Tags: certificates, acme, freeipa

Plans for ACME support in FreeIPA

In this post I outline the plans for ACME support in FreeIPA. It’s not intended as a general introduction to ACME or a deep dive into the protocol; if you don’t know what ACME is, the Wikipedia page is a good place to start. Instead this post will focus on how ACME could fit into enterprise environments, and our initial plans for ACME support in FreeIPA.

ACME in the enterprise

Automated Certificate Management Environment or ACME (defined in RFC 8555) is a Certificate Authority (CA) protocol for automated DNS name validation and certificate issuance. It was first used by Let's Encrypt, a free publicly-trusted CA. And ACME is increasingly supported by other CAs. Also, some enterprises are interested in ACME to simplify certificate issuance within their organisation.

Therefore we are planning to implement ACME support in FreeIPA. It took us a long time to reach this point, because it was not clear what we should do. One of the main problems ACME solves—automated DNS name validation—doesn’t have the same importance in enterprise environments where systems and services can already prove their identity to a CA.

The other main part of ACME is the certificate request and issuance part, which is already a solved problem. That said, consolidation around ACME and the value of server-integrated clients is a good reason to adopt ACME, even if the name validation parts don’t solve an acute problem.

The “impedence mismatch” of the name validation parts of ACME in enterprise environments has been recognised by the IETF ACME Working Group. There is an active Internet-Draft for an "authority token" challenge type. This challenge type allows a client to present to the ACME CA a verificable token, issued by a Token Authority, that authorises the client to use a particular name. But this specification is still in development and it does not answer questions like how the Token Authority decides whether or not to grant an authorisation.

So at this stage we have no firm idea of what “enterprise ACME” should be. We could make something up, but we prefer to do work that is driven by (or anticipates) real customer requirements. Although lots of customers have asked for or expressed interest in ACME, noone has expressed a clear picture of how it should work with their enterprise identity management.

Basic ACME

So we will infer the simplest requirement. Customers want ACME support in FreeIPA, so we will give them the ACME they already know. ACME clients are essentially anonymous and have no association with enterprise identities. Clients must perform DNS name validation challenges just as they would if they were talking to a public CA like Let’s Encrypt. The ACME service will validate the challenges in the same way under the prevailing DNS view, which may be different from the DNS view that a public CA would see.

When issuance is approved, the ACME service acts as a Registration Authority (RA) and issues the certificate. The client has no control over the profile used.

Additional authentication, authorisation or account binding layers will be deferred. We can implement them when we know what they should be. If we build this “basic ACME” support, and customers start using it, then hopefully they will tell us what they need more control over. When a clear picture of what “enterprise ACME” should be emerges, we can be confident that we are implementing the right thing.

Dogtag ACME service

Already a lot of work has been done implementing an ACME service in Dogtag. Although it lives in the main Dogtag repository, this is essentially a separate server. It can be configured with different database backends (e.g. PostgreSQL, MongoDB) and different issuance backends (Dogtag, OpenSSL, or even another ACME server).

This work will be the core of the FreeIPA ACME service. We will deploy the ACME service on FreeIPA CA servers and expose it via the Apache front end.

Additional work required for FreeIPA

Although the core of the Dogtag ACME service has already been implemented there is still a lot of work to do for the FreeIPA use case.

LDAP database backend

We need to implement an LDAP database backend for the Dogtag ACME service. This includes devising the LDAP attribute and object class schemas. I’m currently working on this part.

There are clear advantages to using an LDAP database. First, in a FreeIPA deployment we already have LDAP databases configured, and replication established, for Dogtag and FreeIPA. And we do not want to introduce and configure new dependencies, especially a database server e.g. PostgreSQL.

LDAP configuration backend

In addition to the storage of ACME objects, we also want the ACME service configuration to be stored in LDAP. This ensures a consistent configuration across the topology. Taking advantage of LDAP replication and using a persistent search will ensure that configuration changes (e.g. enable/disable the service or change the profile to use) are applied across the topology almost immediately.

Dogtag backend authentication

The Dogtag CA backend for the ACME service currently supports password authentication. This will not do. It must be enhanced to support another form of authentication. Certificate authentication seems an obvious target but it presents some challenges. First, we cannot use the IPA RA certificate as-is. The Java TLS client implementation we use uses NSS, and the IPA RA certificate and key are in PEM format. So we would need to:

Alternatively we should pursue GSS-API (Kerberos) authentication. We would need to implement support for this in the Java PKI client libraries. But we already know we want to get there one day. And when we get there, we want to do away with the IPA RA credential. It might be worth the up-front effort to implement GSS-API authentication for the ACME RA and avoid the long-term challenges presented by certificate authentication.

The decision on which way we will go has not been made yet.

Lightweight CA support

The Dogtag CA backend for the ACME service will be enhanced to allow configuration of the (lightweight) CA to use for issuance. This will allow administrators to use a dedicated sub-CA for ACME certificates.

Adding ipa-ca.$DOMAIN to the HTTP certificate

ACME requires TLS to authenticate the server to the client and secure the connection. In the FreeIPA deployment, the CA capabilities are accessed via the ipa-ca.$DOMAIN DNS name. This is an A/AAAA record pointing to the servers that have the CA role installed. So if your domain name is example.org the ACME service will be hosted at https://ipa-ca.example.org/acme (or something like that).

This means that the DNS name ipa-ca.$DOMAIN must be added to the Subject Alternative Name extension in the HTTP certificate on every FreeIPA CA server. For the sake of simplicity we will actually add the name on the HTTP certificate on all FreeIPA servers whether they have the CA role or not. This will avoid having to issue a new certificate when a replica without the CA role gets promoted to a CA server. Having the name on the certificate of a non-CA server has no operational impact and minimal security risk.

In terms of implementation, for new replicas it is trivial to create the Certmonger tracking request with the DNS name. Some tweaks to CSR validation may be required to allow FreeIPA servers to use the name. For upgrade, we will need to add the name to the Certmonger tracking request and resubmit the request.

ACME certificate profile

We need to define and install a default certificate profile for use with ACME. In particular, it must handle empty Subject DNs in CSRs; some ACME clients including the popular Certbot generate CSRs with empty subjects. Furthermore the default validity period will be around 3 months, in line with the Let’s Encrypt profile and in recognition of how increased automation allows certificate lifetimes to be reduced, limiting security risks associated with long certificate lifetimes.

FreeIPA management API and commands

We need to implement commands for administrators to configure the ACME service. The ACME service will be automatically deployed on all CA servers, but by default will not service requests. API methods and corresponding CLI commands are needed to:

Pruning expired certificates

ACME will typically be used to issue (many) short-lived certificates. If we do not prune expired certificates from the database the disk usage will continue to grow, possibly too much. So we want a procedure to prune expired certificates from the Dogtag CA certificate database. The pruning feature should be able to be turned on or off depending on the organisation’s needs.

Similarly, we want to prune expired authorisations, challenges and orders from the ACME database. Perhaps inactive accounts too.

Conclusion

So, those are the plans for ACME support in FreeIPA. There is a lot of work to do. I’m hoping to make good progress in the next few months. I look forward to giving progress updates and demos in early 2020.

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