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ACME DNS challenges and FreeIPA

This post is part of a series of ACME client demonstrations. See also the posts about Certbot standalone HTTP and mod_md for Apache

The ACME protocol defined in RFC 8555 defines a DNS challenge for proving control of a domain name. In this post I’ll explain how the DNS challenge works and demonstrate how to use the Certbot ACME client with the FreeIPA integrated DNS service.

The DNS challenge §

To prove control of a domain name (the dns identifier type) ACME defines the dns-01 challenge type. It is up to ACME servers which challenges to create for a given identifier. If a server offers multiple challenges (e.g. http-01 and dns-01) the client can choose which one to attempt.

A DNS challenge object looks like:

  "type": "dns-01",
  "url": "https://example.com/acme/chall/Rg5dV14Gh1Q",
  "status": "pending",
  "token": "evaGxfADs6pSRb2LAv9IZf17Dt3juxGJ-PCt92wr-oA"

The token field is a base64url-encoded high-entropy random value. Due to the use of TLS this value should be known only to the server and client.

The client responds to a dns-01 challenge by provisioning a DNS TXT record containing the SHA-256 digest of the key authorisation value, which is the concatenation of the token value from the challenge object and the JWK Thumbprint of the account key. For example:

_acme-challenge.www.example.org. 300 IN TXT "gfj9Xq...Rg85nM"

The client then informs the ACME server that it can validate the challenge:

POST /acme/chall/Rg5dV14Gh1Q
Host: example.com
Content-Type: application/jose+json

  "protected": base64url({
    "alg": "ES256",
    "kid": "https://example.com/acme/acct/evOfKhNU60wg",
    "nonce": "SS2sSl1PtspvFZ08kNtzKd",
    "url": "https://example.com/acme/chall/Rg5dV14Gh1Q"
  "payload": base64url({}),
  "signature": "Q1bURgJoEslbD1c5...3pYdSMLio57mQNN4"

The ACME server will query the DNS. When it sees that the expected TXT record, the challenge (and corresponding identifier authorisation) are completed.

Because DNSSEC is not widely deployed, ACME servers can mitigate against DNS-based attacks by querying DNS from mutiple vantage points. This increases attack cost and complexity.

DNS and Certbot §

Certbot provides the --preferred-challenges={dns,http} CLI option to specify which challenge type to prefer if the server offers multiple challenges.

There are several DNS plugins available for using Certbot with particular DNS services. For example there are plugins for Cloudflare, Route53 and many other services. At a glance, many of them are packaged for Fedora. Each DNS plugin has different options to activate and configure it. Because we are not using any of these services I won’t go into further details here.

Certbot also provides pre and post validation hooks for the --manual strategy. These let the user specify scripts to carry out challenge provisioning and cleanup steps. The command line options are --manual-auth-hook and --manual-cleanup-hook.

Certbot and FreeIPA DNS §

You can use the CLI options described above to implement arbitrary means of responding to ACME challenges. And I have done just that for responding to the dns-01 challenge using the FreeIPA integrated DNS service.

The FreeIPA integrated DNS is an optional component of FreeIPA. It is implmented using the BIND DNS server and a database plugin causing BIND to read from the FreeIPA replicated LDAP database. The DNS service can be installed at server install time, or afterwards via the ipa-dns-install command. The freeipa-server-dns (Fedora) or ipa-server-dns (RHEL) package provides this feature. The rest of this section assumes that the FreeIPA integrated DNS server is installed and FreeIPA-enrolled client machines are configured to use it.

The ipa dnsrecord-add <zone> <name> ... command adds record(s) to the zone. The resource types and values are given in options like --aaaa-rec=<ip6addr> or --txt-rec=<string>. The corresponding command dnsrecord-del command has the same format. Knowing that we can also interact with the FreeIPA server via the ipalib Python library, we have everything we need to implement the Certbot hook script(s) that will use FreeIPA’s DNS to satisfy the ACME dns-01 challenge.

