5 easy tips to accelerate SSL

Photo credit: TheKenChan - http://www.flickr.com/photos/67936989@N00/2678539087/

Update: following popular demand, the article now includes nginx commands :)

Update 2: thanks to jackalope from Hacker News, I added a missing Apache directive for the cipher suites.

Update 3: recent attacks on RC4 have definitely made it a bad choice, and ECDHE cipher suites got improvements.

SSL is slow. These cryptographic algorithms eat the CPU, there is too much traffic, it is too hard to deploy correctly. SSL is slow. Isn’t it?


SSL looks slow, because you did not even try to optimize it! For that matter, I could say that HTTP is too verbose, XML web services are verbose too, and all this traffic makes the website slow. But, SSL can be optimized, as well as everything!

Slow cryptographic algorithms

The cryptographic algorithms used in SSL are not all created equal: some provide better security, some are faster. So, you should choose carefully which algorithm suite you will use.

The default one for Apache 2′s SSLCipherSuite directive is: ALL: !ADH:RC4+RSA:+HIGH:+MEDIUM:+LOW:+SSLv2:+EXP

You can translate that to a readable list of algorithms with this command: openssl ciphers -v ‘ALL:!ADH:RC4+RSA:+HIGH:+MEDIUM:+LOW:+SSLv2:+EXP’

Here is the result:

DHE-RSA-AES256-SHA      SSLv3 Kx=DH       Au=RSA  Enc=AES(256)  Mac=SHA1
DHE-DSS-AES256-SHA      SSLv3 Kx=DH       Au=DSS  Enc=AES(256)  Mac=SHA1
AES256-SHA              SSLv3 Kx=RSA      Au=RSA  Enc=AES(256)  Mac=SHA1
DHE-RSA-AES128-SHA      SSLv3 Kx=DH       Au=RSA  Enc=AES(128)  Mac=SHA1
DHE-DSS-AES128-SHA      SSLv3 Kx=DH       Au=DSS  Enc=AES(128)  Mac=SHA1
AES128-SHA              SSLv3 Kx=RSA      Au=RSA  Enc=AES(128)  Mac=SHA1
EDH-RSA-DES-CBC3-SHA    SSLv3 Kx=DH       Au=RSA  Enc=3DES(168) Mac=SHA1
EDH-DSS-DES-CBC3-SHA    SSLv3 Kx=DH       Au=DSS  Enc=3DES(168) Mac=SHA1
DES-CBC3-SHA            SSLv3 Kx=RSA      Au=RSA  Enc=3DES(168) Mac=SHA1
DHE-RSA-SEED-SHA        SSLv3 Kx=DH       Au=RSA  Enc=SEED(128) Mac=SHA1
DHE-DSS-SEED-SHA        SSLv3 Kx=DH       Au=DSS  Enc=SEED(128) Mac=SHA1
SEED-SHA                SSLv3 Kx=RSA      Au=RSA  Enc=SEED(128) Mac=SHA1
RC4-SHA                 SSLv3 Kx=RSA      Au=RSA  Enc=RC4(128)  Mac=SHA1
RC4-MD5                 SSLv3 Kx=RSA      Au=RSA  Enc=RC4(128)  Mac=MD5 
EDH-RSA-DES-CBC-SHA     SSLv3 Kx=DH       Au=RSA  Enc=DES(56)   Mac=SHA1
EDH-DSS-DES-CBC-SHA     SSLv3 Kx=DH       Au=DSS  Enc=DES(56)   Mac=SHA1
DES-CBC-SHA             SSLv3 Kx=RSA      Au=RSA  Enc=DES(56)   Mac=SHA1
DES-CBC3-MD5            SSLv2 Kx=RSA      Au=RSA  Enc=3DES(168) Mac=MD5 
RC2-CBC-MD5             SSLv2 Kx=RSA      Au=RSA  Enc=RC2(128)  Mac=MD5 
RC4-MD5                 SSLv2 Kx=RSA      Au=RSA  Enc=RC4(128)  Mac=MD5 
DES-CBC-MD5             SSLv2 Kx=RSA      Au=RSA  Enc=DES(56)   Mac=MD5 
EXP-EDH-RSA-DES-CBC-SHA SSLv3 Kx=DH(512)  Au=RSA  Enc=DES(40)   Mac=SHA1 export
EXP-EDH-DSS-DES-CBC-SHA SSLv3 Kx=DH(512)  Au=DSS  Enc=DES(40)   Mac=SHA1 export
EXP-DES-CBC-SHA         SSLv3 Kx=RSA(512) Au=RSA  Enc=DES(40)   Mac=SHA1 export
EXP-RC2-CBC-MD5         SSLv3 Kx=RSA(512) Au=RSA  Enc=RC2(40)   Mac=MD5  export
EXP-RC4-MD5             SSLv3 Kx=RSA(512) Au=RSA  Enc=RC4(40)   Mac=MD5  export
EXP-RC2-CBC-MD5         SSLv2 Kx=RSA(512) Au=RSA  Enc=RC2(40)   Mac=MD5  export
EXP-RC4-MD5             SSLv2 Kx=RSA(512) Au=RSA  Enc=RC4(40)   Mac=MD5  export

