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How To Use Certbot Standalone Mode to Retrieve Let's Encrypt SSL Certificates on CentOS 7

PostedMay 31, 2019 2.1k views Let's Encrypt Security CentOS

Introduction

Let's Encrypt is a service offering free SSL certificates through an automated API. The most popular Let's Encrypt client is EFF's Certbot.

Certbot offers a variety of ways to validate your domain, fetch certificates, and automatically configure Apache and Nginx. In this tutorial, we'll discuss Certbot's standalone mode and how to use it to secure other types of services, such as a mail server or a message broker like RabbitMQ.

We won’t discuss the details of SSL configuration, but when you are done you will have a valid certificate that is automatically renewed. Additionally, you will be able to automate reloading your service to pick up the renewed certificate.

Prerequisites

Before starting this tutorial, you will need:

  • An CentOS 7 server with a non-root, sudo-enabled user, as detailed in this CentOS 7 initial server setup tutorial.
  • A domain name pointed at your server, which you can accomplish by following “How to Set Up a Host Name with DigitalOcean.” This tutorial will use example.com throughout.
  • Port 80 or 443 must be unused on your server. If the service you're trying to secure is on a machine with a web server that occupies both of those ports, you'll need to use a different mode such as Certbot's webroot mode.

Step 1 — Installing Certbot

Certbot is packaged in an extra repository called Extra Packages for Enterprise Linux (EPEL). To enable this repository on CentOS 7, run the following yum command:

  • sudo yum --enablerepo=extras install epel-release

Afterwards, the certbot package can be installed with yum:

  • sudo yum install certbot

You may confirm your install was successful by calling the certbot command:

  • certbot --version
Output
certbot 0.31.0

Now that we have Certbot installed, let's run it to get our certificate.

Step 2 — Running Certbot

Certbot needs to answer a cryptographic challenge issued by the Let's Encrypt API in order to prove we control our domain. It uses ports 80 (HTTP) or 443 (HTTPS) to accomplish this. If you're using a firewall, open up the appropriate port now. For firewalld this would be something like the following:

  • sudo firewall-cmd --add-service=http
  • sudo firewall-cmd --runtime-to-permanent

Substitute https for http above if you're using port 443.

We can now run Certbot to get our certificate. We'll use the --standalone option to tell Certbot to handle the challenge using its own built-in web server. The --preferred-challenges option instructs Certbot to use port 80 or port 443. If you're using port 80, you want --preferred-challenges http. For port 443 it would be --preferred-challenges tls-sni. Finally, the -d flag is used to specify the domain you're requesting a certificate for. You can add multiple -d options to cover multiple domains in one certificate.

  • sudo certbot certonly --standalone --preferred-challenges http -d example.com

When running the command, you will be prompted to enter an email address and agree to the terms of service. After doing so, you should see a message telling you the process was successful and where your certificates are stored:

Output
IMPORTANT NOTES: - Congratulations! Your certificate and chain have been saved at: /etc/letsencrypt/live/example.com/fullchain.pem Your key file has been saved at: /etc/letsencrypt/live/example.com/privkey.pem Your cert will expire on 2018-10-09. To obtain a new or tweaked version of this certificate in the future, simply run certbot again. To non-interactively renew *all* of your certificates, run "certbot renew" - Your account credentials have been saved in your Certbot configuration directory at /etc/letsencrypt. You should make a secure backup of this folder now. This configuration directory will also contain certificates and private keys obtained by Certbot so making regular backups of this folder is ideal. - If you like Certbot, please consider supporting our work by: Donating to ISRG / Let's Encrypt: https://letsencrypt.org/donate Donating to EFF: https://eff.org/donate-le

We've got our certificates. Let's take a look at what we downloaded and how to use the files with our software.

Step 3 — Configuring Your Application

Configuring your application for SSL is beyond the scope of this article, as each application has different requirements and configuration options, but let's take a look at what Certbot has downloaded for us. Use ls to list out the directory that holds our keys and certificates:

  • sudo ls /etc/letsencrypt/live/example.com
Output
cert.pem chain.pem fullchain.pem privkey.pem README

The README file in this directory has more information about each of these files. Most often you'll only need two of these files:

  • privkey.pem: This is the private key for the certificate. This needs to be kept safe and secret, which is why most of the /etc/letsencrypt directory has very restrictive permissions and is accessible by only the root user. Most software configuration will refer to this as something similar to ssl-certificate-key or ssl-certificate-key-file.
  • fullchain.pem: This is our certificate, bundled with all intermediate certificates. Most software will use this file for the actual certificate, and will refer to it in their configuration with a name like 'ssl-certificate'.

For more information on the other files present, refer to the "Where are my certificates" section of the Certbot docs.

Some software will need its certificates in other formats, in other locations, or with other user permissions. It is best to leave everything in the letsencrypt directory, and not change any permissions in there (permissions will just be overwritten upon renewal anyway), but sometimes that's just not an option. In that case, you'll need to write a script to move files and change permissions as needed. This script will need to be run whenever Certbot renews the certificates, which we'll talk about next.

Step 4 — Enabling Automatic Certificate Renewal

Let's Encrypt's certificates are only valid for ninety days. This is to encourage users to automate their certificate renewal process. The certbot package we installed includes a systemd timer to check for renewals twice a day, but it is disabled by default. Enable the timer by running the following command:

  • sudo systemctl enable --now certbot-renew.timer
Output
Created symlink from /etc/systemd/system/timers.target.wants/certbot-renew.timer to /usr/lib/systemd/system/certbot-renew.timer.

You may verify the status of the timer using systemctl:

  • sudo systemctl status certbot-renew.timer
Output
● certbot-renew.timer - This is the timer to set the schedule for automated renewals Loaded: loaded (/usr/lib/systemd/system/certbot-renew.timer; enabled; vendor preset: disabled) Active: active (waiting) since Fri 2019-05-31 15:10:10 UTC; 48s ago

The timer should be active. Certbot will now automatically renew any certificates on this server whenever necessary.

Step 5 — Running Tasks When Certificates are Renewed

Now that our certificates are renewing automatically, we need a way to run certain tasks after a renewal. We need to at least restart or reload our server to pick up the new certificates, and as mentioned in Step 3 we may need to manipulate the certificate files in some way to make them work with the software we're using. This is the purpose of Certbot's renew_hook option.

To add a renew_hook, we update Certbot's renewal config file. Certbot remembers all the details of how you first fetched the certificate, and will run with the same options upon renewal. We just need to add in our hook. Open the config file with you favorite editor:

  • sudo vi /etc/letsencrypt/renewal/example.com.conf

A text file will open with some configuration options. Add your hook on the last line:

/etc/letsencrypt/renewal/example.com.conf
renew_hook = systemctl reload rabbitmq

Update the command above to whatever you need to run to reload your server or run your custom file munging script. Usually, on CentOS, you’ll mostly be using systemctl to reload a service. Save and close the file, then run a Certbot dry run to make sure the syntax is ok:

  • sudo certbot renew --dry-run

If you see no errors, you're all set. Certbot is set to renew when necessary and run any commands needed to get your service using the new files.

Conclusion

In this tutorial, we've installed the Certbot Let's Encrypt client, downloaded an SSL certificate using standalone mode, and enabled automatic renewals with renew hooks. This should give you a good start on using Let's Encrypt certificates with services other than your typical web server.

For more information, please refer to Certbot's documentation.

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