HTTPS — why your site should be using it

Why use a TLS Certificate?

A TLS (Transport Layer Security) certificate enables a secure channel between your website and the end-user.  There are a lot of reasons to do this.  In August of 2014, Google announced that they would be using HTTPS as a ranking factor.  This simply means that sites that use HTTPS will have their rankings adjusted favorably when the site is indexed by Google.  TLS is an evolutionary step forward from SSL.  TLS v1.0 was basically SSL v3.0, but since then TLS has become the mainstream method for securing a site with HTTPS.

Besides a better ranking score from Google, offering HTTPS to your end-users is a great value-add for your site in general.  In fact, there is no reason not to enable HTTPS on all of your endpoints, including a RESTful API if your site has one.  The computational expense for enabling HTTPS is negligible with modern processors.

Why uses HTTPS only

This website offers many different API services for consumers of big data.  There are many RESTful API endpoints provided by this website that serve data from Reddit — some of which require authentication or API keys to use.  Keeping everything over HTTPS benefits the consumers of’s API by providing privacy and security.  Forcing HTTPS connections only adds an additional 1% CPU utilization overall.

If you examine our certificate, you will see that it uses SHA2 and is publicly auditable .  If you would like to get started with enabling TLS for your website, read on!

TLS — The Basics

Enabling HTTPS for your website begins with choosing a certificate provider.  There are many to choose from with prices ranging from free to thousands of dollars.  A basic TLS certificate is domain and subdomain specific.  In other words, the certificate would apply only to one web address such as  I’ve used DigiCert in the past and have had very positive experiences with them.  Although they generally cost more than other providers such as Comodo, Digicert has a great response time if you should ever have an issue with your certificate.

Once you choose a certificate provider, you will need to generate a CSR (Certificate Signing Request) for the certificate issuer before they can create a new certificate for your organization.  There are three main pieces to the puzzle — your private key (which you never give to anyone), the CSR which is signed by your private key and the certificate that is generated for you by an issuer using the CSR you provide to them.

If you are using a Linux based system, you can easily create a new key and CSR all in one go.  When creating a new key and CSR for, the command used was:

openssl req -new -newkey rsa:2048 -nodes -out pushshift_io.csr -keyout pushshift_io.key -subj "/C=US/ST=Maryland/L=Linthicum/O=Jason Michael Baumgartner/"

Always keep your private key safe. If you lose your private key or suspect that it has been copied, you will want to contact your certificate issuer immediately and rekey your certificate!

Once you submit the CSR, the issuer will verify your identity and ownership of the domain.  They will then issue you a new certificate that you can use within your web server configuration to begin serving pages over HTTPS.  Keep in mind that the entire process from start to finish generally requires a couple hours (most of that time spent waiting for the provider to issue your new certificate). uses Nginx as its web server.  This is what the part of our configuration looks like that deals with enabling and forcing HTTPS:

server {
        listen 80;
        rewrite     ^   https://$server_name$request_uri? permanent;

server {
        listen 443;
        ssl     on;
        ssl_session_cache    shared:SSL:10m;
        ssl_session_timeout  10m;
        ssl_protocols TLSv1 TLSv1.1 TLSv1.2;
        ssl_prefer_server_ciphers on;
        ssl_certificate    /etc/ssl/private/;
        ssl_certificate_key    /etc/ssl/private/;

        ... a bunch of other configuration stuff ...

This basic SSL configuration does a few things.  First, all connections over port 80 (HTTP) are rewritten and forced to go over port 443 (HTTPS).  The ssl_protocols directive forces TLS only connections and also prevents the POODLE vulnerability.  The POODLE vulnerability was an attack vector aimed at SSL v3.0 and basically was the death knell of SSL.  The ssl_ciphers directive is an additional configuration option to fine-tune the types of protocols allowed when negotiating a new connection.

Once the configuration is put in place, you can reload the Nginx configuration by typing “nginx -s reload” and it will reload the configuration without taking the server offline.  If everything works, you should get a very high score when checking Qualys SSL Labs site.

Screenshot from 2015-04-25 02:13:32
Qualys SSL LAbs offers a nice TLS certificate check
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