Monthly Archives: November 2012

How Facebook can avoid losing $100M in revenue when they switch to always-on SSL

Recently Facebook announced that they will be moving to Always-On-SSL, I for one am thrilled to see this happen – especially given how much personal data can be gleamed from observing a Facebook session.

When they announced this change they mentioned that users may experience a small performance tax due to the addition of SSL. This is unfortunately true, but when a server is well configured that tax should be minimal.

This performance tax is particularly interesting when you put it in the context of revenue, especially when you consider that Amazon found that every 100ms of latency cost them 1% of sales. What if the same holds true for Facebook? Their last quarter revenue was 1.23 billion, I wanted to take a few minutes and look at their SSL configuration to see what this tax might cost them.

First I started with WebPageTest; this is a great resource for the server administrator to see where time is spent when viewing a web page.

The way this site works is it downloads the content twice, using real instances of browsers, the first time should always be slower than the second since you get to take advantage of caching and session re-use.

The Details tab on this site gives us a break down of where the time is spent (for the first use experience), there’s lots of good information here but for this exercise we are interested in only the “SSL Negotiation” time.

Since Facebook requires authentication to see the “full experience” I just tested the log-on page, it should accurately reflect the SSL performance “tax” for the whole site.

I ran the test four times, each time summing the total number of milliseconds spent in “SSL Negotiation”, the average of these three runs was 4.111 seconds (4111 milliseconds).

That’s quite a bit but can we reduce it? To find out we need to look at their SSL configuration; when we do we see a few things they could do to improve things, these include:

Let’s explore this last point more, the status check the browser does is called an OCSP request. For the last 24 hours their current CA had an average world-wide OCSP response time of 287 ms, if they used OCSP Stapling the browser would need to do only one OCSP request, even with that optimization that request could be up to 7% of the SSL performance tax.

Globalsign’s average world-wide OCSP response time for the same period was 68 milliseconds, which in this case could have saved 219 ms. To put that in context Facebook gets 1.6 billion visits each week. If you do the math (219 * 1.6 billion / 1000 / 60 / 24), that’s 12.7 million days’ worth of time saved every year. Or put another way, it’s a lifetime worth of time people would have otherwise spent waiting for Facebook pages to load saved every two and a half hours!

If we consider that in the context of the Amazon figure simply changing their CA could be worth nearly one hundred million a year.

Before you start to pick apart these numbers let me say this is intended to be illustrative of how performance can effect revenue and not be a scientific exercise, so to save you the trouble some issues with these assumptions include:

  • Facebook’s business is different than Amazons and the impact on their business will be different.
  • I only did four samples of the SSL negotiation and a scientific measurement would need more.
  • The performance measurement I used for OCSP was an average and not what was actually experienced in the sessions I tested – It would be awesome if WebPageTest could include a more granular breakdown of the SSL negotiation.

With that said clearly even without switching there are a few things Facebook still can do to improve how they are deploying SSL.

Regardless I am still thrilled Facebook has decided to go down this route, the change to deploy Always-On-SSL will go a long way to help the visitors to their sites.


Making a Windows smartcard login certificate with OpenSSL.

I use OpenSSL for testing certificate related stuff all the time, while using its test clients as a administrative tool can require contortions sometimes it’s very useful thing to have in my toolbox.

Today I needed to throw together a certificate for Windows smartcard login, a valid Windows Smart Card Login certificate has the following attributes:

  1. Is issued by an CA that is trusted as an Enterprise CA
  2. Is issued by a CA that has the “Smartcard Logon” EKU (
  3. Has the “Smartcard Logon” EKU
  4. Has the “Digital Signature” “Key Usage”
  5. Has the principal name of the subscriber in the SubjectAltName extension as a UPN (

With that background how does one do this in OpenSSL? Well lets focus on the last 3 (3,4,5) as they are about the subscriber certificate.

To create this certificate you would create an OpenSSL section that looks something like this:

[ v3_logon_cert ]

# Typical end-user certificate profile


keyUsage = critical, nonRepudiation, digitalSignature, keyEncipherment

extendedKeyUsage = critical, clientAuth, emailProtection, msSmartcardLogin

basicConstraints = critical, CA:FALSE


subjectKeyIdentifier = hash

authorityKeyIdentifier = keyid,issuer


authorityInfoAccess = @customerca_aia


subjectAltName = otherName:msUPN;UTF8:[email protected], email:[email protected]



There are a few other “reference” sections you can find the INF file I used these additions with in my script for testing Qualified Subordination.