Hook script §

The script is so short I will just include the whole thing here. I have broken it into chunks with commentary.

import os
from dns import resolver
from ipalib import api 
from ipapython import dnsutil

Shebang, imports. Trivial.

certbot_domain = os.environ['CERTBOT_DOMAIN']
certbot_validation = os.environ['CERTBOT_VALIDATION']
if 'CERTBOT_AUTH_OUTPUT' in os.environ:
    command = 'dnsrecord_del'
    command = 'dnsrecord_add'

Certbot provides the domain name and the authorisation string via environment variables. In the cleanup phase it also sets the CERTBOT_AUTH_OUTPUT environment variable. Therefore I use this same script for both the authorisation and cleanup phases. Because the commands are so similar, the only thing that changes during cleanup is the command name.

validation_domain = f'_acme-challenge.{certbot_domain}'
fqdn = dnsutil.DNSName(validation_domain).make_absolute()
zone = dnsutil.DNSName(resolver.zone_for_name(fqdn))
name = fqdn.relativize(zone)

Construct the validation domain name and find the corresponding DNS zone, i.e. the zone in which we must create the TXT record. Then we relativise the validation domain name against the zone.



Initialise the API and execute the command. Note that names of the keyword arguments are different from the corresponding CLI options.

There are some important caveats. There must be latent, non-expired Kerberos credentials in the execution environment. These can be in the default credential cache or specified via the KRB5CCNAME environment variable (e.g. to point to a keytab file). The principal must also have permissions to add and remove DNS records.

Demo §

As in previous ACME demos the client machine is enrolled as a FreeIPA client and trusts the FreeIPA CA. For this demo Certbot does not need to run as root. But by default Certbot tries to read and write files under /etc/letsencrypt. I had to override this behaviour with the following command line options:

--config-dir DIR

Configuration directory. (default: /etc/letsencrypt)

--work-dir DIR

Working directory. (default: /var/lib/letsencrypt)

--logs-dir LOGS_DIR

Logs directory. (default: /var/log/letsencrypt)

I defined these options in a shell array variable for use in subsequent commands. I included the ACME server configuration too:

[f31-0:~] ftweedal% CERTBOT_ARGS=( 
array> --logs-dir ~/certbot/log
array> --work-dir ~/certbot/work
array> --config-dir ~/certbot/config
array> --server https://ipa-ca.ipa.local/acme/directory
array> )

Next I registered an account:

[f31-0:~] ftweedal% certbot $CERTBOT_ARGS \
    register --email ftweedal@redhat.com \
    --agree-tos --no-eff-email --quiet
Saving debug log to /home/ftweedal/certbot/log/letsencrypt.log

 - Your account credentials have been saved in your Certbot
   configuration directory at /home/ftweedal/certbot/config. 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.

The --no-eff-email option suppressed the “Would you be willing to share your email address with the Electronic Frontier Foundation?” prompt.

The FreeIPA hook script requires Kerberos credentials so I executed kinit admin. In production use a less privileged account with permissions to add and delete DNS records.

[f31-0:~] ftweedal% kinit admin
Password for admin@IPA.LOCAL: XXXXXXXX

Now I was ready to request the certificate. Alongside executing certbot, in another terminal I executed DNS queries to observe the creation and deletion of the TXT record.

[root@f31-0 ~]# certbot $CERTBOT_ARGS \
    certonly --domain $(hostname) \
    --key-type rsa \
    --preferred-challenges dns \
    --manual --manual-public-ip-logging-ok \
    --manual-auth-hook /home/ftweedal/certbot-dns-ipa.py \
    --manual-cleanup-hook /home/ftweedal/certbot-dns-ipa.py
Saving debug log to /home/ftweedal/certbot/log/letsencrypt.log 
Plugins selected: Authenticator manual, Installer None                                                            
Obtaining a new certificate                                                                                       
Performing the following challenges:
dns-01 challenge for f31-0.ipa.local
Running manual-auth-hook command: /home/ftweedal/certbot-dns-ipa.py
Waiting for verification...
Cleaning up challenges
Running manual-cleanup-hook command: /home/ftweedal/certbot-dns-ipa.py