28 cipher suites, that’s a lot! Let’s see if we can remove the unsafe ones first! You can see at the end of the of the list 7 ones marked as “export”. That means that they comply with the US cryptographic algorithm exportation policy. Those algorithms are utterly unsafe, and the US abandoned this restriction years ago, so let’s remove them:

Now, let’s remove the algorithms using plain DES (not 3DES) and RC2: ‘ALL:!ADH:!EXP:!LOW:!RC2:RC4+RSA:+HIGH:+MEDIUM’. That leaves us with 16 algorithms.

It is time to remove the slow algorithms! To decide, let’s use the openssl speed command. Use it on your server, ecause depending on your hardware, you might get different results. Here is the benchmark on my computer:

OpenSSL 0.9.8r 8 Feb 2011
built on: Jun 22 2012
options:bn(64,64) md2(int) rc4(ptr,char) des(idx,cisc,16,int) aes(partial) blowfish(ptr2) 
compiler: -arch x86_64 -fmessage-length=0 -pipe -Wno-trigraphs -fpascal-strings -fasm-blocks
  -DOPENSSL_PIC -DOPENSSL_THREADS -DZLIB -mmacosx-version-min=10.6
available timing options: TIMEB USE_TOD HZ=100 [sysconf value]
timing function used: getrusage
The 'numbers' are in 1000s of bytes per second processed.
type             16 bytes     64 bytes    256 bytes   1024 bytes   8192 bytes
md2               2385.73k     4960.60k     6784.54k     7479.39k     7709.04k
mdc2              8978.56k    10020.07k    10327.11k    10363.30k    10382.92k
md4              32786.07k   106466.60k   284815.49k   485957.41k   614100.76k
md5              26936.00k    84091.54k   210543.56k   337615.92k   411102.49k
hmac(md5)        30481.77k    90920.53k   220409.04k   343875.41k   412797.88k
sha1             26321.00k    78241.24k   183521.48k   274885.43k   322359.86k
rmd160           23556.35k    66067.36k   143513.89k   203517.79k   231921.09k
rc4             253076.74k   278841.16k   286491.29k   287414.31k   288675.67k
des cbc          48198.17k    49862.61k    50248.52k    50521.69k    50241.28k
des ede3         18895.61k    19383.95k    19472.94k    19470.03k    19414.27k
idea cbc             0.00         0.00         0.00         0.00         0.00 
seed cbc         45698.00k    46178.57k    46041.10k    47332.45k    50548.99k
rc2 cbc          22812.67k    24010.85k    24559.82k    21768.43k    23347.22k
rc5-32/12 cbc   116089.40k   138989.89k   134793.49k   136996.33k   133077.51k
blowfish cbc     65057.64k    68305.24k    72978.75k    70045.37k    71121.64k
cast cbc         48152.49k    51153.19k    51271.61k    51292.70k    47460.88k
aes-128 cbc      99379.58k   103025.53k   103889.18k   104316.39k    97687.94k
aes-192 cbc      82578.60k    85445.04k    85346.23k    84017.31k    87399.06k
aes-256 cbc      70284.17k    72738.06k    73792.20k    74727.31k    75279.22k
camellia-128 cbc        0.00         0.00         0.00         0.00         0.00 
camellia-192 cbc        0.00         0.00         0.00         0.00         0.00 
camellia-256 cbc        0.00         0.00         0.00         0.00         0.00 
sha256           17666.16k    42231.88k    76349.86k    96032.53k   103676.18k
sha512           13047.28k    51985.74k    91311.50k   135024.42k   158613.53k
aes-128 ige      93058.08k    98123.91k    96833.55k    99210.74k   100863.22k
aes-192 ige      76895.61k    84041.67k    78274.36k    79460.06k    77789.76k
aes-256 ige      68410.22k    71244.81k    69274.51k    67296.59k    68206.06k
                  sign    verify    sign/s verify/s
rsa  512 bits 0.000480s 0.000040s   2081.2  24877.7
rsa 1024 bits 0.002322s 0.000111s    430.6   9013.4
rsa 2048 bits 0.014092s 0.000372s     71.0   2686.6
rsa 4096 bits 0.089189s 0.001297s     11.2    771.2
                  sign    verify    sign/s verify/s
dsa  512 bits 0.000432s 0.000458s   2314.5   2181.2
dsa 1024 bits 0.001153s 0.001390s    867.6    719.4
dsa 2048 bits 0.003700s 0.004568s    270.3    218.9