Hope this helps you too,


Using CAPICOM on Windows x64

So CAPICOM was one of the project I was responsible for while at Microsoft, its been discontinued but I always find it useful – it is kind of a Swiss Army knife for CryptoAPI certificate stores when paired with its VBS samples.

One of it’s problems is we never shipped with x64 bit version, you can do similar things with PowerShell and the .NET classes (this is why it was discontinued) but I still find this the quickest way to do stuff sometimes so I keep it in my toolbelt.

Here is what you need to know to make it work:

  1. Windows can run 32bit things in 64bit environments.
  2. You cannot have a 64bit thing call a 32bit thing.
  3. Windows ships a 32bit cmd prompt.
  4. Windows ships a 32bit regsrv32.

To use CAPICOM you need to:

  1. Download CAPICOM –
  2. Install CAPICOM
  3. Register CAPICOM
  • Open an administrative command prompt
  • cd to “C:\Program Files (x86)\Microsoft CAPICOM SDK\Lib\X86”
  • copy CAPICOM.DLL %windir%\syswow64
  • %windir%\syswow64\regsvr32.exe %windir%\syswow64\capicom.dll
  • “exit” the command prompt

So what can you do? There are lots of things, tonight I used it to enumerate the extensions included in a PFX file, you can do this with OpenSSL too by looking at the ASN.1 but this way you get some of the Microsoft specific stuff expanded out to human readable things.

I should note that its old, its unsupported and it may have vulnerabilities in it — as such I unregister it when its not in use and I recomend you do the same.

Hope this helps someone,


Priming the OCSP cache in Nginx

So recently GlobalSign, DigiCert, and Comodo worked together with Nginx to get OCSP stapling supoported in Nginx 1.3.7, unfortunately architectural restrictions made it impractical to make it so that pre-fetching the OCSP response on server start-up so instead the first connection to the server primes the cache that is used for later connections.

This is a fine compromise but what if you really want the first connection to have the benefit too? Well there are two approaches you can take:

  1. Right after you start the server you do a SSL request to prime the cache.
  2. You manually get the ocsp response and plumb it where Nginx is looking for it.

The first model is easy, right after you start your server use the OpenSSL s_client to connect to the server with OCSP stapling enabled  just like I documented in this post, the first request will trigger the retrieval of the OCSP response by Nginx.

The second model can be done before you start the server, you need to find the URI for the OCSP responder, do a OCSP request and populate the Nginx cache manually, this would look something like:


URL=$(openssl x509 -in $SERVER_CER -text | grep “OCSP – URI:” | cut -d: -f2,3)

openssl ocsp -noverify -no_nonce -respout ocsp.resp -issuer \

Where “ocsp.resp” is whatever file you have configured in Nginx for the “ssl_stapling_file“.

Each approach has its pros and cons, for example with the first approach your execution of the s_client call may not be the first request the server sees, with the second approach if you are using a certificate that doesn’t contain a OCSP pointer and have manually told Nginx where to fetch certificate status from then it won’t work.

It is worth noting you can run this same script in a cron script to ensure your server never needs to hit the wire (and potentially block when doing so) when it tries to keep its OCSP cache up to date.



What is the status of revocation checking in browsers?

Today we did an announcement of some work we have been doing with CloudFlare to speed up SSL for all of our customers through some improvements to our revocation infrastructure.

One of the things that come up when talking about this is how each of the browsers handles revocation checking, I thought it might be useful to put together a quick post that talks about this to clear up some confusion.

The first thing that’s important to understand is that all major browsers do some form of revocation checking, that includes Opera, Safari, Chrome, Firefox and Internet Explorer.

Let’s talk about what that means, the IETF standards for X.509 certificates define three ways for revocation checking to be done, the first is Certificate Revocation Lists (CRLs), next there is the Online Certificate Status Protocol (OCSP) and finally there is something called Simple Certificate Validation Protocol (SCVP).

