Smallstep Certificate Manager: Customize Certificates

In this documentation, we will explore customizing certificates and templates using the step command-line tool. step acts as a front-end interface to certificate manager and is used for many common crypto and X.509 operations. This tutorial covers:

  1. Getting a certificate with a non-default lifetime
  2. Setting minimum, maximum, and default certificate lifetimes
  3. Automating custom certificates with templates

Before you begin

  • This tutorial assumes you have created a Smallstep Team and a Certificate Manager Authority using the steps in Getting Started and understand basic certificate operations.
  • When you created an Authority in Certificate Manager, we automatically created a provisioner called authority-admin. This provisioner allows you to manage your Authority and request certificates. Examples in this guide will use the default authority-admin provisioner. The concepts explored apply to all provisioner types.

Getting a certificate with a non-default lifetime

The 24-hour default validity window for certificates is arbitrary. Depending on your threat model and use context, you may want much shorter or much longer certificate lifetimes:

  • Server certificates and service account certificates typically are longer lived, lasting 1-90 days.
  • Client certificates for humans are typically shorter-lived and could expire after a few minutes or up to a month.

A TLS certificate only needs to be valid at the moment the connection is established. So, a client certificate allowing access to a sensitive database might only need to be valid for five minutes, and the client can stay connected for as long as they need to complete the task at hand.

You can adjust the certificate not-before and not-after parameters when requesting a certificate. Let's look at a couple of examples.

This certificate will be valid for six minutes.

$ step ca certificate localhost localhost.crt localhost.key --not-after=6m

This certificate will be valid starting 5 minutes from now, until 10 days from now.

$ step ca certificate localhost localhost.crt localhost.key --not-before=5m --not-after=240h

Setting minimum, maximum, and default certificate lifetimes

Provisioners authenticate certificate requests. Certificate lifetimes, access control policies, renewal, templates, and many other options are configurable per-provisioner. By setting claims on a provisioner, you can control minimum, maximum, and default certificate lifetimes. Let's take a look at the provisioner claims on the authority-admin provisioner that's automatically created with your Authority.

$ step ca provisioner list [ { "type": "OIDC", "name": "authority-admin", "clientID": "43a20143-9e0e-416e-876a-47ca074416c6", "clientSecret": "8f60f2d310dcdf7287048ee3c10e359650986e0172ce0213c00004e31d30ede7", "configurationEndpoint": "", "admins": [ "" ], "listenAddress": "", "claims": { "maxTLSCertDuration": "8784h0m0s", "enableSSHCA": true, "disableRenewal": false, "allowRenewalAfterExpiry": false }, "options": { "x509": {}, "ssh": {} } } ] }

Claims are enabled with a maximum duration of 8784 hours or 366 days. A default duration is not set, so it uses the Authority default value of 24 hours.

Let's update the claims on the provisioner to produce a 7 day (168h) default certificate. We will also set the minimum lifetime to 5 minutes and the maximum lifetime to 500 days (12000h).

$ step ca provisioner update authority-admin --x509-default-dur=168h --x509-min-dur=5m --x509-max-dur=12000h iNo admin credentials found. You must login to execute admin commands. ✔ Please enter admin name/subject (e.g., ✔ Provisioner: authority-admin (OIDC) [client: 43a20143-9e0e-416e-876a-47ca074416c6] { ... "claims": { "x509": { "enabled": true, "durations": { "default": "168h", "min": "5m", "max": "12000h" } } } ... }

Get and inspect a certificate to test the new seven-day default expiry.

$ step ca certificate newdefault newdefault.crt newdefault.key ✔ Provisioner: authority-admin (OIDC) [client: 380d0a5a-7263-4e43-bb73-980afd0dc5c0] ✔ CA: ✔ Certificate: newdefault.crt ✔ Private Key: newdefault.key
$ step certificate inspect newdefault.crt --short X.509v3 TLS Certificate (ECDSA P-256) [Serial: 2046...1094] Subject: newdefault Issuer: Production Intermediate CA Provisioner: authority-admin [ID: 380d...c5c0] Valid from: 2021-10-29T00:18:43Z to: 2021-11-05T00:19:43Z

Provisioner claims define certificate minimum and maximum lifetime and the default certificate expiry. A single Authority can support many provisioners to unlock various automated workflows. You can learn more about provisioners here.

Automating custom certificates with templates

Certificate templates are JSON documents that describe the most important fields in the final certificate or certificate request. Templates give you granular control over certificate details. By default, Certificate Manager is configured to issue short-lived certificates for use with TLS. Templates let you customize every detail of a certificate, down to the OID, to support your use case.

Concretely, a template is a JSON representation of a certificate that's materialized using Go's text/template module and sprig functions. They look like this:

Certificate Templates

Context from certificate requests and authentication credentials are made available as template variables, so you can adjust certificate details based on who's requesting the certificate.

To update the default template to create custom certificates, you need to update the provisioner using a template flag:

  • --x509-template=<file> - The x509 certificate template file, a JSON representation of the certificate to create.
  • --x509-template-data=<file> - The x509 certificate template data file, a JSON map of data that can be used by the certificate template.

Templates unlock any x.509 certificate format, or longer certificate chains. You can even add conditionals and fail if a certificate request is not valid. Check out our open-source documentation to learn what's possible and how to build your custom template.

Next Steps

  • You've created your custom certificate; now it's time to explore automating certificate renewal.
  • Ready to dive into a specific technology? Check out our practical zero trust project. It provides step-by-step instructions for configuring TLS for popular technologies in Linux, Docker, and Kubernetes.