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18.3. An Overview of Certificates and Security

Your secure server provides security using a combination of the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) protocol and (in most cases) a digital certificate from a Certificate Authority (CA). SSL handles the encrypted communications as well as the mutual authentication between browsers and your secure server. The CA-approved digital certificate provides authentication for your secure server (the CA puts its reputation behind its certification of your organization's identity). When your browser is communicating using SSL encryption, the https:// prefix is used at the beginning of the Uniform Resource Locator (URL) in the navigation bar.

Encryption depends upon the use of keys (think of them as secret encoder/decoder rings in data format). In conventional or symmetric cryptography, both ends of the transaction have the same key, which they use to decode each other's transmissions. In public or asymmetric cryptography, two keys co-exist: a public key and a private key. A person or an organization keeps their private key a secret and publishes their public key. Data encoded with the public key can only be decoded with the private key; data encoded with the private key can only be decoded with the public key.

To set up your secure server, use public cryptography to create a public and private key pair. In most cases, you send your certificate request (including your public key), proof of your company's identity, and payment to a CA. The CA verifies the certificate request and your identity, and then sends back a certificate for your secure server.

A secure server uses a certificate to identify itself to Web browsers. You can generate your own certificate (called a "self-signed" certificate), or you can get a certificate from a CA. A certificate from a reputable CA guarantees that a website is associated with a particular company or organization.

Alternatively, you can create your own self-signed certificate. Note, however, that self-signed certificates should not be used in most production environments. Self-signed certificates are not automatically accepted by a user's browser — users are prompted by the browser to accept the certificate and create the secure connection. Refer to Section 18.5 Types of Certificates for more information on the differences between self-signed and CA-signed certificates.

Once you have a self-signed certificate or a signed certificate from the CA of your choice, you must install it on your secure server.