A Certificate Authority (CA) is an entity responsible for issuing digital certificates to verify identities on the internet. Although public CAs are a popular choice for verifying the identity of websites and other services that are provided to the general public, private CAs are typically used for closed groups and private services.
Building a private Certificate Authority will enable you to configure, test, and run programs that require encrypted connections between a client and a server. With a private CA, you can issue certificates for users, servers, or individual programs and services within your infrastructure.
Some examples of programs on Linux that use their own private CA are OpenVPN and Puppet . You can also configure your web server to use certificates issued by a private CA in order to make development and staging environments match production servers that use TLS to encrypt connections.
In this guide, you’ll set up a private Certificate Authority on a Debian 11 server and generate and sign a testing certificate using your new CA. You will also import the CA server’s public certificate into your operating system’s certificate store so that you can verify the chain of trust between the CA and remote servers or users. Finally, you will revoke a certificate and distribute a Certificate Revocation List (CRL) to make sure only authorized users and systems can use services that rely on your CA.
To complete this tutorial, you will need:
sudoprivileges. Follow our Debian 11 Initial Server Setup guide to set that up. The linked tutorial will also set up a firewall, which is assumed to be in place throughout this guide.
Note: The last section of this tutorial is optional if you would like to learn about signing and revoking certificates. If you choose to complete those practice steps, you will need a second Debian 11 server, or you can also use your own local Linux computer running Debian or Ubuntu, or distributions derived from either of those.
The first task in this tutorial is to install the
easy-rsa utility on your CA Server. Easy-RSA is a Certificate Authority management tool that you will use to generate a private key and public root certificate, which you will then use to sign requests from clients and servers that will rely on your CA.
Log in to your CA Server as the non-root sudo user that you created during the initial setup steps and run the following:
- sudo apt update
- sudo apt install easy-rsa
You will be prompted to download the package and install it. Press
y to confirm you want to install the package.
At this point you have everything you need set up and ready to use Easy-RSA. In the next step you will create a Public Key Infrastructure, and then start building your Certificate Authority.
Now that you have installed
easy-rsa, it is time to create a skeleton Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) on the CA Server. Ensure that you are still logged in as your non-root user and create an
easy-rsa directory. Make sure that you do not use sudo to run any of the following commands, since your normal user should manage and interact with the CA without elevated privileges.
- mkdir ~/easy-rsa
This will create a new directory called
easy-rsa in your home folder. We’ll use this directory to create symbolic links pointing to the
easy-rsa package files that we’ve installed in the previous step. These files are located in the
/usr/share/easy-rsa folder on the CA Server.
Create the symlinks with the
- ln -s /usr/share/easy-rsa/* ~/easy-rsa/
Note: While other guides might instruct you to copy the
easy-rsa package files into your PKI directory, this tutorial adopts a symlink approach. As a result, any updates to the
easy-rsa package will be automatically reflected in your PKI’s scripts.
To restrict access to your new PKI directory, ensure that only the owner can access it using the
- chmod 700 /home/sammy/easy-rsa
Finally, initialize the PKI inside the
- cd ~/easy-rsa
- ./easyrsa init-pki
Outputinit-pki complete; you may now create a CA or requests. Your newly created PKI dir is: /home/sammy/easy-rsa/pki
After completing this section, you have a directory that contains all the files that are needed to create a Certificate Authority. In the next section you will create the private key and public certificate for your CA.
Before you can create your CA’s private key and certificate, you need to create and populate a file called
vars with some default values. First you will
cd into the
easy-rsa directory, then you will create and edit the
vars file with
nano or your preferred text editor:
- cd ~/easy-rsa
- nano vars
Once the file is opened, paste in the following lines and edit each highlighted value to reflect your own organization info. The important part here is to ensure that you do not leave any of the values blank:
~/easy-rsa/varsset_var EASYRSA_REQ_COUNTRY "US" set_var EASYRSA_REQ_PROVINCE "NewYork" set_var EASYRSA_REQ_CITY "New York City" set_var EASYRSA_REQ_ORG "DigitalOcean" set_var EASYRSA_REQ_EMAIL "firstname.lastname@example.org" set_var EASYRSA_REQ_OU "Community" set_var EASYRSA_ALGO "ec" set_var EASYRSA_DIGEST "sha512"
When you are finished, save and close the file. If you are using
nano, you can do so by pressing CTRL+X, then Y and ENTER to confirm. You are now ready to build your CA.
