How to Become A Certificate Authority? All You Need To Know To Get Started

How to Become A Certificate Authority

Many users who study SSL certificates beyond the basics find themselves in the vast and complex world of Public Key Infrastructure – the system that keeps sensitive data safe on the web.

But once you learn about encryption algorithms and certificate authorities (CA), the following question naturally follows: How to become a certificate authority?

It’s a challenging road, especially for public CAs. You’re unlocking a door to a highly regulated space of trust and security, requiring you to fulfill specific criteria and meet stringent standards.

But if you want to secure you’re organization’s internal network, there’s an alternative – a private CA. Creating it is much easier and cheaper while enjoying the same level of security and encryption.

So, whether you’re just curious about the process or want to become your own certificate authority, this article will show you how to take the first step and what lies beyond. Stay tuned!

Table of Contents

  1. What Is a Public Certificate Authority?
  2. What Is a Private Certificate Authority?
  3. What Is the Difference Between Public and Private Certificate Authority?
  4. When You Need a Private vs Public CA?
  5. How to Become a Trusted / Public Certificate Authority?
  6. How to Create Your Own / Private Certificate Authority?

What Is a Public Certificate Authority?

A public certificate authority (CA) is a trusted entity that issues digital certificates confirming the identity of other entities, be it a website, an individual, or an organization. It’s a key player in the web of trust that underpins the internet’s secure communication protocol, HTTPS.

Now, you might be wondering how this works. When a site or user needs to verify their digital identity, they apply to a public certificate authority. The certificate authority validates the applicant’s credentials; if all checks out, it issues a digital certificate. The signed certificate vouches for the holder’s identity.

The role of the public certificate authority doesn’t end there. It’s also responsible for maintaining a list of certificates it’s issued that are currently valid and another list of revoked certificates. Keeping these lists accurate helps browsers and operating systems know when to trust a website’s certificate.

What Is a Private Certificate Authority?

A private certificate authority (PCA) serves as an internal system within an organization, managing the issuance and authentication of digital certificates for secure communication. It functions as an in-house authority, ensuring that only authorized users and devices within the network receive valid certificates.

With a private certificate authority, you maintain precise control over certificate issuance, reducing the risk of unauthorized access and potential data breaches. Using a private key, the PCA signs certificates to confirm their authenticity and integrity, safeguarding against tampering or misuse.

Tailored for large organizations managing numerous internal servers and devices, a PCA streamlines the certificate management process, enhancing security and efficiency within the network.

What Is the Difference Between Public and Private Certificate Authority?

The difference between public and private certificate authority is in their scope and trust level.

A public CA, as the name suggests, is publicly trusted and recognized. They issue certificates to websites, enabling secure connections for users across the internet. These authorities are audited and must adhere to strict rules and regulations to maintain their status.

On the other hand, a private CA is created by an organization for its internal use. It issues certificates for private networks, intranets, and other internal systems. Since private CAs aren’t subjected to external audits, they can be more flexible in their issuance policies. However, they’re only trusted within the organization that sets them up because of the nature of a self-signed certificate.

The main distinction between a public and private certificate authority is the level of trust each one commands. Public CAs are universally trusted, while private CAs are only trusted internally. Choosing between a public and private CA depends on your specific needs, a topic we’ll explore in the next section.

The Chain of Trust

Public certificate authorities establish a chain of trust by issuing certificates that can be traced back to a root certificate authority. This chain resembles a family tree, with the root CA certificates as the foundation. These root certificates are self-signed certificates and meticulously guarded because they establish trust.

Intermediate CA certificates act as a buffer between the root and server certificates. They sign certificates issued to domains, individuals, and organizations. The chain of trust allows for the offline storage of root CA keys, preventing compromise by third parties.

Private CAs also have a chain of trust, typically with two or three levels. However, unlike public CAs, private CAs issue certificates for internal use within an organization’s network. Because these certificates are not intended for public trust, private CAs do not require external validation.

When You Need a Private vs Public CA?

In the following sections, we’ll discuss use cases for both Private and Public CAs, factors influencing the choice, security considerations, and a comparative cost analysis.

Use Cases for Private CAs

Private CAs are ideal for custom use cases. For instance, when you need to secure internal communications within your organization, private CAs can offer the necessary encryption.

They’re also beneficial in offline or air-gapped environments, where systems or devices cannot connect to the internet for security reasons, such as industrial control systems or classified networks.

Private CAs can also issue certificates for device authentication, ensuring only authorized gadgets such as IoT devices, printers, or other endpoints can access network resources.

Organizations with specific security requirements or regulatory compliance needs can establish customized security policies with a private CA, including certificate lifetimes, key lengths, and authentication mechanisms tailored to the organization’s unique security setup.

Uses Cases for Public CAs

Public CAs, holding the lion’s share of the CA market, are predominantly utilized for securing websites, with their certificates being globally recognized and trusted.

If you need to secure a live website, getting an SSL certificate from a public CA is your only option. Their certificates assure your users that their data is secure and your site is genuine. Moreover, Public CAs facilitate secure connections for email servers and software accessed by external users.

