Nginx: How to prioritize ChaCha20 for devices without hardware AES support

Some time ago, I noticed something like this on a site (not mine)’s rating on SSL Labs:

SSL Labs - "P"

According to SSL Labs’ test, that little P means:

(P) This server prefers ChaCha20 suites with clients that don’t have AES-NI (e.g., Android devices)

Naturally, my curiosity was piqued, and a bit of investigating followed…

First (and briefly), the theory:

  1. both AES and ChaCha20 ciphers are thought to be equally secure.
  2. many modern CPUs provide hardware acceleration for AES, in which case it’s faster…
  3. … however, if the CPU doesn’t accelerate AES, then ChaCha20 is faster.

Therefore, setting a web server (or any other kind of server, such as IMAP or SMTP, but those are outside this article’s scope) to use either option all the time means that some clients won’t have the optimal cipher(s) (in terms of performance) for their device. It won’t probably be noticeable in 99% of cases, but, hey, I’m a geek, and geeks optimize stuff for fun, not just for real-world performance. 🙂

Fortunately, as the SSL Labs test shows, it’s possible to configure a server to use/prefer one cipher for non-hardware accelerated devices, and another cipher (or, more precisely, a list of preferred ciphers) for the rest.

(For the curious, the selection process works like this: if the client’s preferred cipher is ChaCha20, then the server assumes it’s a device without hardware AES and uses that. If the client’s top cipher is anything else, then the server uses its own cipher list.)

This guide shows how to do it in Nginx, using Let’s Encrypt certificates. I’m using an Ubuntu 19.04 server, but any relatively recent Nginx should work, as long as you’re using OpenSSL 1.1.0 or newer, or LibreSSL. If your distro still provides only OpenSSL 1.0.x or older by default, you can always compile a newer version to a separate directory, and then compile Nginx to use it: here are instructions for OpenSSL 1.1.x or LibreSSL.

This is actually relatively simple, though some specific distros/servers may require some other changes:

1- Give Nginx a list of ciphers that doesn’t have ChaCha20 in first place (you need to specify some AES ciphers first). The list I’m using (currently specified in /etc/letsencrypt/options-ssl-nginx.conf , since I’m using Let’s Encrypt) is:

ssl_ciphers 'TLS_AES_128_GCM_SHA256:TLS_AES_256_GCM_SHA384:TLS_CHACHA20_POLY1305_SHA256:ECDHE-ECDSA-AES128-GCM-SHA256:ECDHE-RSA-AES128-GCM-SHA256:ECDHE-ECDSA-AES256-GCM-SHA384:ECDHE-RSA-AES256-GCM-SHA384:DHE-RSA-AES128-GCM-SHA256:ECDHE-ECDSA-CHACHA20-POLY1305:ECDHE-RSA-CHACHA20-POLY1305:DHE-RSA-AES256-GCM-SHA384:ECDHE-ECDSA-AES128-SHA256:ECDHE-RSA-AES128-SHA256:ECDHE-ECDSA-AES128-SHA:ECDHE-RSA-AES256-SHA384:ECDHE-RSA-AES128-SHA:ECDHE-ECDSA-AES256-SHA384:ECDHE-ECDSA-AES256-SHA:ECDHE-RSA-AES256-SHA:DHE-RSA-AES128-SHA256:DHE-RSA-AES128-SHA:DHE-RSA-AES256-SHA256:DHE-RSA-AES256-SHA:ECDHE-ECDSA-DES-CBC3-SHA:ECDHE-RSA-DES-CBC3-SHA:EDH-RSA-DES-CBC3-SHA::!DSS:!3DES';

2- Edit your OpenSSL/LibreSSL configuration file (in Ubuntu/Debian it’s /etc/ssl/openssl.cnf) and, just before the first section in square brackets (in Ubuntu it’s “[ new_oids ]“), add the following:

openssl_conf = default_conf

[default_conf]
ssl_conf = ssl_sect

[ssl_sect]
system_default = system_default_sect

[system_default_sect]
Options = ServerPreference,PrioritizeChaCha

3- Restart Nginx, and test it on SSL Labs. If you see the superscript “P” at the right of each ChaCha20 line, everything went well. (Problems? Ask here, and maybe I, or some other reader, can help.)

You can also set up your Nginx to log ciphers (possibly to a separate log file), using something like:

log_format logciphers '$remote_addr ' '$ssl_protocol/$ssl_cipher ' '"$request" $status $body_bytes_sent ' '"$http_user_agent"';

access_log /var/log/nginx/servername-ciphers.log logciphers;

And then access the site with some of your devices, noting what ciphers they use. For instance, both my (2015) i7 laptop and my (2016) ZenFone 3 Android phone use AES (yes, apparently the Snapdragon 625 chip includes AES acceleration), but a 2013 Nexus 7 tablet and a 2015 iPad Pro (Safari, in this case — all other examples used Chrome) went for ChaCha. This shows that everything’s working correctly — the devices that specifically want to use ChaCha are indeed using it, while the rest aren’t. And, yes, this means that the very same browser (in this case, Chrome on Android) has different cipher preference defaults depending on the hardware it’s running on.

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