To create the root public and private key pair for your Certificate Authority, run the
./easy-rsa command again, this time with the
- ./easyrsa build-ca
In the output, you’ll see some lines about the OpenSSL version and you will be prompted to enter a passphrase for your key pair. Be sure to choose a strong passphrase, and note it down somewhere safe. You will need to input the passphrase any time that you need to interact with your CA, for example to sign or revoke a certificate.
You will also be asked to confirm the Common Name (CN) for your CA. The CN is the name used to refer to this machine in the context of the Certificate Authority. You can enter any string of characters for the CA’s Common Name but for simplicity’s sake, press ENTER to accept the default name.
Output. . . Enter New CA Key Passphrase: Re-Enter New CA Key Passphrase: . . . Common Name (eg: your user, host, or server name) [Easy-RSA CA]: CA creation complete and you may now import and sign cert requests. Your new CA certificate file for publishing is at: /home/sammy/easy-rsa/pki/ca.crt
Note: If you don’t want to be prompted for a password every time you interact with your CA, you can run the
build-ca command with the
nopass option, like this:
- ./easyrsa build-ca nopass
You now have two important files —
~/easy-rsa/pki/private/ca.key — which make up the public and private components of a Certificate Authority.
ca.crt is the CA’s public certificate file. Users, servers, and clients will use this certificate to verify that they are part of the same web of trust. Every user and server that uses your CA will need to have a copy of this file. All parties will rely on the public certificate to ensure that someone is not impersonating a system and performing a Man-in-the-middle attack.
ca.key is the private key that the CA uses to sign certificates for servers and clients. If an attacker gains access to your CA and, in turn, your
ca.key file, you will need to destroy your CA. This is why your
ca.key file should only be on your CA machine and why, ideally, your CA machine should be kept offline when not signing certificate requests as an extra security measure.
With that, your CA is in place and is ready to be used to sign certificate requests and revoke certificates.
Now your CA is configured and ready to act as a root of trust for any systems that you want to configure to use it. You can add the CA’s certificate to your OpenVPN servers, web servers, mail servers, and so on. Any user or server that needs to verify the identity of another user or server in your network should have a copy of the
ca.crt file imported into their operating system’s certificate store.
To import the CA’s public certificate into a second Linux system like another server or a local computer, first obtain a copy of the
ca.crt file from your CA server. You can use the
cat command to output it in a terminal, and then copy and paste it into a file on the second computer that is importing the certificate. You can also use a tool like
rsync to transfer the file between systems. We’ll use copy and paste with
nano in this step since it will work on all systems.
As your non-root user on the CA Server, run the following command:
- cat ~/easy-rsa/pki/ca.crt
There will be output in your terminal that is similar to the following:
Output-----BEGIN CERTIFICATE----- MIIDSzCCAjOgAwIBAgIUcR9Crsv3FBEujrPZnZnU4nSb5TMwDQYJKoZIhvcNAQEL BQAwFjEUMBIGA1UEAwwLRWFzeS1SU0EgQ0EwHhcNMjAwMzE4MDMxNjI2WhcNMzAw . . . . . . -----END CERTIFICATE-----
Copy everything, including the
-----BEGIN CERTIFICATE----- and
-----END CERTIFICATE----- lines and the dashes.
On your second Linux system use
nano or your preferred text editor to open a file called
- nano /tmp/ca.crt
Paste the contents that you just copied from the CA Server into the editor. When you are finished, save and close the file. If you are using
nano, you can do so by pressing
ENTER to confirm.
Now that you have a copy of the
ca.crt file on your second Linux system, it is time to import the certificate into its operating system certificate store.