We can remove the SEED and 3DES suite because they are slower than the other. DES was meant to be fast in hardware implementations, but slow in software, so 3DES (which runs DES three times) is slower. On the contrary, AES can be very fast in software implementations, and even more if your CPU provides specific instructions for AES. You can see that with a bigger key (and so, better theoretical security), AES gets slower. Depending on the level of security, you may choose different key sizes. According to the key length comparison, 128 might be enough for now. RC4 is a lot faster than other algorithms. AES is considered safer, but the implementation in SSL takes into account the attacks on RC4. So, we will propose this one in priority. Following recent researches, it appears that RC4 is not safe enough anymore. And ECDHE got a performance boost with recent versions of OpenSSL. So, let’s forbid RC4 right now!

So, here is the new cipher suite: ‘ALL:!ADH:!EXP:!LOW:!RC2:!3DES:!SEED:!RC4:+HIGH:+MEDIUM’

And the list of ciphers we will use:

DHE-RSA-AES256-SHA      SSLv3 Kx=DH       Au=RSA  Enc=AES(256)  Mac=SHA1
DHE-DSS-AES256-SHA      SSLv3 Kx=DH       Au=DSS  Enc=AES(256)  Mac=SHA1
AES256-SHA              SSLv3 Kx=RSA      Au=RSA  Enc=AES(256)  Mac=SHA1
DHE-RSA-AES128-SHA      SSLv3 Kx=DH       Au=RSA  Enc=AES(128)  Mac=SHA1
DHE-DSS-AES128-SHA      SSLv3 Kx=DH       Au=DSS  Enc=AES(128)  Mac=SHA1
AES128-SHA              SSLv3 Kx=RSA      Au=RSA  Enc=AES(128)  Mac=SHA1
RC4-SHA                 SSLv3 Kx=RSA      Au=RSA  Enc=RC4(128)  Mac=SHA1
RC4-MD5                 SSLv3 Kx=RSA      Au=RSA  Enc=RC4(128)  Mac=MD5 
RC4-MD5                 SSLv2 Kx=RSA      Au=RSA  Enc=RC4(128)  Mac=MD5

9 ciphers, that’s much more manageable. We could reduce the list further, but it is already in a good shape for security and speed. Configure it in Apache with this directive:

SSLHonorCipherOrder On

Configure it in Nginx with this directive:

ssl_ciphers ALL:!ADH:!EXP:!LOW:!RC2:!3DES:!SEED:!RC4:+HIGH:+MEDIUM

You can also see that the performance of RSA gets worse with key size. With the current security requirements (as of now, January 2013, if you are reading this from the future). You should choose a RSA key of 2048 bits for your certificate, because 1024 is not enough anymore, but 4096 is a bit overkill.

Remember, the benchmark depends on the version of OpenSSL, the compilation options and your CPU, so don’t forget to test on your server before implementing my recommandations.

Take care of the handshake

The SSL protocol is in fact two protocols (well, three, but the first is not interesting for us): the handshake protocol, where the client and the server will verify each other’s identity, and the record protocol where data is exchanged.

Here is a representation of the handshake protocol, taken from the TLS 1.0 RFC:

      Client                                               Server

      ClientHello                  -------->
                                   <--------      ServerHelloDone
      Finished                     -------->
                                   <--------             Finished
      Application Data             <------->     Application Data

You can see that there are 4 messages exchanged before any real data is sent. If a TCP packet takes 100ms to travel between the browser and your server, the handshake is eating 400ms before the server has sent any data!

