ACME support in
step-ca allows software to leverage existing ACME clients
and libraries to get X.509 certificates from your own certificate
authority (CA) using an ACME challenge. ACME is a standardized protocol. It
describes a mechanism for automatic validation and issuance of X.509 certificates
from a certificate authority to clients.
There are many reasons you might want to run your own ACME CA.
For example, you can:
At a high level, ACME is pretty simple. An ACME client creates an account with an ACME server and submits a certificate order. The server responds with a set of challenges for the client to complete in order to prove it has control over domain names, or identifiers, in the certificate. Once the client successfully completes the ACME challenge, it submits a certificate signing request (CSR) and the server issues a certificate.
There is not a single standard way to prove control over an identifier, so the
core ACME specification makes this an extension point. There are three
challenge types broadly used in practice, all of which are supported by
The ACME server challenges the client to host a random number at a random URL on the domain in question and verifies client control by issuing an HTTP GET request to that URL.
A service that commonly uses this approach is Google Analytics.
The ACME server challenges the client to provision a random DNS
TXT record for the domain in question and verifies client control by querying DNS for that
You might see a challenge like this when you are trying to use third party tools, like plugins or some Amazon cloud services.
The ACME server uses application layer protocol negotiation to request an ACME challenge validation. The client then presents a self-signed tls certificate containing the identifier in question as a special x509 extension.
The TLS ALPN challenge is commonly used in cases where an ingress controller fronts clients attempting to receive a certificate, or in cases where, for any number of reasons, TLS is the only allowed external protocol.
Now, let's demonstrate provisioning a X.509 certificate with ACME using
Add an ACME provisioner to your
step-ca configuration to enable ACME:
step ca provisioner add acme --type ACME
step-ca to pick up the configuration changes.
To configure an ACME client to connect to
step-ca you need to do two things:
Most ACME clients connect to Let’s Encrypt’s CA by default.
To connect to
step-ca, you need to point the client to the right ACME Directory URL.
A single instance of
step-ca can have multiple ACME provisioners, each with their own ACME Directory URL.
The ACME directory URL has the form:
We just added an ACME provisioner named
acme in step 2. Its ACME directory URL is:
Clients will validate the server’s HTTPS certificate using the public root certificates in your system’s default trust store.
When you’re connecting to Let’s Encrypt, it’s a public certificate authority and its root certificate is already in your system’s default trust store.
Your internal root certificate isn’t, so HTTPS connections from ACME clients to
step-ca will fail.
There are two ways to address this challenge. Either:
step-caroot certificate to your system’s default trust store.
step-cli provides a helper command to do the latter:
step certificate install
If you are using your certificate authority for TLS in production, explicitly configuring your ACME client to only trust your root certificate is a better option. You will see how this method works with an example below. You can find several other examples here.
If you are simulating Let’s Encrypt in pre-production, installing your root certificate is a more realistic simulation of production. Once your root certificate is installed, no additional client configuration is necessary.
certbot is the most commonly used ACME client. Built and supported by the EFF, it’s the standard-bearer for production-grade command-line ACME.
To get a certificate from
step-ca using certbot you need to:
sudo REQUESTS_CA_BUNDLE=$(step path)/certs/root_ca.crt \ certbot certonly -n --standalone -d foo.internal \ --server https://ca.internal/acme/acme/directory
With the appropriate plugin, certbot also supports the dns-01 challenge for most popular DNS providers.
Deeper integrations with nginx and Apache can even configure your server to use HTTPS automatically and you can do this with
You can renew all of the certificates you have installed using cerbot by running:
$ sudo REQUESTS_CA_BUNDLE=$(step path)/certs/root_ca.crt certbot renew
You can automate renewal with a simple cron entry:
*/15 * * * * root REQUESTS_CA_BUNDLE=$(step path)/certs/root_ca.crt certbot -q renew
The certbot packages for some Linux distributions will create a cron entry or systemd timer like this for you.
This entry won’t work with
step-ca because it doesn’t set the
REQUESTS_CA_BUNDLE environment variable.
You need to manually update it.
step-ca issues certificates with 24 hour lifetimes.
Certbot’s default renewal job is tuned for Let’s Encrypt’s 90 day certificate lifetimes.
It is run every 12 hours with actual renewals occurring for certificates within 30 days of expiration.
The cron entry above accounts for this by running certbot renew every 15 minutes.
You will also want to configure your domain to only renew certificates when they are within a few hours of expiration by adding a line like the following to the top of your renewal configuration file, like in
renew_before_expiry = 8 hours