On Debian and Ubuntu based systems, run the following commands to import the certificate:
- sudo cp /tmp/ca.crt /usr/local/share/ca-certificates/
- sudo update-ca-certificates
update-ca-certificates script, located at
/usr/sbin/update-ca-certificates on later Debian and Ubuntu systems, may not be in your user’s
$PATH. Either add
/usr/sbin to your
$PATH or just run
To import the CA Server’s certificate on a CentOS, Fedora, or RedHat-based system, copy and paste the file contents onto the system just like in the previous example in a file called
/tmp/ca.crt. Next, you’ll copy the certificate into
/etc/pki/ca-trust/source/anchors/, then run the
- sudo cp /tmp/ca.crt /etc/pki/ca-trust/source/anchors/
- sudo update-ca-trust
Now your second Linux system will trust any certificate that has been signed by the CA server.
Note: If you are using your CA with web servers and use Firefox as a browser you will need to import the public
ca.crt certificate into Firefox directly. Firefox does not use the local operating system’s certificate store. For details on how to add your CA’s certificate to Firefox please see this support article from Mozilla on Setting Up Certificate Authorities (CAs) in Firefox.
If you are using your CA to integrate with a Windows environment or desktop computers, please see the documentation on how to use
certutil.exe to install a CA certificate.
If you are using this tutorial as a prerequisite for another tutorial, or are familiar with how to sign and revoke certificates, you can stop here. If you would like to learn more about how to sign and revoke certificates, then the following optional section will explain each process in detail.
The following sections of the tutorial are optional. If you have completed all the previous steps then you have a fully configured and working Certificate Authority that you can use as a prerequisite for other tutorials. You can import your CA’s
ca.crt file and verify certificates in your network that have been signed by your CA.
If you would like to practice and learn more about how to sign certificate requests, and how to revoke certificates, then these optional sections will explain how both processes work.
Now that you have a CA ready to use, you can practice generating a private key and certificate request to get familiar with the signing and distribution process.
A Certificate Signing Request (CSR) consists of three parts: a public key, identifying information about the requesting system, and a signature of the request itself, which is created using the requesting party’s private key. The private key will be kept secret, and will be used to encrypt information that anyone with the signed public certificate can then decrypt.
The following steps will be run on your second Linux system running Debian, Ubuntu, or a distribution that is derived from either of those. It can be another remote server or a local Linux machine like a laptop or a desktop computer. Since
easy-rsa is not available by default on all systems, we’ll use the
openssl tool to create a practice private key and certificate.
openssl is usually installed by default on most Linux distributions, but just to be certain, run the following on your system:
- sudo apt update
- sudo apt install openssl
When you are prompted to install
y to continue with the installation steps. This may upgrade your OpenSSL libraries, and you may be prompted to restart some services that are using the old OpenSSL library. Select OK to restart these services if you wish.
Now you are ready to create a practice CSR with
The first step that you need to complete to create a CSR is generating a private key. To create a private key using
openssl, create a
practice-csr directory and then generate a key inside it. We will make this request for a fictional server called
sammy-server, as opposed to creating a certificate that is used to identify a user or another CA.
- mkdir ~/practice-csr
- cd ~/practice-csr
- openssl genrsa -out sammy-server.key
OutputGenerating RSA private key, 2048 bit long modulus (2 primes) . . . . . . e is 65537 (0x010001)
Now that you have a private key you can create a corresponding CSR, again using the
openssl utility. You will be prompted to fill out a number of fields like Country, State, and City. You can enter a
. if you’d like to leave a field blank, but be aware that if this were a real CSR, it is best to use the correct values for your location and organization. Do not leave the Common Name (CN) blank, however, as this field is required and your CA will be unable to sign the certificate without it:
- openssl req -new -key sammy-server.key -out sammy-server.req
Output. . . ----- Country Name (2 letter code) [XX]:US State or Province Name (full name) :New York Locality Name (eg, city) [Default City]:New York City Organization Name (eg, company) [Default Company Ltd]:DigitalOcean Organizational Unit Name (eg, section) :Community Common Name (eg, your name or your server's hostname) :sammy-server Email Address : Please enter the following 'extra' attributes to be sent with your certificate request A challenge password : An optional company name :
If you would like to automatically add those values as part of the
openssl invocation instead of via the interactive prompt, you can pass the
-subj argument to OpenSSL. Be sure to edit the highlighted values to match your practice location, organization, and server name:
- openssl req -new -key sammy-server.key -out server.req -subj \
- /C=US/ST=New\ York/L=New\ York\ City/O=DigitalOcean/OU=Community/CN=sammy-server
To verify the contents of a CSR, you can read in a request file with
openssl and examine the fields inside:
- openssl req -in sammy-server.req -noout -subject
Outputsubject=C = US, ST = New York, L = New York City, O = DigitalOcean, OU = Community, CN = sammy-server
Once you’re happy with the subject of your practice certificate request, copy the
sammy-server.req file to your CA server using
- scp sammy-server.req sammy@your_ca_server_ip:/tmp/sammy-server.req
In this step you generated a Certificate Signing Request for a fictional server called
sammy-server. In a real-world scenario, the request could be from something like a staging or development web server that needs a TLS certificate for testing; or it could come from an OpenVPN server that is requesting a certificate so that users can connect to a VPN. In the next step, we’ll proceed to signing the certificate signing request using the CA Server’s private key.
