How to set up an Nginx HTTPS website with an ECDSA certificate (and get an A+ rating on SSL Labs)

Most people who maintain web servers (or email servers, or…) have probably had to deal with SSL/TLS certificates in the past, but the process is, in my opinion, typically more complex than it should be, and not that well documented, typically forcing the user to consult several tutorials on the web so that they can adapt parts of each for their needs. Since I had to renew a couple of certificates last week, I thought about writing a quick and easy tutorial for a particular case: HTTPS on Nginx (although the certificate itself could, of course, be used for other services; right now I have one I’m using for IMAP (Dovecot) and SMTP (Postfix) as well). For extra fun, I’ll be creating/using an ECDSA certificate with an EC key, instead of the more usual RSA type; ECDSA is more modern and is theoretically more secure even with smaller keys.

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 (which supports ECDSA certificates; if you choose another, you should make sure of that in advance). 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, 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 ecparam -genkey -name secp384r1 | openssl ec -out myserver.key

openssl req -new -key myserver.key -out myserver.csr

The second 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, such as ““. Note that a certificate for “” also includes “” (so don’t include the “www.” in the CN), but if the server is reached at ““, 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 to 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 . Put it somewhere Nginx can access (e.g. /etc/nginx), and also the key you generated earlier (in this example, myserver.key). You don’t need the CSR there, by the way; it was just needed for ordering the new certificate.

Setting up Nginx:

This is, of course, not a complete Nginx tutorial (that would take a lot more space than a single post), just a simple recipe for configuring an HTTPS site with your new certificate, and have it be secure (and get a great score at SSL Labs, too). I’m assuming you can take care of all the non-HTTPS bits.

So, inside a virtual host, you need the server section:

server {
        listen 443 ssl http2; # if your nginx complains about 'http2', remove it, or (better yet) upgrade to a recent version
        server_name # replace with your site, obviously

        # all the non-HTTPS bits (directories, log paths, etc.) go here

        # the rest of the recipe -- see below -- can go here

See the last comment? OK, let’s begin adding stuff there (I won’t indent any configuration lines from now on, but they look better if aligned with the rest of the configuration inside the { } ).

ssl_certificate /etc/nginx/myserver-full.crt; # the certificate and the intermediate certs, as seen above...
ssl_certificate_key /etc/nginx/myserver.key; # ... and the key

ssl_protocols TLSv1 TLSv1.1 TLSv1.2;

# the above comes from Mozilla's Server Side TLS guide

add_header X-Content-Type-Options nosniff;
ssl_session_cache shared:SSL:10m;
ssl_session_timeout 5m;	# basic defaults.

Great, you now have a basic HTTPS server! I suggest you try it now: save the configuration, restart Nginx, and test it. Access the URL with a browser (and check if the browser doesn’t complain about the certificate: if it did, something went wrong), and run it through SSL Labs’ Server Test. Check if it complains about something; if so, something needs fixing (ask in the comments, maybe I or someone else can help).

If all went well, you probably got a decent score, maybe even an A. But how to get an A+, like I promised at the beginning?

An A+ score on SSL Labs’ Server Test:

As of now (September 2017), SSL Labs only asks for one more thing: “HTTP Strict Transport Security (HSTS) with long duration”. HSTS is a mechanism to tell browsers: “this site should be accessed through HTTPS only; if you attempt to connect through normal HTTP, then deny access”. This information is actually cached by the browser, it’s not the server that refuses HTTP connections (though it’s, of course, possible to configure Nginx to do just that — or simply do 301 redirects to the equivalent HTTPS URL. But I digress…). In short, it protects against downgrade attacks. As for the “with long duration” part, that’s simply the time that browsers should cache that information.

IMPORTANT: don’t proceed until you have the basic HTTPS site running, and SSL Labs reporting no problems (see the previous section)!

ALSO IMPORTANT: if you *do* want your site to be accessible through both HTTP and HTTPS, stop here, as the rest of the configuration will make it HTTPS-only! That means, however, giving up on the A+ score.

So, add the following:

add_header Strict-Transport-Security "max-age=63072000; includeSubdomains; preload";

Restart Nginx, try SSL Labs’ test again. Did you get an A+?

If not, or you have any questions, feel free to ask.

For extra fun: have your Nginx use LibreSSL or OpenSSL 1.1.x, and enjoy a few more modern ciphers (look for “ChaCha20” on SSL Labs) without any configuration changes from the above.

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