How to configure TLS encryption in Dovecot

DovecotLike most other internet services, Dovecot can be configured to use TLS encryption — and, unlike some others (such as web servers or SMTP servers), there’s little reason to not enforce it.

Notes:

  • Like other recent TLS tutorials on this blog, this is, of course, not a full Dovecot guide — that would be far too complex for a blog post. Instead, it’s just focused on enabling/configuring TLS encryption. I’ll be assuming you already have Dovecot configured, and able to access mailboxes on your server.
  • I’ll be focusing on IMAP only, not POP3 or anything else.
  • The server will be configured to require encryption, for both privacy and security reasons. I don’t know of any modern email client that doesn’t allow encrypted connections (and even then, you might work around it by configuring an encrypted tunnel, but that falls out of this post’s scope).

1. Getting a certificate

While I believe most modern email clients will support ECDSA certificates, such clients are not a known quantity like, say, web browsers are, so I suggest that you create an RSA certificate, unless you already have one whose Common Name (CN) matches your server’s public name (e.g. mail.domain.com). Dovecot versions 2.2.31 and newer support configuring alternative certificates so that you could support both kinds at the same time, but there’s probably little gain in doing that, since most clients will likely default to RSA anyway (and, unless you’re using Let’s Encrypt, certificates are not free).

So, put your certificate and private key in /etc/dovecot/. Let’s assume the certificate is called myserver-full.crt 1, and the private key is myserver.key. You should protect the private key from any users on your server, so do, for instance,

chown root:dovecot /etc/dovecot/myserver.key
chmod 640 /etc/dovecot/myserver.key

2. Configuring Dovecot for TLS

I’m assuming your Dovecot installation has a basic configuration file in /etc/dovecot/dovecot.conf, but the real “meat” of the configuration is in included files in /etc/dovecot/conf.d/. Your system may be slightly different, but I’m sure you can adapt. 🙂 Also, the numbers in the beginning of the file names may differ in your system.

This one isn’t really related to TLS, but it’s a good idea: edit /etc/dovecot/conf.d/20-imap.conf, and look for a line like this:

mail_plugins = $mail_plugins

and add to it (separated by a space):

imap_zlib

After all, there’s no reason not to use compression here, and bandwidth (especially on mobile) is still precious.

Now, edit /etc/dovecot/conf.d/10-ssl.conf, and add 2:

ssl = required
ssl_cert = </etc/dovecot/myserver-full.crt
ssl_key = </etc/dovecot/myserver.key
ssl_cipher_list = ECDHE-RSA-CHACHA20-POLY1305:ALL:!LOW:!SSLv2:!EXP:!aNULL
ssl_protocols = !SSLv2 !SSLv3
ssl_prefer_server_ciphers = yes

(The ssl_cipher_list line, besides setting secure defaults, sets the ChaCha20 protocol as the first one to be tried, since it’s considered one of the fastest and most secure. Note that it’ll require Dovecot linked to LibreSSL or OpenSSL 1.1.x to use that cipher, though Dovecot won’t complain if it doesn’t have access to it; it’ll just use the normal, secure defaults.)

If you don’t change anything else from the default configuration, the server will be listening on port 143 (IMAP) and port 993 (IMAPS). “But,” you ask, “isn’t standard IMAP unencrypted? I thought you were enforcing encryption…” Yes, but the standard IMAP port can be “upgraded” to TLS by entering the STARTTLS command, and email clients not only support that, but typically default to it (if not, just make sure you enable it). The server will refuse to authenticate any users on port 143 before they’ve “STARTTLSed”.

If you wanted to use only IMAP+STARTTLS, or only IMAPS, just edit /etc/dovecot/conf.d/10-master.conf,  look for the “service” configuration, and disable the one you don’t want. But I see no problem with keeping both enabled.

Thoughts? Questions?

(To do the same to SMTP / Postfix, please see How to configure TLS encryption in Postfix.)

How to configure TLS encryption in Postfix

Although Postfix (and the SMTP protocol in general) can function without any kind of encryption, enabling it can be a good idea in terms of both security and privacy, so let’s look at how it can be easily done.

We’ll actually be configuring two separate types of encryption:

  • Opportunistic encryption for regular SMTP (port 25), both incoming 1 and outgoing 2. “Opportunistic”, here, means that the server will ask for encryption and use it if the other side also supports it, but if it doesn’t then it’ll work without encryption. Although forcing it might sound tempting for security reasons, in reality many “smaller” servers around the world still don’t support it, so you would be unable to send or receive mail to/from those. Opportunistic TLS at least means that most “big” email services (e.g. Gmail) will communicate with you (and you with them) with encryption.
  • Forced encryption for the submission service (port 587). This is used by your own users (even if it’s just you) to send mail through your server, and typically has different restrictions (e.g. it’s authenticated, but on the other hand it can be used to send mail to the outside (unlike incoming port 25 which doesn’t, as that would make it an open relay)). Both the users’ authentication that would otherwise be in clear text, and the fact that only a limited number of users (your users, too) will be accessing that port through email clients (never other email servers that you don’t control) make forcing encryption here a no-brainer.

