The Internet Protocol Journal - Volume 1, No. 1

SSL: Foundation for Web Security

By William Stallings

Virtually all businesses, most government agencies, and many individuals now have Web sites. The number of individuals and companies with Internet access is expanding rapidly, and all of them have graphical Web browsers. As a result, businesses are enthusiastic about setting up facilities on the Web for electronic commerce. But the reality is that the Internet and the Web are extremely vulnerable to compromises of various sorts. As businesses utilize the Internet for more than information dissemination, they will need to use trusted security mechanisms.

An increasingly popular general-purpose solution is to implement security as a protocol that sits between the underlying transport protocol (TCP) and the application. The foremost example of this approach is the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) and the follow-on Internet standard of SSL known as Transport Layer Security (TLS). At this level, there are two implementation choices. For full generality, SSL (or TLS) could be provided as part of the underlying protocol suite and therefore be transparent to applications. Alternatively, SSL can be embedded in specific packages. For example, Netscape and Microsoft Explorer browsers come equipped with SSL, and most Web servers have implemented the protocol. Although it is possible to use SSL for applications other than Web transactions, its use at present is typically as part of Web browsers and servers and hence limited to Web traffic. Most of this article deals with the technical details of SSL; the status of TLS is described at the end.

If you have viewed an HTML source document, you have seen that the links are referenced with href= an anchor (A) tag. In most cases, the reference is to another document through the use of the Hyper Text Transfer Protocol , or HTTP. For this, the browser initiates one or more sessions to the destination port of TCP/80 (the well-known port for HTTP) on the server. In some cases, a plug-in can be called, and data specific to that plug-in can be transferred to or from the browser. For that, the browser would initiate a session to the well-known TCP port of the plug-in. SSL is called when the reference starts like the following: href="https://.. By calling "https" within the browser, it is mandating that the data be transferred through the use of SSL. By clicking on this hot link, the browser initiates a session to the server on port TCP/443. SSL attempts to negotiate a secure link and transfers the data across it. If the negotiation fails, no data is transferred. The browser usually indicates that a secure connection has been requested. Netscape Navigator version 3 indicates this with a blue border around the page and a highlighted key in the lower left corner. Netscape Communicator version 4 displays this with a closed padlock in a lower status window. Microsoft's Internet Explorer indicates it with a padlock in a lower information window. Display of these signs indicates that the information within the browser window has been delivered through the security of SSL.

SSL was originated by Netscape. Version 3 of the protocol was designed with public review and input from industry and was published as an Internet Draft document. Subsequently, when a consensus was reached to submit the protocol for Internet standardization, the TLS working group was formed within the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) to develop a common standard. The current work on TLS is aimed at producing an initial version as an Internet Standard. This first version of TLS can be viewed as essentially an SSLv3.1, and is very close to SSLv3. TLS includes a mechanism by which a TLS entity can back down to the SSLv3.0 protocol; in that sense, TLS is backward compatible with SSL.

SSL Architecture
SSL is designed to make use of TCP to provide a reliable end-to-end secure service. SSL is not a single protocol but rather two layers of protocols.

The SSL Record Protocol provides basic security services to various higher-layer protocols. In particular, the HTTP, which provides the transfer service for Web client/server interaction, can operate on top of SSL. Three higher-layer protocols are defined as part of SSL: the Handshake Protocol , the Change CipherSpec Protocol , and the Alert Protocol. These SSL-specific protocols are used in the management of SSL exchanges.

Two important SSL concepts are the SSL session and the SSL connection, which are defined in the specification as follows:

Connection: A logical client/server link that provides a suitable type of service. For SSL, such connections are peer-to-peer relationships. The connections are transient. Every connection is associated with one session.

Session: An association between a client and a server. Sessions are created by the Handshake Protocol. Sessions define a set of cryptographic security parameters, which can be shared among multiple connections. Sessions are used to avoid the expensive negotiation of new security parameters for each connection.

Between any pair of parties (applications such as HTTP on client and server), there may be multiple secure connections. In theory, there may also be multiple simultaneous sessions between parties, but this feature is not used in practice.

Several states are associated with each session. When a session is established, there is a current operating state for both read and write (that is, receive and send). In addition, during the Handshake Protocol, pending read and write states are created. Upon successful conclusion of the Handshake Protocol, the pending states become the current states. A session state is defined by the following parameters (definitions taken from the SSL specification):

Session identifier: An arbitrary byte sequence chosen by the server to identify an active or resumable session state.

