you’re on, who your web host is, what company originated the certificate, what kind of certificate it is, etc. While it’s certainly gotten easier in the last few years as many companies have found ways to automate the process, figuring out how and where to buy a certificate, knowing how much to pay, and what you get for that money is still extremely challenging.

At the high end, you can pay Symantec (formerly VeriSign) up to $1,500 per year for their “most secure” EV SSL certificate!!! At the low end, you can get certs for as cheap as $9/year at places like NameCheap. They confuse the process by adding warranties of varying amounts, but it all hides the fact that your site visitors really aren’t that much safer with a $1,500 cert than they are with a $9 cert. That’s not to mention the cost many web hosts charge you for obtaining a static IP address. If you don’t know what you’re doing, it is easy to get taken for hundreds of dollars a year for something that is increasingly a necessity. All of this because a small number of companies have a monopoly on the business of generating SSL certificates…until now.

Enter Let’s Encrypt!

Although I couldn’t find any information on its founding in 2013, an IRS tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization incorporated as a public benefit corporation (a b-corp) called the Internet Security Research Group (ISRG) announced Let’s Encrypt in 2014. Their goals are simple:

  1. Make it easy to install an SSL certificate
  2. Make it free for anybody who wants one

Let’s Encrypt started a limited beta test back in September. You had to fill out a form and get approved to join. If accepted, they would send you an email with instructions on how to download their client software and install your software. It’s been a little bit buggy over the past several months, but they are on target to launch their public beta just 3 days from now on December 3rd! Starting then, anyone should be able to fill out the form on their website and get whitelisted to download your new, free certs instantaneously. Okay, so enough background, let’s do it!

Installing Your SSL Certificate

To start out, here are the specs of my server (here’s my tutorial on how to set up a server like this):

  • Ubuntu 14.04 LTS running on a droplet at DigitalOcean
  • PHP 7 FPM
  • Nginx
  • ufw and fail2ban firewalls

Step 1: Log In and Download the letsencrypt Command Line Client

After logging in, I just performed the following from my home directory (~):

If you do this, you’ll run their letsencrypt-auto script and get some basic help information on how to use their tool. As of the time of this writing, this is still new software, so it doesn’t work exactly like they advertise on their website, but if you’re an early adopter like me, and understand how cool this is, you won’t mind that it’s a little bumpy out of the gate.

Step 2: Open Up Port 443/tcp on your Firewall and Reboot

If you followed my tutorial to set up your server, you may not have opened up port 443 (the HTTPS port) at that time if you didn’t already have a certificate ready to install. To open up the ports, I ran the following commands:

I’m not sure you actually have to reboot here, but I was having trouble getting port 443 to show up as open. To debug this, from a terminal window on my local machine I used a program called nmap (on a Mac you can install this with brew install nmap) and ran the command:

After I rebooted, it seemed to start working fine.

Step 3: Stop Firewalls and nginx and Reconfigure Your Default Site

Although letsencrypt will eventually come with a plugin for nginx that will automatically install your certs for you with the server running, at present that plugin is “very buggy” so they don’t even have it installed by default. Instead, I used the standalone method, which I’ll explain in the next step. First, however, stop nginx and then open up the config file for your site where you want to install your SSL cert:

Once the config file is opened, modify it so it looks like this:

So note a couple of things:

  1. I’ve broken what was one server block up into two server blocks.
  2. In the first one on line 4 I added return 301 https://$server_name$request_uri; which will redirect ALL website traffic to HTTPS, regardless of whether or not people actually typed in https://... in the address bar when they came there.
  3. The paths to the certificate files (lines 11 and 12) may be different on your server, but I’ll show you how to figure out what they are.
  4. You should use your actual domain name wherever I have mysite.com.
  5. I’m setting this up to provide SSL for both mysite.com and www.mysite.com. It’s important to understand that SSL certs are tied to very specific domain names and you have to get this right or it won’t work.

Save your changes and exit.

Step 4: Install Your SSL Certificate

Okay, now type the following at the terminal:

Cross your fingers. This didn’t work for me the first few times which led me down a bunch of rabbit holes trying to debug the problem. Essentially what I decided is that either their service is still buggy, or I just happened to be trying to install my certificate when they had a lot of people hitting their servers, or maybe both. I had to put in that last command maybe 10 times or more before it worked. I also tried some of the other variations on that command that got sent in the email (NOT the apache one, though) and it finally happened:

I can’t tell you how happy I was to see that message!!! Take note here that the message tells you where on your hard drive the certificates got stored. Make sure that path is the same one you set in your config file above. If it isn’t the same, then you need to modify it.

Step 5: Restart Your Firewalls and Nginx

Okay, at this point the final thing to do is just get your web server up and running again:

And now head over to your website and your browser and with any luck, you’ll see the lock in the address bar!

Closing Thoughts

Okay, now none of us have any excuse not to be securing ALL of our websites. We’re entering a new era. Don’t believe the myths about how SSL will slow your site down. In some cases it actually speeds them up! The call has been made: Let’s Encrypt!

FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Write a Comment

Comment

Webmentions

  • Add Authentication to Shiny Server with Nginx |

    […] If you really want to take things a step further, I would look into getting a trusted cert with letsencrypt, so you won’t have to deal with the ugly error […]

  • Super-fast Secure WordPress Install on DigitalOcean with NGINX, PHP7, and Ubuntu 16.04 LTS – Morphatic

    […] LetsEncrypt As I’ve blogged about before, setting up HTTPS by default for all pages is rapidly becoming the new norm, and I’ve got some updates to my earlier post on how to do this. […]

  • Add Authentication to Shiny Server with Nginx – Mubashir Qasim

    […] If you really want to take things a step further, I would look into getting a trusted cert with letsencrypt, so you won’t have to deal with the ugly error […]

  • Add Authentication To Shiny Server With Nginx | Data Science Riot!

    […] If you really want to take things a step further, I would look into getting a trusted cert with letsencrypt, so you won’t have to deal with the ugly error […]

  • Deploying Your Very Own Shiny Server | Mubashir Qasim

    […] Let’s Encrypt is a new, free service that will allow you to install a trusted SSL certificate …. Since Google and Mozilla are working hard to phase out all non-HTTPS traffic on the web, it’s a good idea to get into the habit of installing SSL certs whenever you set up a new website. First install git, then use it to download letsencrypt: […]

  • Deploying Your Very Own Shiny Server | Quality and Innovation

    […] Let’s Encrypt is a new, free service that will allow you to install a trusted SSL certificate …. Since Google and Mozilla are working hard to phase out all non-HTTPS traffic on the web, it’s a good idea to get into the habit of installing SSL certs whenever you set up a new website. First install git, then use it to download letsencrypt: […]