The set of standards and services that facilitate the use of public-key cryptography and X.509 v3 certificates in a network environment is called thepublic key infrastructure (PKI). For information about the certificate management issues addressed by Directory Server, see the following sections:
The process for issuing a certificate depends on the certificate authority that issues it and the purpose for which it is used. The process for issuing non-digital forms of identification varies in similar ways. For example, if you want to get a generic ID card (not a driver’s license) from the Department of Motor Vehicles in California, the requirements are straightforward: you need to present some evidence of your identity, such as a utility bill with your address on it and a student identity card. If you want to get a regular driving license, you also need to take a test — a driving test when you first get the license, and a written test when you renew it. If you want to get a commercial license for an eighteen-wheeler, the requirements are much more stringent. If you live in some other state or country, the requirements for various kinds of licenses differ.
Similarly, different CAs have different procedures for issuing different kinds of certificates. In some cases the only requirement may be your mail address. In other cases, your UNIX login and password may be sufficient. At the other end of the scale, for certificates that identify people who can authorize large expenditures or make other sensitive decisions, the issuing process may require notarized documents, a background check, and a personal interview.
Depending on an organization’s policies, the process of issuing certificates can range from being completely transparent for the user to requiring significant user participation and complex procedures. In general, processes for issuing certificates should be highly flexible, so organizations can tailor them to their changing needs.
Issuing certificates is one of several management tasks that can be handled by separate Registration Authorities.
The Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) for accessing directory services supports great flexibility in the management of certificates within an organization. System administrators can store much of the information required to manage certificates in an LDAP-compliant directory. For example, a CA can use information in a directory to pre-populate a certificate with a new employee’s legal name and other information. The CA can leverage directory information in other ways to issue certificates one at a time or in bulk, using a range of different identification techniques depending on the security policies of a given organization. Other routine management tasks, such as key management and renewing and revoking certificates, can be partially or fully automated with the aid of the directory.
Information stored in the directory can also be used with certificates to control access to various network resources by different users or groups. Issuing certificates and other certificate management tasks can thus be an integral part of user and group management.
Before a certificate can be issued, the public key it contains and the corresponding private key must be generated. Sometimes it may be useful to issue a single person one certificate and key pair for signing operations, and another certificate and key pair for encryption operations. Separate signing and encryption certificates make it possible to keep the private signing key on the local machine only, thus providing maximum nonrepudiation, and to back up the private encryption key in some central location where it can be retrieved in case the user loses the original key or leaves the company.
Keys can be generated by client software or generated centrally by the CA and distributed to users via an LDAP directory. There are trade-offs involved in choosing between local and centralized key generation. For example, local key generation provides maximum nonrepudiation, but may involve more participation by the user in the issuing process. Flexible key management capabilities are essential for most organizations.
Key recovery, or the ability to retrieve backups of encryption keys under carefully defined conditions, can be a crucial part of certificate management (depending on how an organization uses certificates). Key recovery schemes usually involve an m of n mechanism: for example, m of n managers within an organization might have to agree, and each contribute a special code or key of their own, before a particular person’s encryption key can be recovered. This kind of mechanism ensures that several authorized personnel must agree before an encryption key can be recovered.
Like a driver’s license, a certificate specifies a period of time during which it is valid. Attempts to use a certificate for authentication before or after its validity period fails. Therefore, mechanisms for managing certificate renewal are essential for any certificate management strategy. For example, an administrator may wish to be notified automatically when a certificate is about to expire, so that an appropriate renewal process can be completed in plenty of time without causing the certificate’s subject any inconvenience. The renewal process may involve reusing the same public-private key pair or issuing a new one.
A driver’s license can be suspended even if it has not expired—for example, as punishment for a serious driving offense. Similarly, it’s sometimes necessary to revoke a certificate before it has expired—for example, if an employee leaves a company or moves to a new job within the company.
Certificate revocation can be handled in several different ways. For some organizations, it may be sufficient to set up servers so that the authentication process includes checking the directory for the presence of the certificate being presented. When an administrator revokes a certificate, the certificate can be automatically removed from the directory, and subsequent authentication attempts with that certificate fails even though the certificate remains valid in every other respect. Another approach involves publishing a certificate revocation list (CRL)—that is, a list of revoked certificates—to the directory at regular intervals and checking the list as part of the authentication process. For some organizations, it may be preferable to check directly with the issuing CA each time a certificate is presented for authentication. This procedure is sometimes called real-time status checking.
Interactions between entities identified by certificates (sometimes called end entities) and CAs are an essential part of certificate management. These interactions include operations such as registration for certification, certificate retrieval, certificate renewal, certificate revocation, and key backup and recovery. In general, a CA must be able to authenticate the identities of end entities before responding to the requests. In addition, some requests need to be approved by authorized administrators or managers before being serviced.
As previously discussed, the means used by different CAs to verify an identity before issuing a certificate can vary widely, depending on the organization and the purpose for which the certificate is used. To provide maximum operational flexibility, interactions with end entities can be separated from the other functions of a CA and handled by a separate service called a Registration Authority RA.
An RA acts as a front end to a CA by receiving end entity requests, authenticating them, and forwarding them to the CA. After receiving a response from the CA, the RA notifies the end entity of the results. RAs can be helpful in scaling a PKI across different departments, geographical areas, or other operational units with varying policies and authentication requirements.