Demystifying the Certificate Authority component in FreeIPA

When I joined the FreeIPA team, I wanted to start by getting more familiar with the product from a user perspective and the first step was to install FreeIPA server.

I opened the Linux Domain Identity, Authentication, and Policy Guide, tried to figure out which options would be useful and… I froze when I reached the section Determining which CA configuration to use. I had literally no idea what the documentation meant by “Server with an integrated IdM CA” or “Server without a CA“. But I had to choose something to start with.
In this blog post, I will explain what this choice really means, and what are the consequences of picking one over the other.

Basic requirement: HTTP and LDAP server certificates

First of all, FreeIPA is composed of many services accessed through the network, among which a LDAP server and an HTTP server. These 2 services can be accessed through a standard port (in clear) or through a SSL port, meaning that they both need a server certificate.

The HTTP and LDAP server certificates are needed during the installation, because the installer will put them in the right NSS database and configure their nickname and location for the HTTP and LDAP servers to find them. There are multiple ways to obtain server certificates, but one needs to understand first the basic notions around Public Key Infrastructure (PKI).

I will use a comparison with the delivery of a passport: in order to have a passport issued with your name, you need to provide official documents (for instance a birth certificate and a photo) to the government agency that will validate the documents, make sure that you are who you claim to be, and then issue the passport. The server certificate can be compared to the passport, that will later prove your identity to whoever trusts the government agency, and the government agency can be compared to the Certificate Authority.

So in order to obtain server certificates, it is possible to:

  • request certificates to an official Certificate Authority. Many commercial or non-profit companies provide this type of service (Verisign, Let’sEncrypt, GoDaddy etc…)
  • request certificates to a home-made Certificate Authority. It is possible to create a home-made self-signed Certificate Authority with tools such as certutil or openssl. The main difference with the previous method is that people are less likely to trust your home-made CA (it’s like asking them to accept a passport that was issued by a newly founded country not recognized yet by the rest of the world). Self-signed here means that the Certificate Authority passport  is delivered by… the Certificate Authority itself!
  • install your own Certificate Authority with FreeIPA, that will sign the certificates needed by the HTTP and LDAP server.

The last option corresponds to a “Server with an integrated IdM CA” and has many advantages over the first options:

  • certificates have a limited lifetime and need to be renewed before they expire (otherwise the HTTP/LDAP servers stop working). The renewal process is time-consuming but also can be forgotten if the sysadmin does not carefully track the dates, leaving the deployment in a state where some services become unavailable.
    When FreeIPA is installed with an embedded Certificate Authority, FreeIPA automatically monitors the expiry dates of the certificates and triggers a renewal a few weeks before expiration, ensuring service continuity. This is the first advantage of the embedded CA, but not the only one.
  • FreeIPA with an embedded CA is also able to deliver certificates for the users, the hosts or the services managed by FreeIPA. Various certificates profiles can be defined, populating specific fields in each type of certificate (for instance extensions with the OCSP responder URL…)
    For more information on the embedded Certificate Authority, you can refer to Dogtag Certificate System documentation (the embedded CA in FreeIPA is a tailored version of Dogtag).

At this point, if you decide to install FreeIPA with an embedded Certificate Authority, there are 2 possible choices. The embedded CA can either be:

  • a self-signed CA: the Certificate Authority is created “from scratch” without the need for any external authority. It is the root CA, meaning that its own certificate was not delivered by anyone else but signed by itself.
  • a CA subordinate to an external CA. This means that FreeIPA CA certificate was signed by another CA, a sort of parent CA.


Corresponding installation options

CA-less installation

As said above, we need one certificate for the HTTP server and one for the LDAP server.  They have to be provided to ipa-server-install or ipa-replica-install with the options:

  • –http-cert-file / –http-pin: file containing the HTTP server certificate + private key and password protecting the file
  • –dirsrv-cert-file / –dirsrv-pin: file containing the LDAP server certificate + private key and password protecting the file

Installation with an embedded self-signed CA

FreeIPA CA is created during FreeIPA installation, and generates the HTTP and LDAP certificates. There is no need to provide any cert file! No options!

