Sun Java System Directory Server Enterprise Edition 6.0 Reference

Certificates and Certificate Authorities (CA)

A certificate is an electronic document that identifies an individual, a server, a company, or some other entity. A certificate also associates that identity with a public key. Like a driver’s license, a passport, or other commonly used personal IDs, a certificate provides generally recognized proof of someone's or something's identity.

Certificate authorities, CAs, validate identities and issue certificates. CAs can be independent third parties or organizations that run their own certificate-issuing server software. The methods used to validate an identity vary depending on the policies of a given CA. In general, before issuing a certificate, the CA must use its published verification procedures for that type of certificate to ensure that an entity requesting a certificate is in fact who it claims to be.

A certificate issued by a CA binds a particular public key to the name of the entity the certificate identifies, such as the name of an employee or a server. Certificates help prevent the use of fake public keys for impersonation. Only the public key certified by the certificate works with the corresponding private key possessed by the entity identified by the certificate.

In addition to a public key, a certificate always includes the name of the entity it identifies, an expiration date, the name of the CA that issued the certificate, a serial number, and other information. Most importantly, a certificate always includes the digital signature of the issuing CA. The CA’s digital signature allows the certificate to function as a “letter of introduction” for users who know and trust the CA but don’t know the entity identified by the certificate.

Any client or server software that supports certificates maintains a collection of trusted CA certificates. These CA certificates determine which other certificates the software can validate, in other words, which issuers of certificates the software can trust. In the simplest case, the software can validate only certificates issued by one of the CAs for which it has a certificate. It’s also possible for a trusted CA certificate to be part of a chain of CA certificates, each issued by the CA above it in a certificate hierarchy.

For information about CAs, see the following sections:

CA Hierarchies

In large organizations, it may be appropriate to delegate the responsibility for issuing certificates to several different certificate authorities. For example, the number of certificates required may be too large for a single CA to maintain; different organizational units may have different policy requirements; or it may be important for a CA to be physically located in the same geographic area as the people to whom it is issuing certificates.

It’s possible to delegate certificate-issuing responsibilities to subordinate CAs. The X.509 standard includes a model for setting up a hierarchy of CAs.

Figure 2–3 Hierarchy of Certificate Authorities

Figure shows a hierarchy of certificate authorities

In this model, the root CA is at the top of the hierarchy. The root CA’s certificate is a self-signed certificate. That is, the certificate is digitally signed by the same entity, the root CA, that the certificate identifies. The CAs that are directly subordinate to the root CA have CA certificates signed by the root CA. CAs under the subordinate CAs in the hierarchy have their CA certificates signed by the higher-level subordinate CAs.

Organizations have a great deal of flexibility in terms of the way they set up their CA hierarchies. Figure 2–3 shows just one example; many other arrangements are possible.

Certificate Chains

CA hierarchies are reflected in certificate chains. A certificate chain is a series of certificates issued by successive CAs. Figure 2–4 shows a certificate chain leading from a certificate that identifies some entity through two subordinate CA certificates to the CA certificate for the root CA (based on the CA hierarchy shown in the following figure).

Figure 2–4 Certificate Chain

Figure shows a certificate chain.

A certificate chain traces a path of certificates from a branch in the hierarchy to the root of the hierarchy. In a certificate chain, the following occur:

In Figure 2–4, the public key in the certificate for the USA CA can be used to verify the USA CA’s digital signature on the certificate for the Engineering CA.

Verifying a Certificate Chain

Certificate chain verification is the process of making sure a given certificate chain is well-formed, valid, properly signed, and trustworthy. Directory Server software uses the following steps to form and verify a certificate chain, starting with the certificate being presented for authentication:

  1. The certificate validity period is checked against the current time provided by the verifier’s system clock.

  2. The issuer’s certificate is located. The source can be either the verifier’s local certificate database (on that client or server) or the certificate chain provided by the subject (for example, over an SSL connection).

  3. The certificate signature is verified using the public key in the issuer certificate.

  4. If the issuer’s certificate is trusted by the verifier in the verifier’s certificate database, verification stops successfully here. Otherwise, the issuer’s certificate is checked to make sure it contains the appropriate subordinate CA indication in the Directory Server certificate type extension, and chain verification returns to step 1 to start again, but with this new certificate.

Figure 2–5 Verifying A Certificate Chain

Figure shows verification of a certificate chain.

Figure 2–5 shows what happens when only Root CA is included in the verifier’s local database. If a certificate for one of the intermediate CAs shown in Figure 2–6, such as Engineering CA, is found in the verifier’s local database, verification stops with that certificate, as shown in the following figure.

Figure 2–6 Verifying A Certificate Chain to an Intermediate CA

Figure shows verification of a certificate chain to an
intermediate CA.

Expired validity dates, an invalid signature, or the absence of a certificate for the issuing CA at any point in the certificate chain causes authentication to fail. For example, the following figure shows how verification fails if neither the Root CA certificate nor any of the intermediate CA certificates are included in the verifier’s local database.

Figure 2–7 Certificate Chain That Cannot Be Verified

Figure shows verification of a certificate chain that
cannot be verified.

For general information about the way digital signatures work, see Digital Signatures.