NOTE: naturally, this is not an exhaustive Postfix tutorial. I’ll be assuming you already have a working server, and just want to add TLS encryption to it. Also, some parts may not apply to your case.

1. Have/get a TLS certificate for your email host’s public name

If you don’t already have one, see how to create a new TLS certificate. We’ll be using an RSA certificate here (instead of going with ECDSA) since unlike, say, a web server accessed by standard browsers, you can’t control what other email servers support 3, therefore it’s best to choose the most common option. 4

Note that the certificate’s CN must match your email host’s public name (e.g. “mail.domain.com“). That will also probably correspond to (one of) the domain’s MX records.

2. Postfix configuration

Again, I’ll be assuming your non-TLS Postfix is already working fine.

Put your certificate and key on /etc/postfix (for instance). For this example, I’ll be calling them myserver-full.crt and myserver.key.

In /etc/postfix/main.cf, add the following lines:

# TLS configuration starts here

tls_random_source = dev:/dev/urandom

# openssl_path=/usr/local/libressl/bin/openssl
# uncomment and edit the above if you're using a different "openssl" than the system's
# (in this case, LibreSSL)

# SMTP from your server to others
smtp_tls_key_file = /etc/postfix/myserver.key
smtp_tls_cert_file = /etc/postfix/myserver-full.crt
smtp_tls_CAfile = /etc/postfix/myserver-full.crt
smtp_tls_security_level = may
smtp_tls_note_starttls_offer = yes
smtp_tls_mandatory_protocols=!SSLv2,!SSLv3
smtp_tls_loglevel = 1
smtp_tls_session_cache_database =
    btree:/var/lib/postfix/smtp_tls_session_cache

# SMTP from other servers to yours
smtpd_tls_key_file = /etc/postfix/myserver.key
smtpd_tls_cert_file = /etc/postfix/myserver-full.crt
smtpd_tls_CAfile = /etc/postfix/myserver-full.crt
smtpd_tls_security_level = may
smtpd_tls_auth_only = yes
smtpd_tls_mandatory_protocols=!SSLv2,!SSLv3
smtpd_tls_loglevel = 1
smtpd_tls_session_cache_database =
    btree:/var/lib/postfix/smtpd_tls_session_cache

# TLS configuration ends here

And in /etc/postfix/master.cf, assuming you already have a “submission” section a bit like this:

submission  inet  n     -       n       -       -       smtpd
    -o smtpd_etrn_restrictions=reject
    -o smtpd_sasl_auth_enable=yes
    -o smtpd_recipient_restrictions=permit_mynetworks,permit_sasl_authenticated,reject
    -o smtpd_client_restrictions=permit_mynetworks,permit_sasl_authenticated,reject
    -o smtpd_helo_restrictions=permit_mynetworks,permit

Add to that section:

  -o smtpd_tls_security_level=encrypt

The above forces encryption for the submission service (remember that it’s not required for normal SMTP, it’s just desired).

In short:

  • your server tries to connect to others using TLS, but falls back to an unencrypted connection if the other side doesn’t support encryption;
  • other servers can connect to yours using TLS, but if they don’t attempt it then the connection will be unencrypted;
  • your users *must* use encryption (and authentication) to send mail through your server.

Restart your server, and check the logs: you should be getting mentions of TLS now. For instance, an email server starting an encrypted connection to yours looks like:

Sep 6 14:25:58 drax postfix/smtpd[22727]: Anonymous TLS connection established from lists.openbsd.org[192.43.244.163]: TLSv1.2 with cipher ECDHE-RSA-AES256-GCM-SHA384 (256/256 bits)

Questions? Suggestions?

(And what about securing mailbox access? Enjoy: How to configure TLS encryption in Dovecot)

How to create an ECDSA certificate

(Note: most of this post’s content originally appeared in a previous one.  The reason for its creation is that I’m planning several other TLS-related posts where a certificate will be required and, to avoid repeating the “how to create a certificate” instructions in every single one of them, I’d rather have this post to link to when needed.)

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.

In this tutorial, I’ll be creating 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. If you need an RSA certificate (which I’d recommend for Postfix, for instance, since you can’t control what other email servers around the world support, so, you should go for the most common option; for web servers, ECDSA is fine), see How to create an RSA certificate.

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 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 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/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 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 .

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:

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 “zurgl.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 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 mysite.com # 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;

ssl_ciphers 'ECDHE-ECDSA-CHACHA20-POLY1305:ECDHE-RSA-CHACHA20-POLY1305: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: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:AES128-GCM-SHA256:AES256-GCM-SHA384:AES128-SHA256:AES256-SHA256:AES128-SHA:AES256-SHA:DES-CBC3-SHA:!DSS:!3DES';
# 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.