In the context of browsers we can ignore SCVP as no browser implements them; this leaves us with CRLs and OCSP as the standards compliant ways of doing revocation checking.

All of the above browsers support these mechanisms, in addition to these standard mechanisms Google has defined a proprietary certificate revocation checking scheme called CRLsets.

If we look at StatCounter for browser market share that means today at least 64.84% (its likely more) of the browsers out there are doing revocation checking based on either OCSP or CRLs by default.

This means that when a user visits a website protected with SSL it has to do at least one DNS look-up, one TCP socket and one HTTP transaction to validate the certificate the web server presents and more likely several of these.

This is important because of the way revocation checking needs to be done, you need to know if the server you are talking to really is who they say they are before you start to trust them – that’s why when browsers do OCSP and CRLs they do this validation before they download the content from the web page.

This means that your content won’t be displayed to the user until this check happens and this can take quite a while.

For example in the case of IE and Chrome (when it does standards based revocation checking on Windows) it uses CryptoAPI which will time-out after 15 seconds of attempting to check the status of a certificate.

The scary part is that calls to this API do actually time out and when they do this delay is experienced by the users of your website!

So what can you do about it? It’s simple really you have to be mindful of the operational capacity and performance of the certificate authority you get your certificate from.

Check out this monitoring portal I maintain for OCSP and this one I maintain for CRLs, you will see GlobalSign consistently outperforms every other CA for the performance of their revocation infrastructure in most cases it’s nearly 6x as fast and in others is much more than that.

The other thing to understand is that today the default behavior of these browsers when checking the status of a certificate via OCSP or CRLs is to do what is often referred to as a “soft-revocation failure”.

This basically means that if they fail for any reason to check the status of a certificate (usually due to performance or reliability issues) they will treat the certificate as good anyways. This is an artifact of CAs not operating sufficiently performant and reliable infrastructure to allow the browsers to treat network related failures critically.

Each of these browsers all have options you can use to enable “hard” or “strict” revocation checking but until the top CAs operate infrastructure that meets the performance and reliability requirements of the modern web no browser will make these the default.

Finally its also important to understand that even with this “soft-failure” your website experiences the performance cost of doing these checks.

It’s my belief that the changes we have put into place in our own infrastructure meet that bar and I hope the other CAs follow in our lead as it is in the best interest of the Internet.


Revocation checking, Chrome and CRLsets

One of the things I often hear is that Chrome no longer does revocation checking, this isn’t actually true.

All major browsers do some form of revocation checking, that includes Opera, Safari, Chrome, Firefox and Internet Explorer.

Google still does revocation checking it just does so through a proprietary mechanism called CRLsets.

As its name implies CRLsets are basically a combination of CRLs, Google crawls the web gathers CRLs and merges them together into a “mega-crl”. This mega-crl is formatted differently than other CRLs but it’s essentially the same thing but there are some important differences, the most important being that due to size concerns Google selectively chooses which CAs it includes in the CRL set and within those CRLs which revoked certificates to include.

With this understanding you have to wonder why would Google introduce this new mechanism if it not as comprehensive as the standard based ways to deal with revocation checking? The answer is simple performance and reliability.

With CRLsets Google is distributing the revocation list, and as such they can make sure that its delivered quickly they do this in-part by taking a bet that they can intelligently pick which revoked certificates are important (IMHO they cannot – revoked = revoked) and by being the one that distributes the list.

This has implications for users, Chrome trusts certificate authorities for which it has no revocation information for it also intentionally treats some revoked certificates as good which exposes you to some risk.

This is especially problematic for enterprises that use Chrome and leverage PKI, there is essentially no chance Google will decide to include your CRL. This is also problematic for those who encounter certificates from those CAs.

That’s not to say CRLsets do not have value they do, but those values have been discussed elsewhere in detail.

But what do you do if you want a more holistic solution to revocation checking? Its simple you can turn on the standards based revocation checking mechanisms and Chrome will use them in addition to the CRLset, to do that you go to Settings and expand choose Advanced Settings where you will see:




Here you can re-enable the standards based revocation checking mechanisms so chrome can do a more holistic job protecting you from the known bad actors on the internet.