How to Create a Self-Signed Certificate for NGINX on macOS

February 2018 ยท 4 minutes

In this guide, I will walk through how to create a self-signed SSL/TLS certificate for an NGINX web server on macOS.

Overview

TLS, or transport layer security, and its predecessor SSL, which stands for secure sockets layer, are web protocols used to wrap normal traffic in a protected, encrypted wrapper.

Using this technology, servers can send traffic safely between the server and clients without the possibility of the messages being intercepted by outside parties. The certificate system also assists users in verifying the identity of the sites that they are connecting with.

While a self-signed certificate will encrypt communication between your server and any clients, it cannot be used to verify the authenticity of the connection. This is due to the fact that a self-signed certificate is not signed by any of the trusted certificate authorities included with the browser’s trusted root store.

A CA-signed certificate is preferred in all cases where the web interface is user-facing, however there are instances where creating a self-signed certificate is necessary. For example, when setting up a reverse proxy server in front of a local development server to proxy SSL traffic to the server.

Understanding SSL/TLS

SSL/TLS works by using the combination of a public certificate and a private key. The SSL key is kept secret on the server. It is used to encrypt content sent to clients. The SSL certificate is publicly shared with anyone requesting the content. It can be used to decrypt the content signed by the associated SSL key.

Step 0: (Update) Address net::ERR_CERT_COMMON_NAME_INVALID in Chrome

The following recommendations were made by Victor Combal-Weiss:

To fix the following error:

This site is missing a valid, trusted certificate (net::ERR_CERT_COMMON_NAME_INVALID).

Copy openssl.cnf:

cp /System/Library/OpenSSL/openssl.cnf openssl.cnf

Add the following to openssl.cnf:

[v3_ca]
subjectAltName = DNS:localhost

Step 1: Create the SSL Certificate

mkdir -p /usr/local/etc/ssl/private
mkdir -p /usr/local/etc/ssl/certs
sudo openssl req \
  -x509 -nodes -days 365 -newkey rsa:2048 \
  -subj "/CN=localhost" \
  -config nginx/openssl.cnf \
  -keyout /usr/local/etc/ssl/private/self-signed.key \
  -out /usr/local/etc/ssl/certs/self-signed.crt

Note: This will create both a key file and a certificate.

Step 2: Create a Diffie-Hellman Key Pair

sudo openssl dhparam -out /usr/local/etc/ssl/certs/dhparam.pem 128

Note: This will take a long time depending on how many bits are specified. For our purposes, 128 bits is enough.

Step 3: Create snippets to use with NGINX

mkdir -p /usr/local/etc/nginx/snippets
touch /usr/local/etc/nginx/snippets/self-signed.conf
sudo vim /usr/local/etc/nginx/snippets/self-signed.conf

self-signed.conf

ssl_certificate /usr/local/etc/ssl/certs/self-signed.crt;
ssl_certificate_key /usr/local/etc/ssl/private/self-signed.key;
touch /usr/local/etc/nginx/snippets/ssl-params.conf
sudo vim /usr/local/etc/nginx/snippets/ssl-params.conf

ssl-params.conf

ssl_protocols TLSv1.1 TLSv1.2;
ssl_prefer_server_ciphers on;
ssl_ciphers "EECDH+AESGCM:EDH+AESGCM:AES256+EECDH:AES256+EDH";
ssl_ecdh_curve secp384r1;
ssl_session_cache shared:SSL:10m;
ssl_session_tickets off;
ssl_stapling on;
ssl_stapling_verify on;
resolver 8.8.8.8 8.8.4.4 valid=300s;
resolver_timeout 5s;
add_header Strict-Transport-Security "max-age=63072000; includeSubdomains";
add_header X-Frame-Options DENY;
add_header X-Content-Type-Options nosniff;
ssl_dhparam /usr/local/etc/ssl/certs/dhparam.pem;

Step 4: Configure NGINX to use SSL/TLS

sudo vim /usr/local/etc/nginx/nginx.conf

nginx.conf

worker_processes  1;

events {
  worker_connections  1024;
}

http {
  include       mime.types;
  default_type  application/octet-stream;

  sendfile           on;
  keepalive_timeout  65;
  proxy_http_version 1.1;

  # configure nginx server to redirect to HTTPS
  server {
    listen       80;
    server_name  localhost;
    return 302 https://$server_name:443;
  }

  # configure nginx server with ssl
  server {
    listen       443 ssl http2;
    server_name  localhost;
    include snippets/self-signed.conf;
    include snippets/ssl-params.conf;

    # route requests to the local development server
    location / {
      proxy_pass http://localhost:1313/;
    }
  }

  include servers/*;
}

Note: Any hard-coded references using http must be changed to use https.

Step 5: Restart the NGINX server

sudo nginx -t
sudo nginx -s stop && sudo nginx

Step 6: Test your encryption

Navigate to http://localhost.

Because the certificate we created isn’t signed by one of the system’s trusted certificate authorities, you should be greeted with a big warning sign and the admonition Your connection is not private. To remedy this, we need to add the self-signed certificate to the trusted root store.

Step 7: Add the self-signed certificate to the trusted root store

sudo security add-trusted-cert \
  -d -r trustRoot \
  -k /Library/Keychains/System.keychain /usr/local/etc/ssl/certs/self-signed.crt

Addendum

I created a GitHub repository, Self-Signed, which provides a working example of how to create a self-signed certificate for NGINX.

Acknowledgments

Again, I would like to thank Victor Combal-Weiss for informing me of Chrome’s updated trusted certificate policy.

References