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Hitless TLS Certificate Rotation in Go

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One of the core security goals of Docker's Swarm mode is to be secure by default. To achieve that, when a new Swarm gets created it generates a self-signed Certificate Authority (CA) and issues short-livedcertificates to every node, allowing the use of Mutually Authenticated TLS for node-to-node communications.


Hitless TLS Certificate Rotation in Go

Unfortunately, and much to the annoyance of every infrastructure engineer, there is an old TLS maxim that states that:

If a certificate got issued, it will have to be rotated.

Rotating TLS certificates manually may quickly get out of hand―particularly when we have to manage hundreds of certificates―and becomes completely unmanageable if we issue certificates that expire within hours, instead of months.

In this post I'll go over two different ways of doing hitless certificate rotation in Go, so that we can follow the only logical path out of this certificate management nightmare: automate the hell out of TLS certificate rotation.

Why do I need hitless rotation?

There are some use-cases where replacing the TLS certificate on disk and restarting the application is a completely valid way of doing certificate rotation.

In fact, if we do a rolling deploy of our application―by adding new application instances with the new certificate before shutting down the instances with the old certificate―we can achieve hitless rotationand none of the incoming requests to the application will be dropped.


Hitless TLS Certificate Rotation in Go

Unfortunately, there are two main issues with this approach:

There might be side-effects to shutting down the old instances (e.g., applications losing their caches). We either have to wait for all the currently active TCP connections of our old instances to finish (i.e., we might have to wait a long time) or forcefully terminate all the current open connections.

As a concrete example, consider the Docker Swarm architecture, depicted in the following Figure. To create highly-available clusters, Swarm uses special manager nodes participating in a consensus protocol called Raft. Manager nodes keep long-lived connections between each other, and all the other nodes in the system (workers) maintain a long-lived connection to one of the managers.


Hitless TLS Certificate Rotation in Go

If we were to use the previously described rolling deploy method to rotate the certificates on the manager nodes, we would:

Cause a thundering herd of workers attempting to reconnect their terminated connections with the managers. Potentially cause a leader election between the managers, bringing unnecessary disruption to our cluster while Raft converges to a new leader.

To make matters worse, if our certificates have short expiration times, these two issues would occur several times a day.

Fortunately, there is a better way.

Certificate selection during the TLS handshake

In a TLS handshake, the certificate presented by a remote server is sent alongside the ServerHello message. At this point in the connection, the remote server has received the ClientHello message, and that is all the information it needs to decide which certificate to present to the connecting client.


Hitless TLS Certificate Rotation in Go

It turns out that Go supports passing a callback in a TLS Config that will get executed every time a TLS ClientHello is sent by a remote peer. This method is conveniently called GetCertificate , and it returns the certificate we wish to use for that particular TLS handshake.

The idea of GetCertificate is to allow the dynamic selection of which certificate to provide to a particular remote peer. This method can be used to support virtual hosts, where one web server is responsible for multiple domains, and therefore has to choose the appropriate certificate to return to each remote peer.


Hitless TLS Certificate Rotation in Go

Using GetCertificate is easy. The first thing we need to do is to create a struct that implements the GetCertificate(clientHello *tls.ClientHelloInfo) method.

type wrappedCertificate struct { sync.Mutex certificate *tls.Certificate } func (c *wrappedCertificate) getCertificate(clientHello *tls.ClientHelloInfo) (*tls.Certificate, error) { c.Lock() defer c.Unlock() return c.certificate, nil }

After this, we can create a TLS Config that makes use of this method, and a TLS listener that makes use of this config:

wrappedCert := &wrappedCertificate{} config := &tls.Config{ GetCertificate: wrappedCert.getCertificate, PreferServerCipherSuites: true, MinVersion: tls.VersionTLS12, } network := "0.0.0.0:8080" listener, _ := tls.Listen("tcp", network, config)

Every time a TLS handshake is about to occur, our getCertificate method is going to get called, and the current certificate stored inside wrappedCertificate will be returned.

However, we are missing a way of replacing the internal certificate that is returned by getCertificate . Let's fix that:

func (c *wrappedCertificate) loadCertificate(cert, key []byte) error { c.Lock() defer c.Unlock() certAndKey, err := tls.X509KeyPair(cert, key) if err != nil { return err } c.certificate = &certAndKey return nil }

This loadCertificate() method allows updating the certificate stored inside wrappedCertificate , successfully achieving our goal of doing certificate rotation without killing the currently active connections.

Here's a diagram of what is happening:


Hitless TLS Certificate Rotation in Go

Old established connections using the previous certificate will remain active, but new connections coming in to our TLS server will use the most recent certificate.

Here is a simple example of a TLS server that rotates its certificates every second. Every new certificate gets generated with random Organization ( O= ); running this example and doing a few handshakes shows us that the server is indeed rotating certificates at every second:

go build certificate_rotation.go; ./certificate_rotation Generating new certificates. Generating new certificates. ~ openssl s_client -connect localhost:8080 -no_ssl3 -no_ssl2 | openssl x509 -text | grep "O=" depth=0 /O=YSvkxjrK1UGexUg1KubNtrfXRhyRF-AxPPtXZxXkiKk= ... ~ openssl s_client -connect localhost:8080 -no_ssl3 -no_ssl2 | openssl x509 -text | grep "O=" depth=0 /O=aQIkDOpBwUDLdCLAGvnY8C5vRlmV0eDn2hRf_zTgpxk= ...

For a more complex use of GetCertificate take a look at the autocert package in golang.org/x/crypto/acme/autocert , which does domain-based lookups on a memory cache hosting all the currently available certificates.

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