Installation with an externally-signed embedded CA

The installation is a 2-step process. In the first step, ipa-server-install must be called with –external-ca and generates a CSR file (Certificate Signing Request). This CSR file needs to be sent to the external CA that will perform a bunch of validations to authenticate the recipient of the certificate and issue a certificate for FreeIPA Certificate Authority.

In the second step, ipa-server-install is called with –external-cert-file to provide the certificate obtained from the external CA. The installer then configures FreeIPA certificate authority as a subCA of the external CA, and FreeIPA CA can issue the HTTP and LDAP server certificates.


What if…

I installed FreeIPA without any embedded CA but I change my mind?

FreeIPA allows to install an embedded CA at a later time, using ipa-ca-install. The tool provides the same options as ipa-server-install: you can either install a self-signed CA or an externally signed CA.

Important: installing an embedded CA with ipa-ca-install does not replace the HTTP and LDAP server certificates. If they were initially delivered by an external CA, they will not be automatically renewed.

I installed FreeIPA with a self-signed CA but I’d rather have an externally-signed CA?

FreeIPA allows to switch from self-signed CA to externally-signed CA using ipa-cacert-manage renew –external-ca. This is a 2-step process similar to ipa-server-install –external-ca, where the 1st step produces a CSR that needs to be supplied to an external CA. The external CA then issues a CA cert that is provided back to ipa-cacert-manage renew through the –external-cert-file option.

I installed FreeIPA with an externally signed CA but I’d rather have a self-signed CA?

FreeIPA allows to switch from externally signed CA to self-signed CA using ipa-cacert-manage renew –self-signed.

I want to replace HTTP and LDAP certificates with certificates signed by a third-party Certificate Authority?

FreeIPA provides the ipa-server-certinstall tool that will replace the current HTTP or LDAP certificates with the certs provided in the file.
Important: ipa-server-certinstall can be called to install externally signed certificates for HTTP and LDAP even if FreeIPA is installed with an embedded CA. In this case, FreeIPA CA still has the capability to issue certificates for users, hosts or services. The only difference is that HTTP and LDAP certificates are not issued by IPA CA.


Other FreeIPA commands related to certificates

When an embedded CA is installed, its certificate must be present in various files or NSS databases on all the FreeIPA hosts (master, replicas and clients) so that any FreeIPA machine trusts the certificates delivered by the embedded CA.

In addition to that, the HTTP and LDAP server certificates can be issued either by IPA CA or by an external CA, and the issuer can even be changed over time. In the external CA case, this means that the external CA needs to be trusted by all the FreeIPA machines for the IPA commands to work (the CLI communicates with the HTTP server using the https port, and this requires to trust the CA that issued the HTTP server certificate). Yet another CA certificate to add to files and databases on all the FreeIPA machines…

To ease this configuration, the tool ipa-certupdate is able to retrieve the CA certificates stored in LDAP (the embedded FreeIPA CA or the external CA certs), and install them in all the relevant files and NSS databases. It needs to be called when the CA cert is manually renewed or when a new external CA cert is added.

ipa-cacert-manage install is used to add a new external CA certificate in the LDAP store. It does not replace FreeIPA embedded CA but rather declares another certificate authority as trusted. This is useful when the HTTP and LDAP server certificates need to be replaced by certs signed by a new CA, not yet known by FreeIPA. After calling ipa-cacert-manage install (that puts the new CA in LDAP store), you need to call ipa-certupdate on all FreeIPA machines (to get the CA from the LDAP store and put it in the local NSS databases).

ipa cert-request is used to request new certificates for users, hosts or services. The certificate is signed by FreeIPA embedded CA (meaning that this command is available only when an embedded CA is configured).


By now you should be able to pick a deployment option and understand the differences between CA-less or with embedded CA, and self-signed CA or externally-signed CA.

You should also be aware that your choice is not definitive and that it is possible to install a CA at a later time or change your certificate chain from self-signed to externally-signed and vice-versa.