And what happens if you make multiple connections to the same server? You do the handshake every time. So, you should activate Keep-Alive. The benefits are even bigger than for plain unencrypted HTTP.

Use this Apache directive to activate Keep-Alive:

KeepAlive On

Use this nginx directive to activate keep-alive:

keepalive_timeout 100

Present all the intermediate certification authorities in the handshake

During the handshake, the client will verify that the web server’s certificate is signed by a trusted certification authority. Most of the time, there is one or more intermediate certification authority between the web server and the trusted CA. If the browser doesn’t know the intermediate CA, it must look for it and download it. The download URL for the intermediate CA is usually stored in the “Authority information” extension of the certificate, so the browser will find it even if the web server doesn’t present the intermediate CA.

This means that if the server doesn’t present the intermediate CA certificates, the browser will block the handshake until it has downloaded them and verified that they are valid.

So, if you have intermediate CAs for your server’s certificate, configure your webserver to present the full certification chain. With Apache, you just need to concatenate the CA certificates, and indicate them in the configuration with this directive:

SSLCertificateChainFile /path/to/certification/chain.pem

For nginx, concatenate the CA certificate to the web server certificate and use this directive:

ssl_certificate /path/to/certification/chain.pem

Activate caching for static assets

By default, the browsers will not cache content served over SSL, for security. That means that your static assets (Javascript, CSS, pictures) will be reloaded on every call. Here is a big performance failure!

The fix for that: set the HTTP header “Cache-Control: public” for the static assets. That way, the browser will cache them. But don’t activate it for the sensitive content, beacuase it should not be cached on the disk by your browser.

You can use this directive to enable Cache-Control:

<filesMatch ".(js|css|png|jpeg|jpg|gif|ico|swf|flv|pdf|zip)$">
Header set Cache-Control "max-age=31536000, public"

The files will be cached for a year with the max-age option.

For nginx, use this:

location ~ \.(js|css|png|jpeg|jpg|gif|ico|swf|flv|pdf|zip)$ {
    expires 24h;
    add_header Cache-Control public;

Update: it looks like Firefox ignores the Cache-Control and caches everything from SSL connections, unless you use the “no-store” option.

Beware of CDN with multiple domains

If you followed a bit the usual performance tips, you already offloaded your static assets (Javascript, CSS, pictures) to a content delivery network. That is a good idea for a SSL deployment too, BUT, there are caveats:

  • your CDN must have servers accessible over SSL, otherwise you will see the “mixed content” warning
  • it must have “Keep-Alive” and “Cache-control: public” activated
  • it should serve all your assets from only one domain!

Why the last one? Well, even if multiple domains point to the same IP, the browser will do a new handshake for every domain. So, here, we must go against the common wisdom of separating your assets on multiple domains to profit from the parallelized request in the browser. If all the assets are served from the same domain, there will only be one handshake. It could be fixed to allow multiple domains, but this is beyond the scope of this article.


I could talk for hours about how you could tweak your web server performance with SSL. There is alot more to it than these easy tips, but I hope those will be of useful for you!

If you want to know more, I am currently writing an ebook about SSL tuning, and I would love to hear your comments about it!

If you need help with your SSL configuration, I am available for consulting, and always happy to work on interesting architectures.

By the way, if you want to have a good laugh with SSL, read “How to get a certificate signed by multiple certification authorities” :)

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41 thoughts on “5 easy tips to accelerate SSL

  1. Great article.

    Presenting the intermediate certificates is something that you should be doing anyway (I believe the TLS RFC requires it), especially since Chrome for Android (and probably others too) seem to have retrieving intermediates turned off.

    Consider SPDY, too. Nginx has a module for SPDY/2 and Apache has one (I think) – it can help speed up connections from compatible browsers, and paves the way for a bunch of other useful speedups too.

    • Presenting the intermediate certificates can solve a lot of weird bugs, too. I had one with a client changing a certificate signed by Verisign, where the CA root had changed in the meantime. Fun…
      SPDY is a good idea, and I’ll write about it in the future.