In the previous step, you created a practice certificate request and key for a fictional server. You copied it to the
/tmp directory on your CA server, emulating the process that you would use if you had real clients or servers sending you CSR requests that need to be signed.
Continuing with the fictional scenario, now the CA Server needs to import the practice certificate and sign it. Once a certificate request is validated by the CA and relayed back to a server, clients that trust the Certificate Authority will also be able to trust the newly issued certificate.
Since we will be operating inside the CA’s PKI where the
easy-rsa utility is available, the signing steps will use the
easy-rsa utility to make things easier, as opposed to using the
openssl directly like we did in the previous example.
The first step to sign the fictional CSR is to import the certificate request using the
- cd ~/easy-rsa
- ./easyrsa import-req /tmp/sammy-server.req sammy-server
Output. . . The request has been successfully imported with a short name of: sammy-server You may now use this name to perform signing operations on this request.
Now you can sign the request by running the
easyrsa script with the
sign-req option, followed by the request type and the Common Name that is included in the CSR. The request type can either be one of
ca. Since we’re practicing with a certificate for a fictional server, be sure to use the
server request type:
- ./easyrsa sign-req server sammy-server
In the output, you’ll be asked to verify that the request comes from a trusted source. Type
yes then press ENTER to confirm this:
OutputYou are about to sign the following certificate. Please check over the details shown below for accuracy. Note that this request has not been cryptographically verified. Please be sure it came from a trusted source or that you have verified the request checksum with the sender. Request subject, to be signed as a server certificate for 3650 days: subject= commonName = sammy-server Type the word 'yes' to continue, or any other input to abort. Confirm request details: yes . . . Certificate created at: /home/sammy/easy-rsa/pki/issued/sammy-server.crt
If you encrypted your CA key, you’ll be prompted for your password at this point.
With those steps complete, you have signed the
sammy-server.req CSR using the CA Server’s private key in
/home/sammy/easy-rsa/pki/private/ca.key. The resulting
sammy-server.crt file contains the practice server’s public encryption key, as well as a new signature from the CA Server. The point of the signature is to tell anyone who trusts the CA that they can also trust the
If this request was for a real server like a web server or VPN server, the last step on the CA Server would be to distribute the new
ca.crt files from the CA Server to the remote server that made the CSR request:
- scp pki/issued/sammy-server.crt sammy@your_server_ip:/tmp
- scp pki/ca.crt sammy@your_server_ip:/tmp
At this point, you would be able to use the issued certificate with something like a web server, a VPN, configuration management tool, database system, or for client authentication purposes.
Occasionally, you may need to revoke a certificate to prevent a user or server from using it. Perhaps someone’s laptop was stolen, a web server was compromised, or an employee or contractor has left your organization.
To revoke a certificate, the general process follows these steps:
./easyrsa revoke client_namecommand.
crl.pemfile to the server or servers that rely on your CA, and on those systems copy it to the required directory or directories for programs that refer to it.
You can use this process to revoke any certificates that you’ve previously issued at any time. We’ll go over each step in detail in the following sections, starting with the
To revoke a certificate, navigate to the
easy-rsa directory on your CA server:
- cd ~/easy-rsa
Next, run the
easyrsa script with the
revoke option, followed by the client name you wish to revoke. Following the practice example above, the Common Name of the certificate is
- ./easyrsa revoke sammy-server
This will ask you to confirm the revocation by entering
OutputPlease confirm you wish to revoke the certificate with the following subject: subject= commonName = sammy-server Type the word 'yes' to continue, or any other input to abort. Continue with revocation: yes . . . Revoking Certificate 8348B3F146A765581946040D5C4D590A . . .
