Lightweight Sub-CAs in FreeIPA 4.4

Last year FreeIPA 4.2 brought us some great new certificate management features, including custom certificate profiles and user certificates. The upcoming FreeIPA 4.4 release builds upon this groundwork and introduces lightweight sub-CAs, a feature that lets admins to mint new CAs under the main FreeIPA CA and allows certificates for different purposes to be issued in different certificate domains. In this post I will review the use cases and demonstrate the process of creating, managing and issuing certificates from sub-CAs. (A follow-up post will detail some of the mechanisms that operate behind the scenes to make the feature work.)

Use cases

Currently, all certificates issued by FreeIPA are issued by a single CA. Say you want to issue certificates for various purposes: regular server certificates, and user certificates for VPN authentication, and authentication to a particular web service. Currently, assuming the certificate bore the appropriate Key Usage and Extended Key Usages extensions (with the default profile, they do), a certificate issued for one of these purposes could be used for all of the other purposes.

Issuing certificates for particular purposes (especially client authentication scenarios) from a sub-CA allows an administrator to configure the endpoint authenticating the clients to use the immediate issuer certificate for validation client certificates. Therefore, if you had a sub-CA for issuing VPN authentication certificates, and a different sub-CA for issuing certificates for authenticating to the web service, one could configure these services to accept certificates issued by the relevant CA only. Thus, where previously the scope of usability may have been unacceptably broad, administrators now have more fine-grained control over how certificates can be used.

Finally, another important consideration is that while revoking the main IPA CA is usually out of the question, it is now possible to revoke an intermediate CA certificate. If you create a CA for a particular organisational unit (e.g. some department or working group) or service, if or when that unit or service ceases to operate or exist, the related CA certificate can be revoked, rendering certificates issued by that CA useless, as long as relying endpoints perform CRL or OCSP checks.

Creating and managing sub-CAs

In this scenario, we will add a sub-CA that will be used to issue certificates for users’ smart cards. We assume that a profile for this purpose already exists, called userSmartCard.

To begin with, we are authenticated as admin or another user that has CA management privileges. Let’s see what CAs FreeIPA already knows about:

% ipa ca-find
1 CA matched
  Name: ipa
  Description: IPA CA
  Authority ID: d3e62e89-df27-4a89-bce4-e721042be730
  Subject DN: CN=Certificate Authority,O=IPA.LOCAL 201606201330
  Issuer DN: CN=Certificate Authority,O=IPA.LOCAL 201606201330
Number of entries returned 1

We can see that FreeIPA knows about the ipa CA. This is the "main" CA in the FreeIPA infrastructure. Depending on how FreeIPA was installed, it could be a root CA or it could be chained to an external CA. The ipa CA entry is added automatically when installing or upgrading to FreeIPA 4.4.

Now, let’s add a new sub-CA called sc:

% ipa ca-add sc --subject "CN=Smart Card CA, O=IPA.LOCAL" \
    --desc "Smart Card CA"
Created CA "sc"
  Name: sc
  Description: Smart Card CA
  Authority ID: 660ad30b-7be4-4909-aa2c-2c7d874c84fd
  Subject DN: CN=Smart Card CA,O=IPA.LOCAL
  Issuer DN: CN=Certificate Authority,O=IPA.LOCAL 201606201330

The --subject option gives the full Subject Distinguished Name for the new CA; it is mandatory, and must be unique among CAs managed by FreeIPA. An optional description can be given with --desc. In the output we see that the Issuer DN is that of the IPA CA.

Having created the new CA, we must add it to one or more CA ACLs to allow it to be used. CA ACLs were added in FreeIPA 4.2 for defining policies about which profiles could be used for issuing certificates to which subject principals (note: the subject principal is not necessarily the principal performing the certificate request). In FreeIPA 4.4 the CA ACL concept has been extended to also include which CA is being asked to issue the certificate.