Peer certificate: An X509.v3 certificate of the peer. This element of the state may be null.

Compression method: The algorithm used to compress data prior to encryption.

CipherSpec: Specifies the bulk data encryption algorithm (such as DES) and a hash algorithm (such as MD5 or SHA-1). It also defines cryptographic attributes such as the hash size.

Master secret: 48-byte secret shared between the client and server.

Is resumable: A flag indicating whether the session can be used to initiate new connections.

A connection state is defined by the following parameters:

Server and client random: Byte sequences that are chosen by the server and client for each connection.

Server write MAC secret: The secret key used in MAC operations on data sent by the server.

Client write MAC secret: The secret key used in MAC operations on data sent by the client.

Server write key: The conventional encryption key for data encrypted by the server and decrypted by the client.

Client write key: The conventional encryption key for data encrypted by the client and decrypted by the server.

Initialization vectors: When a block cipher in CBC mode is used, an initialization vector (IV) is maintained for each key. This field is first initialized by the SSL Handshake Protocol. Thereafter the final ciphertext block from each record is preserved for use as the IV for the next record.

Sequence numbers: Each party maintains separate sequence numbers for transmitted and received messages for each connection. When a party sends or receives a change CipherSpec message, the appropriate sequence number is set to zero.

SSL Record Protocol
The SSL Record Protocol provides two services for SSL connections: confidentiality, by encrypting application data; and message integrity, by using a message authentication code (MAC). The Record Protocol is a base protocol that can be utilized by some of the upper-layer protocols of SSL. One of these is the handshake protocol which, as described later, is used to exchange the encryption and authentication keys. It is vital that this key exchange be invisible to anyone who may be watching this session.

Figure 1 indicates the overall operation of the SSL Record Protocol. The Record Protocol takes an application message to be transmitted, fragments the data into manageable blocks, optionally compresses the data, applies a MAC, encrypts, adds a header, and transmits the resulting unit in a TCP segment. Received data is decrypted, verified, decompressed, and reassembled and then delivered to the calling application, such as the browser.

Figure 1: SSL Record Protocol Operation

The first step is fragmentation. Each upper-layer message is fragmented into blocks of 2 14 bytes (16,384 bytes) or less. Next, compression is optionally applied. In SLLv3 (as well as the current version of TLS), no compression algorithm is specified, so the default compression algorithm is null. However, specific implementations may include a compression algorithm.

The next step in processing is to compute a message authentication code over the compressed data. For this purpose, a shared secret key is used. In essence, the hash code (for example, MD5) is calculated over a combination of the message, a secret key, and some padding. The receiver performs the same calculation and compares the incoming MAC value with the value it computes. If the two values match, the receiver is assured that the message has not been altered in transit. An attacker would not be able to alter both the message and the MAC, because the attacker does not know the secret key needed to generate the MAC.

Next, the compressed message plus the MAC are encrypted using symmetric encryption. A variety of encryption algorithms may be used, including the Data Encryption Standard (DES) and triple DES. The final step of SSL Record Protocol processing is to prepend a header, consisting of the following fields:

Content Type (8 bits): The higher-layer protocol used to process the enclosed fragment.

Major Version (8 bits): Indicates major version of SSL in use. For SSLv3, the value is 3.

Minor Version (8 bits): Indicates minor version in use. For SSLv3, the value is 0.

Compressed Length (16 bits): The length in bytes of the plain-text fragment (or compressed fragment if compression is used).

The content types that have been defined are change_cipher_spec, alert, handshake, and application_data. The first three are the SSL-specific protocols, mentioned previously. The application-data type refers to the payload from any application that would normally use TCP but is now using SSL, which in turn uses TCP. In particular, the HTTP protocol that is used for Web transactions falls into the application-data category. A message from HTTP is passed down to SSL, which then wraps this message into an SSL record.

Change CipherSpec Protocol
The Change CipherSpec Protocol is one of the three SSL-specific protocols that use the SSL Record Protocol, and it is the simplest. This protocol consists of a single message, which consists of a single byte with the value 1. The sole purpose of this message is to cause the pending state to be copied into the current state, which updates the CipherSuite to be used on this connection. This signal is used as a coordination signal. The client must send it to the server and the server must send it to the client. After each side has received it, all of the following messages are sent using the agreed-upon ciphers and keys.

