Mutual client ssl using nginx on AWS

An interesting problem I’ve recently had to solve is to integrate with a third party client who wanted to communicate with our services over the internet and use mutual client auth (ssl) to lock down the connection. The naive way to solve this would have been to put the code directly into the java service itself. This however is quite limiting and restrictive. For example if you want to update the certificates that are allowed you need to rerelease your service and your service is now tightly coupled to that customer’s way of doing things.

A neater solution is to offload this concern to a third party service (in this case nginx running on a docker container). This means that the original service can talk using normal http/s to nginx and nginx can do all of the hard work of the mutual client auth and proxying the request onto the customer.

When implementing this solution I couldn’t find a full example of how to set this up using nginx so I wanted to go through it. I want to split the explanation into two halves outgoing and incoming. First lets go through the outgoing config in nginx:

http {
  server {
    server_name outgoing_proxy;
    listen 8888;
    location / {
      proxy_pass          ;
      proxy_ssl_certificate         /etc/nginx/certs/client.cert.pem;
      proxy_ssl_certificate_key     /etc/nginx/certs/client.key.pem;

This is a pretty simple block to understand. It says we are hosting a server on port 8888 at the root. We are going to proxy all requests to and use the client certificate specified to sign the requests. Pretty simple so far. The harder part is the configuration for the inbound:

http {
  map $ssl_client_s_dn $allowed_ssl_client_s_dn {
      default no;
      ",OU=My Company,O=My Company Limited,L=London,C=GB" yes;

  server {
    listen       443 ssl;

    ssl_client_certificate  /etc/nginx/certs/client-ca-bundle.pem;
    ssl_certificate         /etc/nginx/certs/server.cert.pem;
    ssl_certificate_key     /etc/nginx/certs/server.key.pem;
    ssl_verify_client       on;
    ssl_verify_depth        2;

    location / {

      if ($allowed_ssl_client_s_dn = no) {
        add_header X-SSL-Client-S-DN $ssl_client_s_dn always;
        return 403;

      proxy_pass localhost:4140/myservice/;
      proxy_set_header Host $host;
      proxy_set_header 'Content-Type' 'text/xml;charset=UTF-8';
      proxy_set_header X-Real-IP $remote_addr;
      proxy_set_header X-Forwarded-For $proxy_add_x_forwarded_for;

Before I explain the config block above I wanted to point out that in practice you place all of the code in the above two snippets inside the same http block.

Starting at the server block we can see that we are listening on port 443 (normal https port) using the hostname This is where the ssl will terminate. We are using an AWS ELB to load balance requests to a pool of nginx servers that handle the ssl termination. The ssl_client_certificate is the ca bundle pem for all of the certificates with trust (intermediate and root authorities). The ssl_certificate and ssl_certificate_key host the server certificate (for the ssl endpoint ie a certificate with the subject name “”). ssl_verify_client on means to check that the client is trusted and ssl_verify_depth is how far down the certificate chain to check. The if statement says if we have verified that the presented client certificate is indeed one that we trust then lets check that the subject distinguished name is one that we are allowing explicitly. This is done by checking the map above. In my example config above the only subject distinguished name that will be allowed is “,OU=My Company,O=My Company Limited,L=London,C=GB”. If the subject distinguished name is not allowed then nginx will return http code 403 forbidden. If it is allowed then we proxy the request onto myservice through linkerd.

By using a map to define allowed subject distinguished names we can easily generate this programmatically and it keeps all of the allowed subject distinguished names in a single place.

I really like the solution above as all of our services can talk to their local linkerd container ( see my linkerd post on running linkerd on AWS ECS), then linkerd can take care of talking using https between server boundaries and then nginx can take care of doing the ssl mutual auth to talk to the customer. The service does not need to worry about any of that. In fact as far as the service is concerned it is talking to a service running on the box (the local linkerd instance). This means it is much more flexible and if you have another service that needs to talk to that customer using mutual ssl that service can just talk through the same channel through linkerd and nginx. If you did it using the mutual ssl code directly in your service you would then have two copies (or two references) to a library to handle the mutual ssl that you would have to keep up to date with your client’s allowed certificates. That could quickly explode as you have to write more services or have more customers that want to use mutual client auth and would quickly become a nightmare to maintain. By solving this problem using a single service for just this job all of the ssl configuration is in a single place and all of the services are much simpler to write.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s