We will add a CA ACL called user-sc-userSmartCard and associate it with all users, with the userSmartCard profile, and with the sc CA:

% ipa caacl-add user-sc-userSmartCard --usercat=all
Added CA ACL "user-sc-userSmartCard"
  ACL name: user-sc-userSmartCard
  Enabled: TRUE
  User category: all

% ipa caacl-add-profile user-sc-userSmartCard --certprofile userSmartCard
  ACL name: user-sc-userSmartCard
  Enabled: TRUE
  User category: all
  CAs: sc
  Profiles: userSmartCard
Number of members added 1

% ipa caacl-add-ca user-sc-userSmartCard --ca sc
  ACL name: user-sc-userSmartCard
  Enabled: TRUE
  User category: all
  CAs: sc
Number of members added 1

A CA ACL can reference multiple CAs individually, or, like we saw with users above, we can associate a CA ACL with all CAs by setting --cacat=all when we create the CA ACL, or via the ipa ca-mod command.

A special behaviour of CA ACLs with respect to CAs must be mentioned: if a CA ACL is associated with no CAs (either individually or by category), then it allows access to the ipa CA (and only that CA). This behaviour, though inconsistent with other aspects of CA ACLs, is for compatibility with pre-sub-CAs CA ACLs. An alternative approach is being discussed and could be implemented before the final release.

Requesting certificates from sub-CAs

The ipa cert-request command has learned the --ca argument for directing the certificate request to a particular sub-CA. If it is not given, it defaults to ipa.

alice already has a CSR for the key in her smart card, so now she can request a certificate from the sc CA:

% ipa cert-request --principal alice \
    --profile userSmartCard --ca sc /path/to/csr.req
  Certificate: MIIDmDCCAoCgAwIBAgIBQDANBgkqhkiG9w0BA...
  Subject: CN=alice,O=IPA.LOCAL
  Issuer: CN=Smart Card CA,O=IPA.LOCAL
  Not Before: Fri Jul 15 05:57:04 2016 UTC
  Not After: Mon Jul 16 05:57:04 2018 UTC
  Fingerprint (MD5): 6f:67:ab:4e:0c:3d:37:7e:e6:02:fc:bb:5d:fe:aa:88
  Fingerprint (SHA1): 0d:52:a7:c4:e1:b9:33:56:0e:94:8e:24:8b:2d:85:6e:9d:26:e6:aa
  Serial number: 64
  Serial number (hex): 0x40

Certmonger has also learned the -X/--issuer option for specifying that the request be directed to the named issuer. There is a clash of terminology here; the "CA" terminology in Certmonger is already used to refer to a particular CA "endpoint". Various kinds of CAs and multiple instances thereof are supported. But now, with Dogtag and FreeIPA, a single CA may actually host many CAs. Conceptually this is similar to HTTP virtual hosts, with the -X option corresponding to the Host: header for disambiguating the CA to be used.

If the -X option was given when creating the tracking request, the Certmonger FreeIPA submit helper uses its value in the --ca option to ipa cert-request. These requests are subject to CA ACLs.


It is worth mentioning a few of the limitations of the sub-CAs feature, as it will be delivered in FreeIPA 4.4.

All sub-CAs are signed by the ipa CA; there is no support for "nesting" CAs. This limitation is imposed by FreeIPA – the lightweight CAs feature in Dogtag does not have this limitation. It could be easily lifted in a future release, if there is a demand for it.

There is no support for introducing unrelated CAs into the infrastructure, either by creating a new root CA or by importing an unrelated external CA. Dogtag does not have support for this yet, either, but the lightweight CAs feature was designed so that this would be possible to implement. This is also why all the commands and argument names mention "CA" instead of "Sub-CA". I expect that there will be demand for this feature at some stage in the future.

Currently, the key type and size are fixed at RSA 2048. Same is true in Dogtag, and this is a fairly high priority to address. Similarly, the validity period is fixed, and we will need to address this also, probably by allowing custom CA profiles to be used.


The Sub-CAs feature will round out FreeIPA’s certificate management capabilities making FreeIPA a more attractive solution for organisations with sophisticated certificate requirements. Multiple security domains can be created for issuing certificates with different purposes or scopes. Administrators have a simple interface for creating and managing CAs, and rules for how those CAs can be used.

There are some limitations which may be addressed in a future release; the ability to control key type/size and CA validity period will be the highest priority among them.

This post examined the use cases and high-level user/administrator experience of sub-CAs. In the next post, I will detail some of the machinery that makes the sub-CAs feature work.

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