How to create an RSA certificate

(Note: most of this post’s content originally appeared in a previous one.  The difference is that that one refers to ECDSA certificates, while this one is about the older, more common RSA certificates.)

Whether it’s a web server, an email server (two, in fact, assuming you’re using one for SMTP and another for IMAP, as is common), or other types of applications, to have encrypted connections a TLS certificate 1 is required. It can be self-signed (say, if you’ll be the only one needing to access that server), but browsers and email clients will complain (loudly!), therefore, if you want your server to be universally accessed, a “real” certificate is needed, so let’s show how to get one.

This recipe creates an RSA certificate (strongly suggested for, say, Postfix, since you can’t control what other email servers support, so you should go for the most common option); for web servers (accessed by standard browsers), an ECDSA certificate might be a good alternative.

A few notes:

  • There are alternatives (e.g. key sizes, etc.) for basically every parameter I’m using, but I’m not going into those. This is supposed to be as quick and easy as possible, after all.
  • Similarly, I’m not going into Let’s Encrypt; instead, I’m assuming a “normal” certificate authority such as Comodo. If you do use Let’s Encrypt, just use it to create the certificate instead of the “send the CSR to the certification authority” part.
  • The certificate (and server) will be compatible with most browsers and applications (email clients, etc.), but that “most” won’t include any Microsoft browsers on Windows XP (Firefox or Chrome on that abomination of an OS will still work).

Generating the key and the Certificate Signing Request (CSR):

openssl req -nodes -newkey rsa:4096 -keyout myserver.key -out myserver.csr

The command will ask you for details about your server/company (location, etc.). You should fill in every field, although the only mandatory one is “Common Name” (CN), which must match your server’s public name (not necessarily the machine’s name, but the host name people will type in the browser/email client, such as “zurgl.com” or “mail.something.com“. Note that a certificate for “domain.com” also includes “www.domain.com” (so don’t include the “www.” in the CN), but if the server is reached at “subdomain.domain.com“, then that’s what the CN needs to be.

Ordering and receiving the new certificate:

Now go to a certification authority (CA), order a new certificate, and when asked for a CSR, send them (usually you can just copy and paste it into a text entry window) that myserver.csr file.

If everything went well, then the CA should email you the new certificate in a short while. Typically they send you two files: the certificate itself, and a couple of “intermediate” certificates. Only the first is really needed, but I’ve had best results with concatenating your certificate (first) and the intermediate certs (last) into a single file, which you might call myserver-full.crt .

That file is, to all intents and purposes, your new certificate, and it’s ready to be used in application servers. You can use the same certificate for several services (e.g. an HTTPS web site, an SMTP server, an IMAP server), as long as the host name matches the certificate’s CN (so a certificate for “mail.myserver.com” won’t work for “www.myserver.com“, and vice-versa, but that’s because the names don’t match — not because they’re different services).

Adding TLS encryption (with your shiny new certificate) to internet services:

Here’s a (growing) list of tutorials:

  1. Formerly known as an “SSL certificate”, but SSL is just a subset of TLS, and, besides, the term “SSL” typically either refers to or suggests obsolete, insecure versions of the protocol: e.g. SSLv3

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