More Muc Than You Can Handle

Valuable Links - TLS

This is embarassing to admit but I have to re-learn Transport Layer Security (TLS) on a continuous basis. This post is my cheatsheet to remembering all the itty bitty details, which I’ll forgot shortly after I do whatever TLS related task I have on my plate.

What’s TLS you ask? Take 9 minutes to listen to this fantastic episode on Public key cryptography which will prime (hah!) you up for the rest of the post.

What’s The Difference Between SSL And TLS?

The fact that I still think SSL over TLS is likely a result of my first exposure to dealing with these sorts of things was in a multi-tenant Windows web hosting environment. I seriously can’t believe I was able to do the things I did back then without having one iota of understanding what was going on.

I only learned that the difference between SSL and TLS is so simple just a couple years ago. It boils down to this:

  • Are you expecting a secure connection because the port you’re connecting to is by definition intended to be a secure port? Then we’re talking about SSL.
  • Do you start connecting and switch to a secure mode based on the feedback coming back over the “wire”? Then we’re talking about TLS.

Yup, it’s as simple as that. Big thanks to the SSL vs TLS - What’s the Difference? post for helping me finally understand this!

What Are Certificates?

When it comes to certifcates, I’ve yet to find a resource that does a good high level explanation. For the time being I’ve found SSL/TLS Certificates Beginners’ Tutorial the best resource because it does explain the openssl command in a bit of detail and links to even more resources. Having a basic grasp of Certificate Authorities, and the chain of trust (not a 90’s Christian metal band) is another piece of the puzzle to understand well because it’s where things can often go wrong and result in cryptic errors (like the browser warnings that we all ignore).

My simplified understanding is that a certificate certifies hat the one (machine) with the certificate is the entity that the certificate says it’s certifying. I believe this is true for server and client certificates, but I am not 100% sure.

What Goes On When You Use HTTPS?

Nearly everytime I need to setup HTTPS I find that I need to reread the First Few Milliseconds of an HTTPS Connection article. It’s a long read but if you spend a day following the links and focusing on understanding that article, you’ll tackle any HTTPS related task with ease. You’ll just forget it all after a few days.

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know SSL… is another great post that dives deep into the low level of what happens in creating a secure connection.

Hostname Verification

Will Sargent wrote an excellent series on Testing Hostname Verification which goes into the guts of many of the parts discussed in this post.

How Do Things Go Wrong?

The following video by Moxie Marlinspike is told at a nice slow pace on how certificates can break down. It’s a good reminder to be humble when dealing with these complex security tools. I tend to rewatch this video after reading the above articles. If I can follow the video, then I’ve chunked enough knowledge to move on.


Hope these help. It’s inspired by all the other folks that also couldn’t tell me the difference between SSL and TLS. It’s easy to feel ashamed about not knowing these technologies, security is a very hard domain. I’ve kept my explanations to a minimum because I don’t feel confident I can provide correct information, nor am I able to explain it simply. When in doubt, I’ll look to the resources here. Hopefully this will give you a good starting ground if you’ve been asked to do anything related to SSL/TLS and certificates.

Update I was contacted by Matt Banner who asked me to update this article with some content from his website. I took a look at it and it’s a really good guide for updating from http to https (pop quiz, is this SSL or TLS?) plus it has a really good infographic.

Update 2 Found a couple more excellent resources on the subject. A Tour of TLS is probably the clearest video I’ve watched on the subject. It clarified some of the more obscure pieces of the protocol like OCSP and Stapling in such a way that I finally got it! Everything PKI brings pretty much of what’s in the Tour of TLS video in the frame of a system operator (e.g.: through openssl commands).

This post took 2 pomodoros to complete