Description of the Server Authentication Process During the SSL Handshake

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This article describes the server authentication process during the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) handshake.

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During the SSL handshake, the server sends the client a certificate to authenticate itself. The client uses the certificate to authenticate the identity the certificate claims to represent.

An SSL-enabled client goes through these steps to authenticate a server's identity:

  1. Is today's date within the validity period? The client checks the server certificate's validity period. If the current date and time are outside of that range, the authentication process does not go any further. If the current date and time are within the certificate's validity period, the client goes on to step 2.

  2. Is the issuing Certificate Authority (CA) a trusted CA? Each SSL-enabled client maintains a list of trusted CA certificates. This list determines which server certificates the client will accept. If the distinguished name (DN) of the issuing CA matches the DN of a CA on the client's list of trusted CAs, the answer to this question is yes, and the client goes on to step 3. If the issuing CA is not on the list, the server is not authenticated unless the client can verify a certificate chain ending in a CA that is on the list.

  3. Does the issuing CA's public key validate the issuer's digital signature? The client uses the public key from the CA's certificate (which it found in its list of trusted CAs in step 2) to validate the CA's digital signature on the server certificate that is being presented. If the information in the server certificate has changed since it was signed by the CA, or if the CA certificate's public key doesn't correspond to the private key that was used by the CA to sign the server certificate, the client does not authenticate the server's identity. If the CA's digital signature can be validated, the client treats the server's certificate as a valid "letter of introduction" from that CA and proceeds. At this point, the client has determined that the server certificate is valid. It is the client's responsibility to take step 4 before it takes step 5.

  4. Does the domain name in the server's certificate match the domain name of the server itself? This step confirms that the server is actually located at the same network address that is specified by the domain name in the server certificate. Although step 4 is not technically part of the SSL protocol, it provides the only protection against a form of security attack known as a "Man-in-the-Middle Attack." Clients must perform this step and must refuse to authenticate the server or establish a connection if the domain names do not match. If the server's actual domain name matches the domain name in the server certificate, the client goes on to step 5.

  5. The server is authenticated. The client proceeds with the SSL handshake. If the client does not get to step 5 for any reason, the server that is identified by the certificate cannot be authenticated, and the user is warned of the problem and informed that an encrypted and authenticated connection cannot be established.


For additional information, click the article number below to view the article in the Microsoft Knowledge Base:

257591 Description of the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) Handshake

Article ID: 257587 - Last Review: Jul 30, 2008 - Revision: 1