Chapter 2. Planning and implementing TLS

TLS (Transport Layer Security) is a cryptographic protocol used to secure network communications. When hardening system security settings by configuring preferred key-exchange protocols, authentication methods, and encryption algorithms, it is necessary to bear in mind that the broader the range of supported clients, the lower the resulting security. Conversely, strict security settings lead to limited compatibility with clients, which can result in some users being locked out of the system. Be sure to target the strictest available configuration and only relax it when it is required for compatibility reasons.

2.1. SSL and TLS protocols

The Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) protocol was originally developed by Netscape Corporation to provide a mechanism for secure communication over the Internet. Subsequently, the protocol was adopted by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and renamed to Transport Layer Security (TLS).

The TLS protocol sits between an application protocol layer and a reliable transport layer, such as TCP/IP. It is independent of the application protocol and can thus be layered underneath many different protocols, for example: HTTP, FTP, SMTP, and so on.

Protocol versionUsage recommendation

SSL v2

Do not use. Has serious security vulnerabilities. Removed from the core crypto libraries since RHEL 7.

SSL v3

Do not use. Has serious security vulnerabilities. Removed from the core crypto libraries since RHEL 8.

TLS 1.0

Not recommended to use. Has known issues that cannot be mitigated in a way that guarantees interoperability, and does not support modern cipher suites. Enabled only in the LEGACY system-wide cryptographic policy profile.

TLS 1.1

Use for interoperability purposes where needed. Does not support modern cipher suites. Enabled only in the LEGACY policy.

TLS 1.2

Supports the modern AEAD cipher suites. This version is enabled in all system-wide crypto policies, but optional parts of this protocol contain vulnerabilities and TLS 1.2 also allows outdated algorithms.

TLS 1.3

Recommended version. TLS 1.3 removes known problematic options, provides additional privacy by encrypting more of the negotiation handshake and can be faster thanks usage of more efficient modern cryptographic algorithms. TLS 1.3 is also enabled in all system-wide crypto policies.

2.2. Security considerations for TLS in RHEL 8

In RHEL 8, cryptography-related considerations are significantly simplified thanks to the system-wide crypto policies. The DEFAULT crypto policy allows only TLS 1.2 and 1.3. To allow your system to negotiate connections using the earlier versions of TLS, you need to either opt out from following crypto policies in an application or switch to the LEGACY policy with the update-crypto-policies command. See Using system-wide cryptographic policies for more information.

The default settings provided by libraries included in RHEL 8 are secure enough for most deployments. The TLS implementations use secure algorithms where possible while not preventing connections from or to legacy clients or servers. Apply hardened settings in environments with strict security requirements where legacy clients or servers that do not support secure algorithms or protocols are not expected or allowed to connect.

The most straightforward way to harden your TLS configuration is switching the system-wide cryptographic policy level to FUTURE using the update-crypto-policies --set FUTURE command.

If you decide to not follow RHEL system-wide crypto policies, use the following recommendations for preferred protocols, cipher suites, and key lengths on your custom configuration:

2.2.1. Protocols

The latest version of TLS provides the best security mechanism. Unless you have a compelling reason to include support for older versions of TLS, allow your systems to negotiate connections using at least TLS version 1.2. Note that despite that RHEL 8 supports TLS version 1.3, not all features of this protocol are fully supported by RHEL 8 components. For example, the 0-RTT (Zero Round Trip Time) feature, which reduces connection latency, is not yet fully supported by Apache or Nginx web servers.

2.2.2. Cipher suites

Modern, more secure cipher suites should be preferred to old, insecure ones. Always disable the use of eNULL and aNULL cipher suites, which do not offer any encryption or authentication at all. If at all possible, ciphers suites based on RC4 or HMAC-MD5, which have serious shortcomings, should also be disabled. The same applies to the so-called export cipher suites, which have been intentionally made weaker, and thus are easy to break.

While not immediately insecure, cipher suites that offer less than 128 bits of security should not be considered for their short useful life. Algorithms that use 128 bits of security or more can be expected to be unbreakable for at least several years, and are thus strongly recommended. Note that while 3DES ciphers advertise the use of 168 bits, they actually offer 112 bits of security.

Always give preference to cipher suites that support (perfect) forward secrecy (PFS), which ensures the confidentiality of encrypted data even in case the server key is compromised. This rules out the fast RSA key exchange, but allows for the use of ECDHE and DHE. Of the two, ECDHE is the faster and therefore the preferred choice.

