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SSL Certificates

SSL Certificates are most commonly used to verify a server's identity and encrypt HTTP traffic. Usually, we try to use offerings like Amazon's AWS Certificate Manager to eliminate the toil of obtaining certificates and keeping them up to date.

However, this isn't always feasible. Sometimes we can use self-signed certificates if it will not be exposed to users (for instance, to encrypt the connection between containers and their ALB), but in many cases we'll need to get a real certificate.

Note: TLS (Transport Layer Security) is essentially the second generation of SSL. It is not uncommon for both terms to be used interchangeably at this point, but "real" SSL is deprecated. Any modern systems should be using TLS.

Getting a real certificate

Let's Encrypt

Let's Encrypt provides free short-lifetime certificates; they also provide a daemon which can autorenew these certificates if you are running on actual hosts (or full instances) where running an additional daemon makes sense. However, this doesn't work for many of our use cases, where we are trying to run our applications in bare containers.


If you need to get a certificate and cannot use a service like ACM or Let's Encrypt, you can get one via SSLMate; they offer a command line client that makes it relatively easy to get new certificates or update old ones, autorenewal, and a reasonable price for one-off certificates. Their documentation is here but the general process is this:

  • Register a new account with SSLMate; save the username and password to 1Password for your project.

  • Install the SSLMate client:

    $ brew install sslmate
  • Generate a new certificate. If you just need a cert for a single domain, this should be just:

    $ mkdir ~/sslmate
    $ cd ~/sslmate
    $ sslmate buy --approval=dns

    This will prompt you for your SSLMate username and password, and ask you to confirm your order. Once you do, it will provide you with a DNS record you need to create to verify you have access to this domain. Create this record (usually via Terraform) and then continue this workflow.

  • Once your certificate has been validated, sslmate will dump a key, a certificate, an intermediate CA certificate, and a combined server chain certificate into your current directory. You will probably only need the first two; everything but the key can be later retrieved from SSLMate if you need to. The key only exists where you generated the key (so, your laptop) -- make sure you put this somewhere safe (like the AWS Parameter Store); if you lose it you will need to regenerate the key and the certs.

  • The easiest way to pass these certificates to your application is likely via the AWS Parameter Store using chamber, but it may vary for your project. To add it to the Parameter Store with chamber, you can use a command similar to this one:

    $ aws-vault exec my-aws-profile -- chamber write "app-myapp-myenv" server-cert - <
    $ aws-vault exec my-aws-profile -- chamber write "app-myapp-myenv" server-key - <

External resources