Note the highlighted value on the
Revoking Certificate line. This value is the unique serial number of the certificate that is being revoked. If you want to examine the revocation list in the last step of this section to verify that the certificate is in it, you’ll need this value.
After confirming the action, the CA will revoke the certificate. However, remote systems that rely on the CA have no way to check whether any certificates have been revoked. Users and servers will still be able to use the certificate until the CA’s Certificate Revocation List (CRL) is distributed to all systems that rely on the CA.
In the next step you’ll generate a CRL or update an existing
Now that you have revoked a certificate, it is important to update the list of revoked certificates on your CA server. Once you have an updated revocation list you will be able to tell which users and systems have valid certificates in your CA.
To generate a CRL, run the
easy-rsa command with the
gen-crl option while still inside the
- ./easyrsa gen-crl
If you have used a passphrase when creating your
ca.key file, you will be prompted to enter it. The
gen-crl command will generate a file called
crl.pem containing the updated list of revoked certificates for that CA.
Next you’ll need to transfer the updated
crl.pem file to all servers and clients that rely on this CA each time you run the
gen-crl command. Otherwise, clients and systems will still be able to access services and systems that use your CA, since those services need to know about the revoked status of the certificate.
Now that you have generated a CRL on your CA server, you need to transfer it to remote systems that rely on your CA. To transfer this file to your servers, you can use the
Note: This tutorial explains how to generate and distribute a CRL manually. While there are more robust and automated methods to distribute and check revocation lists like OCSP-Stapling, configuring those methods is beyond the scope of this article.
Ensure you are logged into your CA server as your non-root user and run the following, substituting in your own server IP or DNS name in place of
- scp ~/easy-rsa/pki/crl.pem sammy@your_server_ip:/tmp
Now that the file is on the remote system, the last step is to update any services with the new copy of the revocation list.
Listing the steps that you need to use to update services that use the
crl.pem file is beyond the scope of this tutorial. In general you will need to copy the
crl.pem file into the location that the service expects and then restart it using
Once you have updated your services with the new
crl.pem file, your services will be able to reject connections from clients or servers that are using a revoked certificate.
If you would like to examine a CRL file, for example to confirm a list of revoked certificates, use the following
openssl command from within your
easy-rsa directory on your CA server:
- cd ~/easy-rsa
- openssl crl -in pki/crl.pem -noout -text
You can also run this command on any server or system that has the
openssl tool installed with a copy of the
crl.pem file. For example, if you transferred the
crl.pem file to your second system and want to verify that the
sammy-server certificate is revoked, you can use an
openssl command like the following, substituting the serial number that you noted earlier when you revoked the certificate in place of the highlighted one here:
- openssl crl -in /tmp/crl.pem -noout -text |grep -A 1 8348B3F146A765581946040D5C4D590A
OutputSerial Number: 8348B3F146A765581946040D5C4D590A Revocation Date: Apr 1 20:48:02 2020 GMT
Notice how the
grep command is used to check for the unique serial number that you noted in the revocation step. Now you can verify the contents of your Certificate Revocation List on any system that relies on it to restrict access to users and services.
In this tutorial you created a private Certificate Authority using the Easy-RSA package on a standalone Debian 11 server. You learned how the trust model works between parties that rely on the CA. You also created and signed a Certificate Signing Request (CSR) for a practice server and then revoked a certificate. Finally, you generated and distributed a Certificate Revocation List (CRL) for any system that relies on your CA to ensure that users or servers that should not access services are prevented from doing so.
Now you can issue certificates for users and use them with services like OpenVPN. You can also use your CA to configure development and staging web servers with certificates to secure your non-production environments. Using a CA with TLS certificates during development can help ensure that your code and environments match your production environment as closely as possible.
If you would like to learn more about how to use OpenSSL, our OpenSSL Essentials: Working with SSL Certificates, Private Keys and CSRs tutorial has lots of additional information to help you become more familiar with OpenSSL fundamentals.
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