Alert Protocol
The Alert Protocol is used to convey SSL-related alerts to the peer entity. As with other applications that use SSL, alert messages are compressed and encrypted, as specified by the current state.

Each message in this protocol consists of two bytes. The first byte takes the value "warning" (1) or "fatal"(2) to convey the severity of the message. If the level is fatal, SSL immediately terminates the connection. Other connections on the same session may continue, but no new connections on this session may be established. The second byte contains a code that indicates the specific alert. An example of a fatal message is illegal_parameter (a field in a handshake message was out of range or inconsistent with other fields). An example of a warning message is close_notify (notifies the recipient that the sender will not send any more messages on this connection; each party is required to send a close_notify alert before closing the write side of a connection).

Handshake Protocol
The most complex part of SSL is the Handshake Protocol. This protocol allows the server and client to authenticate each other and to negotiate an encryption and MAC algorithm and cryptographic keys to be used to protect data sent in an SSL record. The Handshake Protocol is used before any application data is transmitted. The Handshake Protocol consists of a series of messages exchanged by the client and the server.

Figure 2 shows the initial exchange needed to establish a logical connection between the client and the server. The exchange can be viewed as having four phases.

Figure 2: Handshake Protocol Action

Phase 1 is used to initiate a logical connection and to establish the security capabilities that will be associated with it. The exchange is initiated by the client, which sends a client_hello message with the following parameters:

Version: The highest SSL version understood by the client.

Random: A client-generated random structure, consisting of a 32-bit timestamp and 28 bytes generated by a secure random number generator. These values serve as nonces and are used during key exchange to prevent replay attacks.

Session ID: A variable-length session identifier. A nonzero value indicates that the client wishes to update the parameters of an existing connection or create a new connection on this session. A zero value indicates that the client wishes to establish a new connection on a new session.

CipherSuite: A list that contains the combinations of cryptographic algorithms supported by the client, in decreasing order of preference. Each element of the list (each CipherSuite) defines both a key exchange algorithm and a CipherSpec; these are discussed subsequently.

Compression Method: A list of the compression methods the client supports.

After sending the client_hello message, the client waits for the server_hello message, which contains the same parameters as the client_hello message. For the server_hello message, the following conventions apply. The Version field contains the lower of the version suggested by the client and the highest version supported by the server. The Random field is generated by the server and is independent of the client's Random field. If the SessionID field of the client was nonzero, the same value is used by the server; otherwise the server's SessionID field contains the value for a new session. The CipherSuite field contains the single CipherSuite selected by the server from those proposed by the client. The Compression field contains the compression method selected by the server from those proposed by the client.

The first element of the CipherSuite parameter is the key exchange method (that is, the means by which the cryptographic keys for conventional encryption and MAC are exchanged). The following key exchange methods are supported:

RSA: The secret key is encrypted with the receiver's RSA public key. A public-key certificate for the receiver's key must be made available.

Fixed Diffie-Hellman: This a Diffie-Hellman key exchange in which the server's certificate contains the Diffie-Hellman public parameters signed by the certificate authority (CA). That is, the public-key certificate contains the Diffie-Hellman public-key parameters. The client provides its Diffie-Hellman public key parameters either in a certificate, if client authentication is required, or in a key exchange message. This method results in a fixed secret key between two peers, based on the Diffie-Hellman calculation using the fixed public keys.

Ephemeral Diffie-Hellman: This technique is used to create ephemeral (temporary, one-time) secret keys. In this case, the Diffie-Hellman public keys are exchanged, and signed using the sender's private RSA or DSS key. The receiver can use the corresponding public key to verify the signature. Certificates are used to authenticate the public keys. This option appears to be the most secure of the three Diffie-Hellman options because it results in a temporary, authenticated key.

Anonymous Diffie-Hellman: The base Diffie-Hellman algorithm is used, with no authentication. That is, each side sends its public Diffie-Hellman parameters to the other, with no authentication. This approach is vulnerable to man-in-the-middle attacks, in which the attacker conducts anonymous Diffie-Hellman exchanges with both parties.

Following the definition of a key exchange method is the CipherSpec, which indicates the encryption and hash algorithms and other related parameters.

