Nginx (Reverse Proxy)

Using Mutual TLS on the Client Side with Nginx (Reverse Proxy)

How to use TLS, client authentication, and CA certificates in Nginx (Reverse Proxy)

Choose DIY vs smallstep-managed integration

Create a private key and request a certificate for your Nginx (Reverse Proxy) client

Before you can teach your client to speak TLS, you will need a certificate issued by a trusted certificate authority (CA). If your organization already runs its own CA and you have a private key and certificate for your Nginx (Reverse Proxy) client, along with your CA's root certificate, you can skip to the next step.

If your organization does not yet run its own internal CA, you can read more about creating and running a CA using the open source smallstep software here.

$ step ca certificate "myuser" client.crt client.key

Your certificate and private key will be saved in client.crt and client.key respectively.

Request a copy of your CA root certificate, which will be used to make sure each application can trust certificates presented by other applications.

$ step ca root ca.crt

Your certificate will be saved in ca.crt.

Make a request from Nginx (Reverse Proxy) using mutual TLS

Now, we need only to configure our Nginx (Reverse Proxy) client to make authenticated requests using our certificate and private key. The CA root certificate will be used to verify that the client can trust the certificate presented by the server.

Configure your upstream location to use a certificate for TLS communication when it proxies traffic to the backend. We'll specify the TLS protocol and some preferred ciphers:

location /upstream { proxy_pass; proxy_ssl_certificate client.crt; proxy_ssl_certificate_key client.key; proxy_ssl_protocols TLSv1.2 TLSv1.3; proxy_ssl_ciphers HIGH:!aNULL:!MD5; # ... }

Further, configure your Nginx proxy to verify the server using your CA root certificate along with a verification depth for the server's certificate chain:

location /upstream { # ... proxy_ssl_trusted_certificate /etc/nginx/ca.crt; proxy_ssl_verify on; proxy_ssl_verify_depth 2; # ... }

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Automate certificate renewal

By default, step-ca issues certificates with a 24 hour expiration. Short-lived certificates have many benefits but also require that you renew your certificates each day before they expire. How you renew certificates is often dependent on how you deploy your application. See the step-ca certificate lifecycle management docs for more information.

Let us know you're interested!

Smallstep is building Certificate Manager, a hosted certificate authority offering with integrations that make it easy to manage mututal TLS in technologies like Nginx (Reverse Proxy).

Certificate Manager is currently in early access (by request only). Please request an invitation and let us know you'd be interested in an integration with Nginx (Reverse Proxy).

Join Early Access

All documentation content from the Hello mTLS project is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

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