In addition, public CAs confirm the integrity and authenticity of online transactions. Whether it’s e-commerce platforms processing payments or online banking services handling sensitive financial information, SSL certificates from public CAs instill user confidence in performing transactions. This trust builds a positive online experience and encourages continued engagement in the digital marketplace.

Security Considerations

When picking between a private and public Certificate Authority, assess security implications. A private CA offers complete control over certificate management, issuance, renewal, and revocation.

This autonomy significantly enhances security, especially when paired with a hardware security module (HSM) to protect private keys. HSMs provide robust cryptographic operations and secure key storage.

Conversely, public CAs undergo external audits and comply with strict security standards. While this ensures a certain level of security, it relinquishes direct control over the certificate management process. Therefore, it’s imperative to carefully evaluate the security advantages and trade-offs associated with both options.

In addition to certificate management control and external audits, other security considerations include the scalability and resilience of the CA infrastructure.

A private CA may offer greater flexibility since it operates within a controlled environment. At the same time, public certificate authorities often handle a larger volume of certificate requests and must maintain reliable systems for uninterrupted service.

Cost Analysis

Becoming a public Certificate Authority is substantially pricier than setting up a private CA. Public CAs need costly audits and compliance certifications like WebTrust or ETSI to ensure secure infrastructure, involving hefty fees paid to audit firms and regulatory bodies. These requirements add significant upfront expenses.

Public CAs must also invest heavily in infrastructure to handle high certificate issuance and validation requests. Think about building secure data centers and employing staff to manage and monitor operations, resulting in ongoing operational expenses, including electricity, cooling, bandwidth, and personnel costs.

Additionally, public CAs must meet strict liability and insurance requirements to protect against potential legal claims, secure comprehensive insurance coverage, and allocate resources for legal counsel and dispute resolution.

Lastly, public CAs must invest in marketing and brand-building to establish trust in a saturated market dominated by a few renowned players like Sectigo and DigiCert.

In contrast, private certificate authorities are suitable for organizations with varying scales of certificate issuance requirements, whether they need a few certificates for internal purposes or thousands for a large intranet.

The main advantage is the ability to customize the CA infrastructure and policies to align with the specific security and operational needs without the burden of extensive audits and compliance certifications.

How to Become a Trusted / Public Certificate Authority?

Becoming a trusted Certificate Authority is a herculean effort that demands significant time, resources, and finances. You have numerous conditions to fulfill, initially and continuously, to establish and maintain trust. For instance, you must meet platform-specific prerequisites and follow the audit rules to comply with legal requirements. But that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Even if you create a publicly trusted CA, entering an established market will prove even more complicated. Just a handful of commercial CAs issue trusted certificates globally, boasting decades of experience and solid reputations within the industry.

Moreover, one of them does it for free. For instance, DigiCert, Sectigo, and IdenTrust (Let’s Encrypt) are among the prominent public CAs, commanding substantial market shares as per data from

Considering the immense entry checklist and competitive landscape, setting a public CA remains impractical for most businesses. But let’s examine the process further to emphasize the difficulties you’ll face if you follow this path.

  • Meeting Platform-Specific Requirements: Your root and intermediate certificates must be included in trust stores across various platforms to gain public trust. Each platform, like Microsoft, Apple, Chromium Project (Google Chrome), and Mozilla, has its own certificate store with exhaustive conditions and policies.
  • Compliance with Industry Standards: You must adhere to industry standards like the CA/Browser Forum Baseline Requirements. These benchmarks outline the rules for SSL/TLS management, code signing, and network security.
  • Extensive Audits: Compliance with programs like WebTrust Principles and Criteria and the CA/B Forum Baseline Requirements requires thorough audits. Auditors assess CAs based on principles financial, security, and operational principles.
  • Sizable Investment: Establishing a public CA will drain your resources for secure storage devices and IT infrastructure. Add the staffing for roles like security experts, various training programs, and ongoing compliance reviews to the mixer, and the costs of managing such a venture rise dramatically.
  • Distribution Efforts: Distributing your root certificates to all relevant devices and platforms can take years unless you opt for cross-signing with existing CAs, though it’s becoming less common.

For most companies, the effort and resources required to become a publicly trusted CA outweigh the benefits. Purchasing certificates from established CAs is far easier and more efficient.

How to Create Your Own / Private Certificate Authority?

Setting up a private CA is so much quicker and hassle-free that such a decision is a no-brainer for most organizations.

With a private CA, you only need to distribute your root CA to devices within your internal network. Forget about one-size-fits-all solutions! Private CAs allow you to craft custom certificate profiles and policies tailored to your unique security. Now, there are a couple of ways you can go about this, so let’s break it down.

First, you can go the DIY route and set up an internal CA server within your organization. You’ll be handling everything from scratch, which can be a bit of a challenge, but if you’ve got the skills and resources, why not give it a shot?

