An Introduction to OpenSSL Programming, Part I of II
The quickest and easiest way to secure a TCP-based network application is with SSL. If you're working in C, your best choice is probably to use OpenSSL (http://www.openssl.org/). OpenSSL is a free (BSD-style license) implementation of SSL/TLS based on Eric Young's SSLeay package. Unfortunately, the documentation and sample code distributed with OpenSSL leave something to be desired. Where they exist, the manual pages are pretty good, but they often miss the big picture, as manual pages are intended as a reference, not a tutorial.
The OpenSSL API is vast and complicated, so we won't attempt to provide anything like complete coverage here. Rather, the idea is to teach you enough to work effectively from the manual pages. In this article, the first of two, we will build a simple web client and server pair that demonstrate the basic features of OpenSSL. In the second article, we will introduce a number of advanced features, such as session resumption and client authentication.
I assume that you're already familiar with SSL and HTTP, at least at a conceptual level. If you're not, a good place to start is with the RFCs (see Resources).
For space reasons, this article only includes excerpts from the source code. The complete source code is available in machine-readable format from the author's web site at http://www.rtfm.com/openssl-examples/.
Our client is a simple HTTPS (see RFC 2818) client. It initiates an SSL connection to the server and then transmits an HTTP request over that connection. It then waits for the response from the server and prints it to the screen. This is a vastly simplified version of the functionality found in programs like fetch and cURL.
The server program is a simple HTTPS server. It waits for TCP connections from clients. When it accepts one it negotiates an SSL connection. Once the connection is negotiated, it reads the client's HTTP request. It then transmits the HTTP response to the client. Once the response is transmitted it closes the connection.
Our first task is to set up a context object (an SSL_CTX). This context object is then used to create a new connection object for each new SSL connection. These connection objects are used to do SSL handshakes, reads and writes.
This approach has two advantages. First, the context object allows many structures to be initialized only once, improving performance. In most applications, every SSL connection will use the same keying material, certificate authority (CA) list, etc. Rather than reloading this material for every connection, we simply load it into the context object at program startup. When we wish to create a new connection, we can simply point that connection to the context object. The second advantage of having a single context object is that it allows multiple SSL connections to share data, such as the SSL session cache used for session resumption. Context initialization consists of four primary tasks, all performed by the initialize_ctx() function, shown in Listing 1.
Before OpenSSL can be used for anything, the library as a whole must be initialized. This is accomplished with SSL_library_init(), which primarily loads up the algorithms that OpenSSL will be using. If we want good reporting of errors, we also need to load the error strings using SSL_load_error_strings(). Otherwise, we won't be able to map OpenSSL errors to strings.
We also create an object to be used as an error-printing context. OpenSSL uses an abstraction called a BIO object for input and output. This allows the programmer to use the same functions for different kinds of I/O channels (sockets, terminal, memory buffers, etc.) merely by using different kinds of BIO objects. In this case we create a BIO object attached to stderr to be used for printing errors.
If you're writing a server or a client that is able to perform client authentication, you'll need to load your own public/private key pair and the associated certificate. The certificate is stored in the clear and is loaded together with the CA certificates forming the certificate chain using SSL_CTX_use_certificate_chain_file(). SSL_CTX_use_PrivateKey_file() is used to load the private key. For security reasons, the private key is usually encrypted under a password. If it is, the password callback (set using SSL_CTX_set_default_passwd_cb()) will be called to obtain the password.
If you're going to be authenticating the host to which you're connected, OpenSSL needs to know what CAs you trust. The SSL_CTX_load_verify_locations() call is used to load the CAs.
In order to have good security, SSL needs a good source of strong random numbers. In general, it's the responsibility of the application to supply some seed material for the random number generator (RNG). However, OpenSSL automatically uses /dev/urandom to seed the RNG, if it is available. Because /dev/urandom is standard on Linux, we don't have to do anything for this, which is convenient because gathering random numbers is tricky and easy to screw up. Note that if you're on a system other than Linux, you may get an error at some point because the random number generator is unseeded. OpenSSL's rand(3) manual page provides more information.
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