 - Congratulations! Your certificate and chain have been saved at:
   Your key file has been saved at:
   Your cert will expire on 2020-08-11. 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"
 - 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

The certificate was issued and the process took about 10 seconds. In the other terminal, running dig every couple of seconds let me observe the TXT record that was created and then deleted:

[f31-0:~] ftweedal% dig +short TXT _acme-challenge.f31-0.ipa.local

[f31-0:~] ftweedal% dig +short TXT _acme-challenge.f31-0.ipa.local

[f31-0:~] ftweedal% dig +short TXT _acme-challenge.f31-0.ipa.local
<< no output; record is gone >>

Error handling §

To my surprise, a failure (non-zero exit status) of the authorisation hook script does not cause Certbot to halt. For example, after deleting my credential cache with kdestroy and running certbot with the same options as above, Certbot output an error message and the standard error output from the hook script:

Running manual-auth-hook command: /home/ftweedal/certbot-dns-ipa.py                                               
manual-auth-hook command "/home/ftweedal/certbot-dns-ipa.py"
returned error code 1                                
Error output from manual-auth-hook command certbot-dns-ipa.py:                                                    
Traceback (most recent call last):                                                                                
  File "/usr/lib/python3.7/site-packages/ipalib/rpc.py", line 647,
  in get_auth_info                               
      response = self._sec_context.step()                                          

Nevertheless Certbot proceeded to indicating to the server that the challenge is ready for verification:

Waiting for verification...                                                                                       
< 20 seconds elapse >

It then cleaned up the challenges and ran the cleanup hook (which also failed, as expected, due to no Kerberos credentials):

Cleaning up challenges   
Cleaning up challenges                                                                                            
Running manual-cleanup-hook command: /home/ftweedal/certbot-dns-ipa.py
manual-cleanup-hook command "/home/ftweedal/certbot-dns-ipa.py" returned error code 1                             
Error output from manual-cleanup-hook command certbot-dns-ipa.py:                                                 
Traceback (most recent call last):   

Finally it output the error from the ACME service:

An unexpected error occurred:                                                                                     
There was a problem with a DNS query during identifier validation ::
  Unable to validate DNS-01 challenge at _acme-challenge.f31-0.ipa.local                                                                                         
Error: DNS name not found [response code 3]                                                                       
Please see the logfiles in /home/ftweedal/certbot/log for more details. 

Responding to a challenge after an abnormal exit of the authorisation hook seems to infringe RFC 8555 §8.2 which states:

Clients SHOULD NOT respond to challenges until they believe that the server’s queries will succeed.

I reported this issue against the Certbot GitHub repository.

Discussion §

The certbot-dns-ipa.py script is available in a Gist. It is trivial so consider it public domain.

The script is an artifact of work that is partly an exploration of ACME use cases, and partly for verifying the PKI and FreeIPA ACME services. I encountered no issues on the ACME server side which was pleasing.

From the client point of view it was good to confirm that what sounded like a valid use case was indeed valid. Not only that, it was straightforward thanks to the FreeIPA Python API and the design of the DNS plugin. The success of this use case exploration leads to to a couple of related questions:

These questions don’t need answers today. But it is good to outline and compare the options.

From a technical standpoint these are not mutually exclusive; you could do both. But from a usage standpoint you only really need one or the other. A proper plugin might have better UX and discoverability but it would be additional work (how much more I’m not sure yet). On the other hand the hook script is pretty much already “done”. We would just need to distribute it, e.g. install it under /usr/libexec/ipa/.

This post concludes my “trilogy” of ACME client use case demos. In the future I will probably explore the intersection of ACME, OpenShift and FreeIPA. If so, expect the “sequel trilogy”. But my immediate focus must be to finish the FreeIPA ACME service and get it merged upstream.

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