Using certificates to authenticate and encrypt data is vital to any enterprise security. For example, companies rely on certificates to provide TLS encryption for web applications so that client data is protected. However, not all certificates need to be issued from a publicly trusted certificate authority (CA). A privately trusted CA can be leveraged to issue certificates to help protect data in transit on resources such as load-balancers and also device authentication for endpoints and IoT devices. Many organizations already have that privately trusted CA running in their Microsoft Active Directory architecture via Active Directory Certificate Services (ADCS).
This post outlines how you can use Microsoft’s Windows 2019 ADCS to sign an AWS Certificate Manager (ACM) Private Certificate Authority (Private CA) instance, extending your existing ADCS system into your AWS environment. This will allow you to issue certificates via ACM for resources like Application Load Balancer that are trusted by your Active Directory members. The ACM PCA documentation talks about how to use an external CA to sign the ACM PCA certificate. However, it leaves the details of the external CA outside of the documentation scope.
Why use ACM PCA?
AWS Certificate Manager Private Certificate Authority (ACM Private CA or ACM PCA) is a private CA service that extends ACM certificate management capabilities to both public and private certificates. ACM PCA provides a highly available private CA service without the upfront investment and ongoing maintenance costs of operating your own private CA. ACM PCA allows developers to be more agile by providing them with APIs to create and deploy private certificates programmatically. You also have the flexibility to create private certificates for applications that require custom certificate lifetimes or resource names.
Why use ACM PCA with Windows Active Directory?
Many enterprises already use Active Directory to manage their IT resources. Whether it is on-premises or built into your AWS accounts, Active Directory’s built-in CA can be extended by ACM PCA. Using your ADCS to sign an ACM PCA means that members of your Active Directory automatically trust certificates issued by that ACM PCA. Keep in mind that these are still private certificates, and they are intended to be used just like certificates from ADCS itself. They will not be trusted by unmanaged devices, because these are not signed by a publicly trusted external CA. Therefore, systems like Mac and Linux may require that you manually deploy the ADCS certificate chain in order to trust certificates issued by your new ACM PCA.
This means it is more efficient for you to rapidly deploy certificates to your endpoint workstations for authentication. Or you can protect internal-only workloads with certificates that are constrained to your internal domain namespace. These tasks can be done conveniently through AWS APIs and the AWS SDK.
In the following sections, we will configure Microsoft ADCS to be able to sign a subordinate CA, deploy and sign ACM PCA, and then test the solution using a private website that is protected by a TLS certificate issued from the ACM PCA.
Configure Microsoft ADCS
Microsoft ADCS is normally deployed as part of your Windows Active Directory architecture. It can be extended to do multiple different types of certificate signing depending on your environment’s needs. Each of these different types of certificates is defined by a template that you must enable and configure. Each template contains configuration information about how Microsoft ADCS will issue the certificate type. You can copy and configure templates differently depending on your environment’s requirements. The specifics of each type of template is outside the scope of this blog post.
To configure ADCS to sign subordinate CAs
- On the CA server that will be signing the private CA certificate, open the Certification Authority Microsoft Management Console (MMC).
- In the left-side tree view, expand the name of the server.
- Open the context (right-click) menu for Certificate Templates and choose Manage.
This opens the Certificate Template Console, which is populated with the list of optional templates.
- Scroll down, open the context (right-click) menu for Subordinate Certification Authority, and choose Duplicate Template, as shown in Figure 2. This will create a duplicate of the template that you can alter for your needs, while leaving the original template unaltered for future use. Selecting Duplicate Template immediately opens the configuration for the new template.
To configure and use the new template
- On the new template configuration page, choose the General tab, and change the template display name to something that uniquely identifies it. The example in this post uses the name Subordinate Certification Authority – Private CA.
- Select the check box for Publish certificate in Active Directory, and then choose OK. The new template appears in the list of available templates. Close the Certificate Templates Console.
- Return to the Certification Authority MMC. Open the context (right-click) menu for Certificate Templates again, but this time choose New -> Certificate Template to Issue.
- In the dialog box that appears, choose the new template you created in Step 1 of this procedure, and then choose OK.