  2. You probably want to include the security side of SSL/TLS (as well as speed). The below will take care of the BEAST and CRIME attacks. In Apache, you probably want something like this:

    SSLHonorCipherOrder On
    SSLCipherSuite ‘RC4-SHA:AES+DH:!ADH’
    SSLProtocol All -SSLv2
    SSLCompression off
    SSLInsecureRenegotiation off

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    • These settings are pretty good from a security point of view. He includes the HSTS header, and adds the HTTP -> HTTPS redirection code for websites where SSL was added recently.
      But please be aware that the cipher suite selection depends on his particular OpenSSL version. I get the same cipher suites with OpenSSL 0.9.8r, but with OpenSSL 1.0.1, I get 64 different cipher suites (mostly because I have elliptic curves, SRP and Camellia algorithms).
      That’s why I gave the commands, so that people can test and make their own mind.
      Did you deploy the duraconf settings on your servers?

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  7. Thanks for the the awesome post.

    One quick note: a lot of the OpenSSL commands use “smart quotes” which makes them no fun to copy and paste into a shell.

  8. Run this same check with a newer versions of openssl. In .9.8 your cipher list has 9, as stated. In OpenSSL 1.0.1 14 your ciphers hit a total of 66.

    • That’s why I gave the commands to do the benchmark. It depends on the OpenSSL version, the compilation options, the presence of AES-NI…

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    • The goal was not to reduce the number of ciphers, but to select a few efficient ones. The Nginx default still uses 3DES, whch was deemed slow, does not provide RC4, which is fast and protects against the BEAST attack, and prevents the usage of MD5 for the MAC. MD5 should not be used to sign certificates, but it might (don’t take my word for it, I have not yet confirmed that) be safe, for now, as a MAC for SSL record messages, with the added benefit that MD5 is faster than SHA1.

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  15. openssl ciphers -v ‘ALL:!ADH:!EXP:!LOW:!RC2:!3DES:!SEED:RC4+RSA:+HIGH:+MEDIUM’ gives me 66 (!) ciphers on Ubuntu but just a few on my Mac.

    Not quite sure where to start to cut it down to a manageable number. Should I just go by their speed or are there some ciphers that I should get rid of first?

    • Yes, because Linux hosts have a more recent OpenSSL versions, and a lot of delicious ciphers to taste :)
      If you remove AES 256 (which, from a theoretical standpoint, has more attacks than AES 128), and Diffie Hellman key exchange, which is slower than elliptic curve Diffie Hellman. Here is the command: openssl ciphers -v ‘ALL:!ADH:!EXP:!LOW:!RC2:!3DES:!SEED:!AES256:!DH:RC4+RSA:+HIGH:+MEDIUM’

      With this, you’re left with 30 ciphers. Mostly, you have Camellia, AES 128 and RC4 for transport encryption, ECDH, SRP and RSA for the key exchange. The cipher chosen will depend on a lot of things, like the client support, which type of key you use in your certificate, etc.

      I don’t have enough data on the client support of ciphers (yet), but there will be more in the ebook, once it is written :)

  16. I’m on a stock centos 6 box.
    When I add this code to my apache config
    SSLHonorCipherOrder On

    IE9 (and maybe other versions of IE) stop displaying the page (I get no discernable error messages or headers, just “IE cannot display the webpage”

    • Hi Geal!

      Cool paper!

      But I’m looking for similar info about Tomcat6.

      I try to test allowed ciphers but it doesn’t seem to work.
      For example, I try to allow only very strong ciphers like AES-256.
      I added this line in my SSL connector section in server.xml of Tomcat6:


      I stopped/started the server.

      With IE7+XP SP3, I manage to reach an HTTPS page only with RC4 128 cipher !?!

      I would expect an error message like “your browser doesn’t support AES 256 required by server”.

      What could be the problem ?



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  18. I am having a problem on nginx with ssl renegotiation with safari. Is there a way to fix that. Can we disable ssl renegotiation on nginx just like we can do on apache?

  19. Good article, but it is missing one of the biggest SSL acceleration options available – session renegotiation and session resumption. the best way to handle a slow handshake is to avoid it in the firstplace. this is possibly trivial or even on by default with one web server, but add more and suddenly they have to sync ssl session data between them, which requires special configuration.

    • I did not talk about renegotiation mainly because it is harder to deploy. The goal was to present easy tips. Also, using keep-alive will help a lot already in reducing the number of handshakes.

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