Setting up SSL: Ubuntu and Apache 2

Doing anything in an unfamiliar environment is difficult though often obvious when you know how. So it was when we setup a new web server on a server running the Ubuntu distribution. However the information here is exactly right though not obviously so. The light bulb finally went on when we realized that the Apache2 implementation on Ubuntu uses a trick to enable and disable features.

On other distributions, Apache settings are contained in httpd.conf. On Ubuntu only a small number of directives are held in this file while module directives are in files in directory mods-available under the /etc/apache2 directory and web site directives are held in files in the sites-available directory also under /etc/apache2. A nice arrangement but the trick mentioned is that the main httpd.conf file will only include files in the mods-enabled and sites-enabled sub-directories. These two directories contain symlinks to the respective file in mods-available and sites-available sub-directories. A neat trick and obvious once the penny has dropped.

The content from the link above is reproduced here – just in case it disappears from the web…


This document requires that you’ve got a signed server.crt and a server.key file available. You may have just gone through my page Creating Certificate Authorities and self-signed SSL certificates. If not, go there first and follow the instructions.

The remaining steps involve Apache and other tweaks detailed step-by-step below. This file was originally written for Ubuntu 6.06, but has been kept current and verified with 8.04 Hardy Heron. It should work with most/all releases in between — and probably Debian-based distros in general, with little or no modification.

(1) Preliminaries and Packages.

If you have a registered DNS name, be sure that you properly set it up. On the Gnome console: System->Administration->Networking:General. Your host/domain name here should match the one you’ll be using in later steps. You can also edit /etc/hosts directly if you’re comfortable with that route.

If you haven’t done so already, use apt-get, Synaptic or some other tool to get and install Apache 2. I prefer apache2-mpm-prefork. You should also have openssl by this point.

(2) Copy the server.crt and server.key files into position.

This step suggests putting certificate-related files in this location: /etc/apache2/ssl. If the “ssl” directory doesn’t already exist there, go ahead and mkdir it now.

Then copy the server.key and server.crt files into position:

cp server.key /etc/apache2/ssl
cp server.crt /etc/apache2/ssl

(3) Enable ssl.

You’ll want to run the /usr/sbin/a2enmod script. If you look at this script, it’s simply a general purpose utility to establish a symlink between a module in /etc/apache2/mods-available to /etc/apache2/mods-enabled (or give a message to the effect that a given module doesn’t exist or that it’s already symlinked for loading).

a2enmod ssl

(4) Create a stub SSL conf. file and establish a necessary symlink.

The first command copies the default configuration file for port 80, to use it as a stub configuration file for 443. The second command establishes a symlink from the ‘available’ ssl file to the ‘enabled’ file. The symlinking methodology between those two directories is similar in philosophy to mods-available and mods-enabled (previous step). The general idea is that enabled files exist as symlinks created to their available counterparts.

cp /etc/apache2/sites-available/default /etc/apache2/sites-available/ssl
ln -s /etc/apache2/sites-available/ssl /etc/apache2/sites-enabled/ssl

(5) Set up the document roots.

The default location for HTML pages with an initial install of Ubuntu is /var/www and there exists no separate place for ssl files. I prefer to serve up basic HTML pages in /var/www/html and SSL pages in /var/www-ssl/html. Whatever works for you. But at this point I create the directories.

cd /var/www
mkdir html
cd /var
mkdir www-ssl
cd www-ssl
mkdir html

(6) Configure virtual hosts.

su to the superuser and make a backup of the original Apache configuration file. Call it whatever you want. My practice is to add “_original” to any default configuration file before I make changes — in case I need to revert. You should not make a backup of the following file in the sites-enabled directory, since both the original and backup will be loaded when you restart Apache. Also note that a symlink exists from /etc/apache2/sites-enabled/000-default to /etc/apache2/sites-available/default. Back it up in the sites-available directory or some other location outside of Apache altogether.

sudo su
cd /etc/apache2/sites-available
cp /etc/apache2/sites-available/default default_original

Now you need to declare the IP of your box (or FQDN/DNS name) and document roots you created in a previous step.

To configure HTTP over port 80 (edit /etc/apache2/sites-available/default):

NameVirtualHost *:80
(Note: Look down just a bit and make a change to the virtual host settings.)

ServerName localhost
DocumentRoot /var/www/html/
(Note: Use your assigned IP or DNS name followed with “:80” if you have one for ServerName).

Similar procedure for HTTPS over port 443 (edit /etc/apache2/sites-available/ssl):

NameVirtualHost *:443
(Note: Look down just a bit and make a change to the virtual host settings.)

ServerName localhost
DocumentRoot /var/www-ssl/html/
(Note: Again, use your assigned IP or a DNS name followed with “:443” if you have one for ServerName.)

(7) Instruct Apache to listen to 443.

Go to this file /etc/apache2/ports.conf and add the following to it:

Listen 443

I noted that starting with Ubuntu 7.10 (or thereabouts), the ports.conf may already have an IfModule clause in it for the SSL portion. If you see this, you can just leave it as-is:

Listen 443

(8) Turn on the SSL engine.

For example, in the middle of /etc/apache2/sites-available/ssl file, after the commented area which says “# Possible values include: debug, info, notice, warn, error, crit…” add the following.

SSLEngine On
SSLCertificateFile /etc/apache2/ssl/server.crt
SSLCertificateKeyFile /etc/apache2/ssl/server.key

(9) Make an /etc/hosts tweak (if need be) — and restart apache.

When starting and stopping Apache there may be a complaint such as “Could not determine the server’s fully qualified domain name, using for ServerName”. You may encounter this if you don’t have a DNS name for your server, and are just using an IP. If this applies to you, go into your /etc/hosts file and make the following changes. Basically, we’ll be adding “localhost.localdomain” to the IP and whatever system name you chose when you installed Ubuntu (assuming you’ve not changed it). The final line below should be there if you have a static IP, and corresponding DNS name registered to it. If this is the case, earlier steps that wanted ServerName should have a value which corresponds to the DNS name also indicated here. localhost localhost.localdomain {your system name} {your system name}
{static IP if you you have one} {fully qualified DNS host name if you have one}

It may be that I first noticed additional behavior with Ubuntu 8.04 Hardy Heron. If you don’t have a fully qualified domain name (FQDN) for your box, you may need to make an additional tweak. In your /etc/apache2/apache2.conf file, you may want to add the following line at the very end of the file if Apache is still complaining about lacking a fully qualified domain name at startup:

ServerName localhost

Restart Apache.

cd /etc/init.d
./apache2 restart

Done — test it out!

Ubuntu discussion forum (not quite complete)
Creating Certificate Authorities and self-signed SSL certificates (command-line openssl procedures)

Paul Bramscher

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A very informative article. I totally agree with every statement that you have made in the post and I really appreciate your effort in gathering up the information.