Alternatively, you could take the easier path and opt for a third-party solution like managed PKI or PKI-as-a-service. This way, you’ll outsource the heavy lifting to experts. It might cost you a bit more, but it could be worth it if you’re short on time or expertise.

Regardless of which route you choose, there’s one crucial step you can’t afford to skip: installing your root certificates on all your endpoint devices. These certificates are the backbone of your CA. Without them, your network won’t trust any certificates you issue. So, configure them promptly.

How to Set Up a Private CA on Your Own?

  1. Establish the IT Infrastructure: Laying solid foundations for your private CA operations will ensure smooth and secure certificate issuance. It’s all about doing the basics and setting up a scalable and robust IT infrastructure that supports your Private CA server. This step includes selecting appropriate hardware, such as servers and security components. The CA server should be dedicated solely to handling PKI tasks and ideally placed in a secure, isolated environment.
  2. Define Certificate Policies & Procedures: Developing a comprehensive Certificate Policy & Practice statement will secure certificate issuance and management. This document outlines the processes, technologies, and entities authorized to create certificates. It also specifies the use cases for certificates and keys and assigns responsibilities for different tasks within the CA.
  3. Generate Root CA Key and Certificate: You’ll need to generate the root CA key and certificate. Following best practices, the root CA certificate signs intermediate CA certificates. Once you create the root CA, you should take the server offline to enhance security.
  4. Safeguard the Cryptographic Keys: Protecting cryptographic keys is paramount to prevent unauthorized access or compromise. Hardware Security Modules offer tamper-resistant key storage and are commonly used by Public CAs and internal CA setups. HSMs ensure that cryptographic keys are securely stored and accessible only to authorized personnel.
  5. Deploy Root CA Certificates Across Network Devices: Distributing the root CA certificate to all devices on the network is necessary for seamless certificate validation. While manual distribution may suffice for smaller environments, it becomes impractical for larger enterprises with thousands of devices across multiple locations. Automated solutions or third-party tools can streamline the distribution process and ensure consistency across the network.
  6. Building Custom Integrations for PKI Management: Once the infrastructure is in place, building custom integrations is necessary to manage the lifecycle of digital certificates effectively. Leveraging tools like the Microsoft CA (Active Directory Certificate Services) API can simplify internal PKI management. However, this requires expertise and resources to develop and maintain custom integrations tailored to your needs.

Tools to Help You Create Your Own CA

  1. OpenSSL: This is a widely used open-source toolkit for implementing the TLS protocols. It includes tools for generating private keys, the CSR (Certificate Signing Request), and managing certificates, making it a popular choice for organizations of all sizes.
  2. Easy-RSA: This is a set of scripts built on top of OpenSSL, designed to simplify the creation and management of CA keys and certificates. It provides a straightforward way to generate keys and certificates for various purposes.
  3. Active Directory Certificate Services (AD CS): A comprehensive solution for setting up a private CA within a Windows Server environment. AD CS is a Microsoft feature that can be installed on Windows Server operating systems, and it provides a robust platform for managing certificates and keys within an Active Directory (AD) environment.

Before selecting a tool, consider its ease of use, documentation availability, community support, and compatibility with your existing infrastructure.

Private CA Management with Third-Party MPKI Providers

Opting for a managed PKI (MPKI) provider can streamline the process and ease the burdens of internal management. Third-party MPKI providers specialize in facilitating the setup and maintenance of private CAs, offering a range of benefits that simplify the entire process.

  • Expert Guidance and Support: Avoid the hassle of recruiting and training internal PKI experts. With a third-party MPKI provider, you get a team of skilled professionals well-versed in PKI management. From initial setup to ongoing maintenance, security operations, and compliance, these experts handle everything, ensuring your private CA operates smoothly and securely.
  • Centralized Certificate Management: Gone are the days of navigating complex certificate management processes. Third-party MPKI providers offer centralized, user-friendly dashboards for easy certificate lifecycle management. With everything you need in a single interface, you gain visibility and control over certificates without the headache of multiple systems.
  • Pre-Defined Certificate Policies: Creating certificate policies from scratch can be daunting. Fortunately, MPKI providers take care of the difficult work, so you don’t have to. Their pre-defined certificate policies reduce the risk of unscheduled downtime and outages, ensuring your private CA operates according to industry best practices.
  • Cost-Efficiency and Convenience: Depending on the size of your organization and network, internal management of a private CA may require considerable investment in software and IT infrastructure. Choosing a managed PKI solution could be cheaper in the long run. The proven and reliable software of an MPKI provider comes with excellent support and quiet work in the background, allowing you to focus on other priorities.

Bottom Line

We’ve answered the “how to become a certificate authority” question. Now, it’s your turn to decide what kind of CA to establish. And, considering the huge investments and compliance requirements for public CAs, the obvious choice is a private certificate authority.

This article provides an extensive overview of what it takes to set up your own CA. Follow our guidelines as a starting point and adjust them according to your budget and particular security needs. Your most important decision will be between building your own private CA or outsourcing it to a third party. Ask your IT department or security specialists to assess your internal capabilities and help you pick the most efficient option.

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