The server begins Phase 2 by sending its certificate, if it needs to be authenticated; the message contains one or a chain of X.509 certificates. The certificate message is required for any agreed-on key exchange method except anonymous Diffie-Hellman. Note that if fixed Diffie-Hellman is used, this certificate message functions as the server's key exchange message because it contains the server's public Diffie-Hellman parameters.

Next, a server_key_exchange message may be sent, if it is required. It is not required in two instances: (1) The server has sent a certificate with fixed Diffie-Hellman parameters; or (2) RSA key exchange is to be used.

Next, a nonanonymous server (server not using anonymous Diffie-Hellman) can request a certificate from the client. The certificate_request message includes two parameters: certificate_type and certificate_ authorities. The certificate type indicates the type of public-key algorithm. The second parameter in the certificate_request message is a list of the distinguished names of acceptable certificate authorities.

The final message in Phase 2, and one that is always required, is the server_done message, which is sent by the server to indicate the end of the server hello and associated messages. After sending this message, the server waits for a client response. This message has no parameters.

Upon receipt of the server_done message, the client should verify that the server provided a valid certificate, if required, and check that the server hello parameters are acceptable. If all is satisfactory, the client sends one or more messages back to the server in Phase 3. If the server has requested a certificate, the client begins this phase by sending a certificate message. If no suitable certificate is available, the client sends a no_certificate alert instead.

Next is the client_key_exchange message, which must be sent in this phase. The content of the message depends on the type of key exchange.

Finally, in this phase, the client may send a certificate_verify message to provide explicit verification of a client certificate. This message is only sent following any client certificate that has signing capability (that is, all certificates except those containing fixed Diffie-Hellman parameters).

Phase 4 completes the setting up of a secure connection. The client sends a change_cipher_spec message and copies the pending CipherSpec into the current CipherSpec. Note that this message is not considered part of the Handshake Protocol but is sent using the Change CipherSpec Protocol. The client then immediately sends the finished message under the new algorithms, keys, and secrets. The finished message verifies that the key exchange and authentication processes were successful.

In response to these two messages, the server sends its own change_cipher_spec message, transfers the pending to the current CipherSpec, and sends its finished message. At this point the handshake is complete and the client and server may begin to exchange application layer data.

After the records have been transferred, the TCP session is closed. However, since there is no direct link between TCP and SSL, the state of SSL may be maintained. For further communications between the client and the server, many of the negotiated parameters are retained. This may occur if, in the case of Web traffic, the user clicks on another link that also specifies HTTPs on the same server. If the clients or servers wish to resume the transfer of records, they don't have to again negotiate encryption algorithms or totally new keys. The SSL specifications suggest that the state information be cached for no longer than 24 hours. If no sessions are resumed within that time, all information is deleted and any new sessions have to go through the handshake again. The specifications also recommend that neither the client nor the server have to retain this information, and shouldn't if either of them suspects that the encryption keys have been compromised. If either the client or the server does not agree to resume the session, for any reason, then both will have to go through the full handshake.

Transport Layer Security
TLS is an IETF standardization initiative whose goal is to produce an Internet standard version of SSL. In fact, the charter for the TLS working group states:

"The TLS working group is a focused effort on providing security features at the transport layer, rather than general purpose security and key management mechanisms. The standard track protocol specification will provide methods for implementing privacy, authentication, and integrity above the transport layer." This means that TLS can be used to provide security services to any application that uses TCP or the User Datagram Protocol (UDP). However, the driving force behind this work is to develop a standardized version of SSL. Microsoft has indicated that TLS will go into the next major version of its browser and Web server products, and Netscape has made a similar commitment. With this kind of support, it is likely that TLS will move quickly along the Internet Standards track.

The current draft version of TLS is very similar to SSLv3. TLS uses slightly different cryptographic algorithms for such things as the MAC function generation of secret keys. TLS also includes more alert codes.

SSL is already widely deployed and, under the name TLS, is moving toward Internet standardization. It is the solution of choice for Web transaction security.

[1] (has links to vendors, SSL specifications, and FAQs)

[2] (PostScript versions of the spec are available there)

[3] (contains latest RFCs and Internet Drafts for TLS)

[4] (mailing list archive)




WILLIAM STALLINGS is a consultant, lecturer, and author of over a dozen books on data communications and computer networking. He has a PhD in computer science from M.I.T. This article is based on material in the author's latest book, Cryptography and Network Security, Second Edition (Prentice-Hall, 1998). His home in cyberspace is and he can be reached at