Why don’t websites default to SSL/TLS?

When a client connects on TCP port 80 to a webserver, one of the first thing it sends is a line that tells the server what website it wants. This line looks like this:
HOST: www.csoandy.com
This tells the webserver which configuration to use, and how to present content to the end-user. This effectively abstracts TCP and IP issues, and lets websites and webservers interact at the discretion of the owner. The designed user of HTTP is the administrator, who may need to host dozens of websites on a smaller number of systems.

Secure Socket Layer (SSL) and its successor, Transport Layer Security (TLS), on the other hand, were designed for exactly the opposite user. The designed user of HTTPS is the paranoid security academic, who doesn’t even want to tell a server the hostname it is looking for (the fact that you were willing to tell a DNS server is immaterial). In essence, SSL requires that any server IP address can have only one website on it. When a client connects to a webserver on port 443, the first thing it expects is for the server to provide a signed certificate, that matches the hostname that the client has not yet sent. So if you connect to www.csoandy.com via SSL, you’ll note you get back a different certificate: one for a248.e.akamai.net. This is expected — nothing on this hostname requires encryption. Similarly, for Akamai customers that are delivering whole-site content via Akamai on hostnames CNAMEd to Akamai’s edgesuite.net domain, attempts to access these sites via SSL will result in a certificate for a248.e.akamai.net being returned. (Aside: customers use our SSL Object Caching service to deliver objects on the a248.e.akamai.net hostname; customers who want SSL on their own hostnames use our WAA and DSA-Secure services).

The designs of HTTP and HTTPS are diametrically opposed, and the SSL piece of the design creates horrendous scaling problems. The server you’re reading this from serves over 150,000 different websites. Those sites are actually loadbalanced across around 1600 different clusters of servers. For each website to have an SSL certificate on this network, we’d need to consume around 250 million IP addresses – or 5.75% of the IPv4 space. That’s a big chunk of the 9% left as of today. Note that there isn’t a strong demand to put most sites on SSL; this is just elucidating why, even if there were demand, the sheer number of websites today makes this infeasible.

Fortunately, there are paths to a solution.

Wildcard certificates
For servers that only serve hostnames in one domain, a wildcard certificate can help. If, for instance, in addition to www.csoandy.com, I had store.csoandy.compictures.csoandy.com, and catalog.csoandy.com, instead of needing four certificates (across those 1800 locations!), I could use a certificate for *.csoandy.com, which would match all four domains, as well as future growth of hostnames.

You’re still limited; a wildcard can only match one field, so a certificate for *.csoandy.com wouldn’t work on a site named comments.apps.csoandy.com. Also, many security practitioners, operating from principles of least privilege, frown on wildcard certificates, as they can be used even for unanticipated sites in a domain.

Subject Alternate Name (SAN) certificates
A slightly more recent variety of certificate are the SAN certificates. In addition to the hostname listed in the certificate, an additional field lets you specify a list of valid hostnames for that certificate (If you look closely, the a248.e.akamai.net certificate on this host has a SAN field set, which includes both a248.e.akamai.net and *.akamaihd.net). This permits a server to have multiple, disparate hostnames on one interface.

On the downside, you still only have one certificate, which is going to get larger and larger the more hostnames you have (which hurts performance). It also ties all of those hostnames into one list, which may present brand and security issues to some enterprises.

Server Name Indication (SNI)
The long term solution is a feature for TLS called Server Name Indication (SNI). This extension calls for the client to, as part of the initial handshake, indicate to the server the name of the site it is looking for. This will permit a server to select the appropriate one from its set of SSL certificates, and present that.

Unfortunately, SNI only provides benefit when everyone supports it. Currently, a handful of systems don’t support SNI, most notably Windows XP and IIS. And those two major components are significant: XP accounts for 55-60% of the browser market, and IIS looks to be around 24%. So it’ll be a while until SNI is ready for primetime.