That’s all that’s needed! Your CA is now ready to issue certificates for subordinate CAs in your public key infrastructure. Open a browser from either the ADCS CA server itself or through a network connection to the ADCS CA server, and use the following URL to access the certificate server’s certificate signing interface.
Now you can see that in the Certificate Templates list, you can choose the Subordinate Certification Authority template that you created, as shown in Figure 4.
Deploy and sign the ACM Private CA’s certificate
In this step, you will deploy the ACM PCA, which is the first step to create a subordinate CA to deploy in your AWS account. The process of deploying the ACM PCA is well documented, so this post will not go into depth about the deployment itself. Instead, this procedure focuses on the steps for taking the certificate signing request (CSR) and signing it against the ADCS, and then covers the additional steps to convert the certificates that ADCS produces into the certificate format that ACM PCA expects.
After the ACM PCA is initially deployed, it needs to have a certificate signed to authenticate it. ACM PCA offers two options for signing the new instance’s certificate. You can choose to sign either through another ACM PCA instance, or via an external CA. Since you are using ADCS in this walkthrough, you will use the process of an external CA. The ACM PCA deployment is now at a point where it needs its CSR signed by Microsoft ADCS. You should see that it is ready in the AWS Management Console for ACM PCA.
To deploy and sign the ACM PCA’s certificate
- When the ACM PCA is ready, in the ACM PCA console, begin the Install subordinate CA certificate process by choosing External private CA for the CA type.
- You will then be provided the certificate signing request (CSR) for the ACM PCA. Copy and paste the CSR content into the ADCS CA signing URL you visited earlier on the CA server. Then choose Next. The next page is where you will paste in the new signed certificate and certchain in a later step.
- From the ADCS CA URL, be sure that the new Subordinate Certification Authority template is selected, and then choose Submit. The new certificate will be issued to you. The ADCS issuing page provides two different formats for the certificate, either as Distinguished Encoding Rules (DER) or base64-encoded.
- Copy the base64-encoded files for both the certificate and the certchain to your local computer. The certificate is already in Privacy Enhanced Mail (PEM) format, and its contents can be pasted into the ACM PCA certificate input in the console. However, you must convert the certchain into the format required by the ACM PCA by following these steps:
- To convert the format of the certchain, use the openssl tool from the command line. The process of installing the openssl tool is outside the scope of this blog post. Refer to the OpenSSL site documentation for installation options for your operating system.
- Use the following command to convert the certchain file from Public Key Cryptographic Standards #7 (PKCS7) to PEM.
openssl pkcs7 -print_certs -in certnew.p7b -out certchain.pem
- Using a text editor, open the certchain.pem file and copy the last certificate block from the file, starting with —–BEGIN CERTIFICATE—– and ending with —–END CERTIFICATE—–. You will notice that the file begins with the signed certificate and includes subject= and issuer= statements. ACM PCA only accepts the content that is the certificate chain.
- Return to the ACM PCA console page from Step 1, and paste the text the you just copied into the input area provided for the certificate chain. After this step is complete, the private CA is now signed by your corporate PKI.
Test the solution
Now that the ACM PCA is online, one of the things it can do is issue certificates via ACM that are trusted by your corporate Active Directory joined clients. These certificates can be used in services such as Application Load Balancers to provide TLS protected endpoints that are unique to your organization and trusted only by your internal clients.
From a client joined to our test Active Directory, Internet Explorer shows that it trusts the TLS certificate issued by AWS Certificate Manager and used on the Application Load Balancer for a private site.
For this demo, we created a test web server that is hosting an example webpage. The web server is behind an AWS Application Load Balancer. The TLS certificate attached to the Application Load Balancer is issued from the new ACM PCA.
Organizations that have Microsoft Active Directory deployed can use Active Directory’s Certificate Services to issue certificates for private resources. This blog post shows how you can extend that certificate trust to AWS Certificate Manager Private CA. This provides a way for your developers to issue private certificates automatically, which are trusted by your Active Directory domain-joined clients or clients that have the ADCS certificate chain installed.
For more information on hybrid public key infrastructure (PKI) on AWS, refer to these blog posts:
For more information on certificates for Mac and Linux, refer to the following resources:
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