Windows Server 2008 R2 : Active Directory certificate services (part 1) - Planning for Active Directory Certificate Services

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Most organizations must deal with the reality of security threats both outside and within their company. To help provide a higher level of security, many companies have started deploying their own internal public key infrastructure (PKI). PKIs allow you to deploy certificates to users, computers, network devices, and applications. These certificates can then be used to encrypt data and verify the identity of network objects. The most common form of PKI you are probably familiar with is Secure Sockets Layer (SSL)-based Web sites. Typically when you place an order from a well-known shopping site, you will be connected via a secure session using SSL based upon PKI technologies. Several Microsoft products themselves are starting to rely on PKI to function properly or provide enhanced feature sets. Both Exchange Server and Office Communications server rely on certificates as part of their core functionality. Active Directory Certificate Services is a Windows solution for deploying a PKI on your network. Active Directory Certificate Services requires adequate planning to ensure that the core PKI is secure and well managed.

1. Planning for Active Directory Certificate Services

Microsoft continues to evolve its core PKI solution with each release of Windows Server to allow organizations of all sizes to deploy their own internal certificate services providing support for secure Web sites, smartcard logons, and encrypted data transfers between servers. Though deploying an Active Directory Certificate Services-based PKI is somewhat easy to set up, adequate planning still needs to take place prior to setting up your own deployment. Before you create a deployment plan, you should have a good understanding of a few basic certificate services concepts. Some of these key concepts are defined below:

  • Certificate—Certificates are at the core of a PKI deployment. Certificates are used to encrypt and decrypt data, verify the identity of the source, and ensure that the data was not tampered with while moving from point A to point B. Certificates are issued to users, computers, or network devices by Certificate Authorities (CAs). CAs not only issue certificates but manage their lifecycle, including the renewal process, as each certificate has a defined expiration date and must be renewed to continue to function properly. Figure 1 shows an example of a certificate used to secure an IIS Web site allowing for https-based, SSL-based connections.


    Figure 1 Example of Certificate Used to Secure a Web site.

  • Root certificate authority—In most PKI deployments, the root certificate authority (CA) is the first CA in a multilevel hierarchy. Typically, the Root CA only issues certificates for intermediate CAs or issuing and policy CAs depending on the number of levels in the hierarchy. Root CAs are typically taken offline after the subordinate CAs have been set up.

  • Intermediate certificate authority—Intermediate CAs are typically used in larger multilevel deployments with more than two levels in the hierarchy. Intermediate CAs are a subordinate CA of the Root CA and issues certificates used to set up issuing and policy CAs.

  • Policy certificate authority—Policy CAs are used to enforce security policies for deploying certificates as defined by the organization.

  • Issuing certificate authority—Issuing CAs are the actual CAs used to issue certificates to computers, users, and network devices. The issuing CAs are usually subordinate of intermediate or policy CAs.

  • Enterprise certificate authority—An enterprise CA integrates with AD and uses AD to store CA configuration data. The use of AD implies that to deploy an enterprise CA, the CA must be a member of an AD domain. Additionally, certificates are automatically issued when a user or computer requesting a certificate has permissions to issue new certificates.

  • Stand-alone certificate authority—A stand-alone certificate authority does not integrate with AD and uses flat files to store configuration information. A stand-alone CA does not require AD and can be deployed in environments with or without an AD domain. Any certificate requested must be manually issued using the certificate management console. A stand-alone CA is often used as a Root CA as it can be easily taken offline without worrying about domain membership issues or the need to talk to AD.

  • Certificate revocation lists (CRLs) and online certificate status protocol (OCSP)—CRLs and the OCSP are the methods used to determine if a certificate has been revoked by a CA. A certificate administrator may need to revoke a certificate if a system is no longer in use or if the certificate has been compromised. CRLs or OSCP are used to inform connecting clients or servers that a certificate has been revoked. OSCP was first introduced in Windows Server 2008 R1 (RTM) as an alternate method to determine if a certificate has been revoked. The use of CRLs require that the CA generate a new CRL list and clients to download the CRL list from a CRL distribution point on a regular basis. Using OSCP is more of a real-time request for the revoke list as the client requests the list from a CA.

When planning your PKI deployment, you will need to consider various decision points during the design process. For example, will the PKI be supporting multiple domains or a single domain?. You will also need to know what type of hierarchy to deploy and the number of levels to include. Additionally, you will need to ensure that your Active Directory Schema is updated to the Windows Server 2008 schema level to support the new features in Windows Server 2008 R2 Active Directory Certificate Services.

Planning your Certificate Authority hierarchy

As a best practice, larger organizations will want to deploy multiple levels of CAs for manageability and security purposes. Additionally, the Root CA is typically used to create intermediate CAs and is then taken offline for security purposes. Figure 2 depicts a two-level hierarchy. The Root CA that is used strictly for creating a second CA acts as a policy-and certificate-issuing CA.


Figure 2 Two-level Certificate Authority hierarchy.

Planning for Certificate Revocation List distribution points

As part of your design, you need to properly plan for CRL distribution points. By default, each Enterprise CA will publish the CRL to AD and inform clients that the CRL can be accessed using an LDAP URL. The disadvantage of using the default is that as the CRL is published to AD, it must be replicated to all DCs in the domain before you can be sure that all clients can see the updated CRL. As you are aware, AD replication happens on a scheduled basis thus, it could take some time for CRL changes to fully replicate throughout your network. If you need CRL changes to be available sooner, you can create http-based distribution points which can be managed by the CA. If CRL changes are infrequent on your network, you may be ok with using the default LDAP URL.

Other planning decisions you need to consider are:

  • Will clients outside the corporate firewall need to use internal PKI protected systems? If so, the certificate chain must be viewable from the outside world.

  • Who will manage the PKI? There are special security groups created within AD for Enterprise CA deployments. Some organizations may leave the administration to the AD admins, while others may have dedicated security departments that manage the PKI.

  • You will want to monitor your PKI to ensure that it remains healthy. This can be accomplished by reviewing the logs on a regular basis. Additionally, there is a System Center Operations Manager (SCOM) 2007 R2 Management Pack available to allow SCOM to monitor your PKI deployment.

Be sure you spend ample time planning and testing your design in a lab before implementing a PKI on your production network. A simple PKI can be somewhat easy to implement but a bad deployment could cause major headaches and possible security issues.

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