Monthly Archives: March 2012

Browser Revocation Behavior Needs Improvement

Today the best behaving client for revocation behavior is that of Windows, in the case of browsers that means IE and Chrome.

With that said it has a very fundamental problem, if it reaches a CA’s OCSP responder and it provides an authoritative “that’s not mine” (aka Unknown) clients built on this platform treat the certificate as good.

You got that right; it treats a certificate that is clearly invalid as good! This unfortunately is a common behavior that all the browsers implement today.

The other browsers are even worse, Firefox for example:

  1. Do not  maintain a cache across sessions – This is akin of your browser downloading the same image every time you opened a new browser session instead of relying on a cached copy.
  2. Does OCSP requests over POST vs. GET – This prevents OCSP responders from practically utilizing CDN technology or cost-effectively doing geographic distribution of responders
  3. Do not support OCSP stapling – IE has supported this since 2008, Firefox even paid OpenSSL to add support around the same time but they have yet to get support in themselves.

These each seem like fairly small items but when you look at all these issues as a whole they significantly contribute the reality we face today – Revocation Checking isn’t working.

There are other problems as well, for example:

In some cases browsers do support GET as a means to do a OCSP request but if they receive a “stale” or “expired” response from an intermediary cache (such as a corporate proxy server) they do not retry the request bypassing the proxy.

All browsers today do synchronous revocation checking, imagine if your browser only downloaded one image at a time in series; that’s in-essence what the browsers are doing today.

These and other client behaviors contribute to reliability and performance problems that are preventing Hard Revocation Checking from being deployed. These issues need to be addressed and the browser vendors need to start publishing metrics on what the failure rates are as well as under what conditions they fail so that any remaining issues on the responder side can be resolved.


OCSP Responder Performance Needs Improvement

Recently I set up a PingDom monitor to track the overall performance of the various OCSP responders out there, PingDom is limited to doing GETs and cannot parse the responses from the responders but it’s a fair mechanism to look at response time.

These tests run from a number of different global locations and are averaged together, the locations change but the same locations are used for each set of tests so again this seems fair.

I decided to use the Google logo as my control test, as it is about the same size as a larger OCSP response, after about a month of monitoring this is what I saw:

Test Avg. Response time
Google Logo (3972 bytes)

44 ms

GoDaddy OCSP

186 ms

GlobalSign OCSP

228 ms

Digicert OCSP

266 ms

Comodo OCSP

268 ms

TrustCenter OCSP

273 ms

TrustWave OCSP

315 ms

Startcom OCSP

364 ms

Entrust OCSP

371 ms

Geotrust OCSP

432 ms

VeriSign OCSP

510 ms

CyberTrust OCSP

604 ms

Certum OCSP

776 ms

As you can see the fastest responder is over four times slower than the Google logo, far from acceptable.

When looking at the individual responses and their responses this is what I saw:

  • Very few responders are using CDNs, AnyCast or other techniques to globally distribute responses.
  • Only a handful of responders have multiple DNS entries for failover scenarios.
  • Quite a few responders are not following the HTTP caching header requirements in RFC 5019.
  • Most responders are not sending CA signed responses which reduce the response size significantly (down to 471 bytes), in my opinion a OCSP responder should do this for all pre-produced responses.
  • Some responders are returning Unknown for out of scope responses, this really isn’t safe for unauthenticated requests as it exposes the responder to resource consumption denial of service for against the signing keys.
  • Response freshness ranges from 6 hours to 14 days, I am quite sure the six hour responses are failing for a very large % of the internet community due to time skew; 4 days appear to be optimum.

These are all fairly easy things to address and I believe it’s reasonable for responders to get down to response times that are consistent with the control test above.

How to do OCSP requests using OpenSSL and CURL


It pretty easy, the OpenSSL and CURL manuals make it fairly easy but I thought I would put it all here in a single post for you.

First in these examples I used the certificates from the site, I saved the www certificate to globalsignssl.crt and its issuer to globalsignssl.crt.

Next you will find a series of commands used to generate both POSTs and GETs for OCSP:

1. Create a OCSP request to work with, this also will produce a POST to the OCSP responder

openssl ocsp -noverify -no_nonce -respout ocspglobalsignca.resp -reqout ocspglobalsignca.req -issuer globalsigng2.cer -cert -url "" -header "HOST" "" -text

2. Base64 encode the DER encoded OCSP request

openssl enc -in ocspglobalsignca.req -out ocspglobalsignca.req.b64 -a

3. URL Encode the Base64 blob after removing any line breaks (see: for a decoder)

4. Copy the Base64 into the URL you will use in your GET{URL encoded Base64 Here}

5. Do your GET:

curl --verbose --url


If you like you can also re-play the request that was generated with OpenSSL as a POST:

curl --verbose --data-binary  @ocspglobalsignca.req -H "Content-Type:application/ocsp-request" --url

Hard revocation checking and why it’s not here yet.

If you follow discussions around x.509 and SSL you have likely heard that “Revocation Checking is Broken”, you might even hear it will never work therefore we should start over with a technology that isn’t dependent on this concept.

There are some merits to these arguments but I don’t agree with the conclusion, I thought I would summarize what the problems are in this post.

Fundamentally the largest problem is that, as-deployed, all x.509 revocation technologies introduce a communication with a third-party (the Certificate Authority).

This isn’t necessarily a deal breaker but it does have consequences, for example in the case of SSL:

  1. It can slow down the user’s experience.
  2. It introduces a new point of failure in a transaction.

These issues can be mitigated through intelligent deployments and engineering but unfortunately this really has not happened, as a result Browsers have implemented what is called “Soft-fail revocation checking”.

With soft-fail revocation checking browsers ignore all conditions other than an authoritative “revoked” message, in the case of OCSP that means if they reach the responder and it says “I don’t know the status” or if it fails to reach the responder it assumes it is “good”.

This behavior is of course fundamentally flawed, the Browsers say they have no choice (I disagree with this conclusion but that’s a topic for another post) other than to behave this way, but why?

The rational is as follows:

  1. Revocation repositories are not reliable.
  2. Revocation repositories are slow.
  3. Revocation repositories are not always available (captive portals).
  4. Revocation messages are too large to be returned in time.
  5. There are too many revocation messages to be returned in time.

These are all legitimate concerns, ones that are unfortunately as true today as they were almost a decade ago.

They are not however insurmountable and I think it’s time we as an industry did something about it.

Using OpenSSL to create a test Qualified Subordination PKI hierarchy

The other day posted about “Least Privilege and Subordinate Certificate Authorities”, this post talked about how you can delegate only a limited set of rights to a subordinate CA. I thought you might find a set of configuration files and batch files I put together to test these scenarios useful, here you go.

I threw this together on a Windows machine that had the Shinning Light OpenSSL distribution on it, it has several batch files:

  • CleanPKI.bat – Remove all generated content
  • MakePKI.bat – Make a new PKI

Then there is the OpenSSL configuration files, most of this is straight forward but for the stuff that is not check out the OpenSSL documentation.