How to host and manage an entire private certificate infrastructure in AWS

AWS Certificate Manager (ACM) Private Certificate Authority (CA) now offers the option for managing online root CAs and a full online PKI hierarchy. You can now host and manage your organization’s entire private certificate infrastructure in AWS. Supporting a full hierarchy expands AWS Certificate Manager (ACM) Private Certificate Authority capabilities.

CA administrators can use ACM Private CA to create a complete CA hierarchy, including root and subordinate CAs, with no need for external CAs. Customers can create secure and highly available CAs in any one of the AWS Regions in which ACM Private CA is available, without building and maintaining their own on-premises CA infrastructure. ACM Private CA provides essential security for operating a CA in accordance with your internal compliance rules and security best practices. ACM Private CA is secured with AWS-managed hardware security modules (HSMs), removing the operational and cost burden from customers.

An overview of CA hierarchy

Certificates are used to establish identity and secure connections. A resource presents a certificate to a server to establish its identity. If the certificate is valid, and a chain can be constructed from the certificate to a trusted root CA, the server can positively identify and trust the resource.

A CA hierarchy provides strong security and restrictive access controls for the most-trusted root CA at the top of the trust chain, while allowing more permissive access and bulk certificate issuance for subordinate CAs lower in the chain.

The root CA is a cryptographic building block (root of trust) upon which certificates can be issued. It’s comprised of a private key for signing (issuing) certificates and a root certificate that identifies the root CA and binds the private key to the name of the CA. The root certificate is distributed to the trust stores of each entity in an environment. When resources attempt to connect with one another, they check the certificates that each entity presents. If the certificates are valid and a chain can be constructed from the certificate to a root certificate installed in the trust store, a “handshake” occurs between resources that cryptographically prove the identity of each entity to the other. This creates an encrypted communication channel (TLS/SSL) between them.

How to configure a CA hierarchy with ACM Private CA

You can use root CAs to create a CA hierarchy without the need for an external root CA, and start issuing certificates to identify resources within your organizations. You can create root and subordinate CAs in nearly any configuration you want, including defining a CA structure to fit your needs or replicating an existing CA structure.

To get started, you can use the ACM Private CA console, APIs, or CLI to create a root and subordinate CA and issue certificates from the subordinate CA.
 

Figure 1: Issue certificates after creating a root and subordinate CA

Figure 1: Ceating a root CA

You can create a two-level CA hierarchy using the ACM console in less than 10 minutes using the ACM Private CA console wizard, which walks you through each step of creating a root or subordinate CA. When you create a subordinate CA, the wizard prompts you to chain the subordinate to a parent CA.
 

Figure 2: Walk through each step with the ACM Private CA console wizard

Figure 2: The “Install subordinate CA certificate” page

After creating a new root CA, you need to distribute the new root to the trust stores in your servers’ operating systems and browsers. If you want a simple, one-level CA hierarchy for development and testing, you can create a root certificate authority and start issuing private certificates directly from the root CA.

Note: The trade-off of this approach is that you can’t revoke the root CA certificate because the root CA certificate is installed in your trust stores. To effectively “untrust” the root CA in this scenario, you would need to replace the root CA in your trust stores with a new root CA.

Offline versus online root CAs

Some organizations, and all public CAs, keep their root CAs offline (that is, disconnected from the network) in a physical vault. In contrast, most organizations have root CAs that are connected to the network only when they’re used to sign the certificates of CAs lower in the chain. For example, customers might create a root CA with a 20-year lifetime, and disable it under normal circumstances to prevent it from being used except when enabled by a privileged administrator when it’s necessary to sign CA certificates for a child CA. Because using the root CA to issue a certificate is a rare and carefully controlled operation, customers monitor logs, audit reports, and generate alarms notifying them when their root CA is used to issue a certificate. Subordinate issuing CAs are the lowest in the hierarchy. They are typically used for bulk certificate issuance that identify devices and resources. Subordinate issuing CAs typically have shorter lifetimes (1-2 years), and fewer policy controls and monitors.

With ACM Private CA, you can create a trusted root CA with a lifetime of 10 or more years. All CA private keys are protected by FIPS 140-2 level 3 HSMs. You can verify the CA is used only for authorized purposes by reviewing AWS CloudTrail logs and audit reports. You can further protect against mis-issuance by configuring AWS Identity and Access Management (IAM) permissions that limit access to your CA. With an ACM Private CA, you can revoke certificates issued from your CA and use the certificate revocation list (CRL) generated by ACM Private CA to provide revocation information to clients. This simplifies configuration and deployment.

Customer use cases for root CA hierarchy

There are three common use cases for root CA hierarchy.

The most common use case is customers who are advanced PKI users and already have an offline root CA protected by an HSM. However, when it comes to development and network staging, they don’t want to use the same root CA and certificate. The new root CA hierarchy feature allows them to easily stand up a PKI for their test environment that mimics production, but uses a separate root of trust.

The second use case is customers who are interested in using a private CA but don’t have strong knowledge of PKI, nor have they invested in HSMs. These customers have gotten by, generating a root CA using OpenSSL. With the offering of root CA hierarchy, they’re now able to stand up a root CA within ACM Private CA that is protected by an HSM and restricted by IAM access policy. This increases the security of their hierarchy and simplifies their deployment.

The third use case is customers who are evaluating an internal PKI and also looking at managing an offline HSM. These customers recognize the significant process, management, cost, and training investments to stand up the full infrastructure required. Customers can remove these costs by managing their organization’s entire private certificate infrastructure in AWS.

How to get started

With ACM Private CA root CA hierarchy feature, you can create a PKI hierarchy and begin issuing private certificates for identity and securing TLS communication. To get started, open the ACM Private CA console. To learn more, read getting started with AWS Certificate Manager and getting started in the ACM Private CA user guide.

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Josh Rosenthol

Josh is a Product Manager who helps solve customer problems with public and private certificate and CAs from AWS. He enjoys listening to customers describe their use cases and translate them into improvements to AWS Certificate Manager and ACM Private CA.

Author

Todd Cignetti

Todd Cignetti is a Principal Product Manager at Amazon Web Services. He is responsible for AWS Certificate Manager (ACM) and ACM Private CA. He focuses on helping AWS customers identify and secure their resources and endpoints with public and private certificates.