Protect your Node.js API with nginx and SSL client certificates

The problem we had

We had to secure some routes of our Node.js API so only trusted servers could call them.
There are others solutions to do so, but for this project we had to do it using SSL client certificates.
We followed the really nice tutorial from Nate Good that explained how to do it with nginx and FastCGI.
I decided to do a similar tutorial for nginx and Node.js.
The following will help you build the same thing in your development environment.

If you don’t really know how nginx works, have a look at my blog post about the basics of nginx.

The certificates

First you need to create a CA key. What’s a CA? Let’s ask wikipedia:
In cryptography, a certificate authority or certification authority (CA) is an entity that issues digital certificates.
This key will be used to sign client or server certificates. Signing a certificate is a way to say “I trust” this client or server.

# Create the CA Key and Certificate for signing Client Certs
openssl genrsa -des3 -out ca.key 4096
openssl req -new -x509 -days 365 -key ca.key -out ca.crt

Then you can create your server and client certificate.

# Create the Server Key, CSR, and Certificate
openssl genrsa -des3 -out server.key 1024
openssl req -new -key server.key -out server.csr

# Create the Client Key and CSR
openssl genrsa -des3 -out client.key 1024
openssl req -new -key client.key -out client.csr

Finally, you can sign your certificates with the CA you just made.

# We're self signing our own server cert here.  This is a no-no in production.
openssl x509 -req -days 365 -in server.csr -CA ca.crt -CAkey ca.key -set_serial 01 -out server.crt

# Sign the client certificate with our CA cert.  Unlike signing our own server cert, this is what we want to do.
openssl x509 -req -days 365 -in client.csr -CA ca.crt -CAkey ca.key -set_serial 01 -out client.crt

When you create your Certificate Signing Request (CSR), your web server application will prompt you for information about your organization
and your web server.
This information is used to create the certificate’s Distinguished Name (DN) allowing you to know which client is doing the request.

In our case, the client is a server we trust.

The nginx configuration

Here is a working nginx conf

server {
        listen 8443;
        ssl on;
        server_name node-protected-app;
        #Classic part of ssl
        ssl_certificate      /var/www/server.crt;
        ssl_certificate_key  /var/www/server.key;

        #Here we say that we trust clients that have signed their certificate with the CA certificate.
        ssl_client_certificate /var/www/ca.crt;
        #We can choose here if we allow only authenticated requests or not. In our case it's optional
        ssl_verify_client optional;

        location / {

                proxy_set_header X-Real-IP $remote_addr;
                proxy_set_header X-Forwarded-For $proxy_add_x_forwarded_for;

                #If the client certificate was verified against our CA the header VERIFIED
                #will have the value of 'SUCCESS' and 'NONE' otherwise
                proxy_set_header VERIFIED $ssl_client_verify;
                #If you want to get the DN information in your headers
                proxy_set_header DN $ssl_client_s_dn;


Using restify

Finaly here is a short implementation using restify in CoffeeScript:

restify = require 'restify'

exerciseApi = restify.createServer(
  name: 'nginx-exercise'

# API Routes
exerciseApi.get '/', (req, res) ->
  res.send 'Hello from the api'

# API Routes
exerciseApi.get '/protected-route', (req, res) ->
  console.log req.headers
  return res.send(401) if req.headers.verified isnt 'SUCCESS'
  res.send 'This is a serious content'

exerciseApi.startServer = (port = 3000, callback) ->
  console.log "Starting server on port "+port
  exerciseApi.listen port, callback


It’s very simple, we just have to check the header to allow or not the request.

I have updated my nginx sandbox, if you want to try all of this
in a clean environment.

If you do so, inside the Vagrant you can test with cURl that your API is behaving as expected:

curl -k --key client.key --cert client.crt https://localhost:8443/protected-route

Using loopback

Let’s imagine you have a model with a dogs entity.
If you want to allow some specific actions to be done only by a trusted client, you can do the following:

module.exports = function(Dogs) {
  Dogs.beforeRemote('upsert', function(ctx, instance, callback) {
    console.log("headers", ctx.req.headers);
    console.log("verified", ctx.req.headers.verified);
    //Here you can test the headers

Let’s say that you have the following dog.json fixture file like:

  "name": "Pluto",
  "owner": "Mickey"

You can simulate an upsert with:

curl -X PUT -F "metadata=<dog.json;type=application/json" --key client.key --cert client.crt -k

SSL inside Node.js

Node can run a web server. It’s also possible to use SSL and SSL client authentication directly with Node.js.
There is another blog post from Nate Good about it.

An issue you could encounter with cURL

On our project, we had some problems using curl with the certificates. We ended up making our tests with httpie which is also a nice tool.

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  • I’ve written a couple of passport.js strategies for helping with client cert authentication – (client cert handling directly in Node); and for the approach you describe, where a front-end server passes through cert details as a HTTP header.

  • Maxime Thoonsen

    Thanks Joe! I may use what you have done soon =).

  • Thanks! that was very useful in such a straight example.

  • Check out (private beta right now). It’s like ngrok but with security as the primary focus, and can protect your API end points as well as web applications. And it supports SSL Client Certificates.

    Disclaimer: I am one of the co-founders.

  • Maxime Thoonsen

    Thanks for the link, I will have a look.