You should also give preference to AEAD ciphers, such as AES-GCM, before CBC-mode ciphers as they are not vulnerable to padding oracle attacks. Additionally, in many cases, AES-GCM is faster than AES in CBC mode, especially when the hardware has cryptographic accelerators for AES.

Note also that when using the ECDHE key exchange with ECDSA certificates, the transaction is even faster than pure RSA key exchange. To provide support for legacy clients, you can install two pairs of certificates and keys on a server: one with ECDSA keys (for new clients) and one with RSA keys (for legacy ones).

2.2.3. Public key length

When using RSA keys, always prefer key lengths of at least 3072 bits signed by at least SHA-256, which is sufficiently large for true 128 bits of security.

Warning

The security of your system is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain. For example, a strong cipher alone does not guarantee good security. The keys and the certificates are just as important, as well as the hash functions and keys used by the Certification Authority (CA) to sign your keys.

Additional resources

2.3. Hardening TLS configuration in applications

In Red Hat Enterprise Linux 8, system-wide crypto policies provide a convenient way to ensure that your applications using cryptographic libraries do not allow known insecure protocols, ciphers, or algorithms.

If you want to harden your TLS-related configuration with your customized cryptographic settings, you can use the cryptographic configuration options described in this section, and override the system-wide crypto policies just in the minimum required amount.

Regardless of the configuration you choose to use, always make sure to mandate that your server application enforces server-side cipher order, so that the cipher suite to be used is determined by the order you configure.

2.3.1. Configuring the Apache HTTP server

The Apache HTTP Server can use both OpenSSL and NSS libraries for its TLS needs. Red Hat Enterprise Linux 8 provides the mod_ssl functionality through eponymous packages:

# yum install mod_ssl

The mod_ssl package installs the /etc/httpd/conf.d/ssl.conf configuration file, which can be used to modify the TLS-related settings of the Apache HTTP Server.

Install the httpd-manual package to obtain complete documentation for the Apache HTTP Server, including TLS configuration. The directives available in the /etc/httpd/conf.d/ssl.conf configuration file are described in detail in /usr/share/httpd/manual/mod/mod_ssl.html. Examples of various settings are in /usr/share/httpd/manual/ssl/ssl_howto.html.

When modifying the settings in the /etc/httpd/conf.d/ssl.conf configuration file, be sure to consider the following three directives at the minimum:

SSLProtocol
Use this directive to specify the version of TLS or SSL you want to allow.
SSLCipherSuite
Use this directive to specify your preferred cipher suite or disable the ones you want to disallow.
SSLHonorCipherOrder
Uncomment and set this directive to on to ensure that the connecting clients adhere to the order of ciphers you specified.

For example, to use only the TLS 1.2 and 1.3 protocol:

SSLProtocol             all -SSLv3 -TLSv1 -TLSv1.1

2.3.2. Configuring the Nginx HTTP and proxy server

To enable TLS 1.3 support in Nginx, add the TLSv1.3 value to the ssl_protocols option in the server section of the /etc/nginx/nginx.conf configuration file:

server {
    listen 443 ssl http2;
    listen [::]:443 ssl http2;
    ....
    ssl_protocols TLSv1.2 TLSv1.3;
    ssl_ciphers
    ....
}

2.3.3. Configuring the Dovecot mail server

To configure your installation of the Dovecot mail server to use TLS, modify the /etc/dovecot/conf.d/10-ssl.conf configuration file. You can find an explanation of some of the basic configuration directives available in that file in the /usr/share/doc/dovecot/wiki/SSL.DovecotConfiguration.txt file, which is installed along with the standard installation of Dovecot.

When modifying the settings in the /etc/dovecot/conf.d/10-ssl.conf configuration file, be sure to consider the following three directives at the minimum:

ssl_protocols
Use this directive to specify the version of TLS or SSL you want to allow or disable.
ssl_cipher_list
Use this directive to specify your preferred cipher suites or disable the ones you want to disallow.
ssl_prefer_server_ciphers
Uncomment and set this directive to yes to ensure that the connecting clients adhere to the order of ciphers you specified.

For example, the following line in /etc/dovecot/conf.d/10-ssl.conf allows only TLS 1.1 and later:

ssl_protocols = !SSLv2 !SSLv3 !TLSv1

Additional resources

For more information about TLS configuration and related topics, see the resources listed below.