How to Use Let's Encrypt with WebFaction

August 13, 2017

HTTPS or HTTP over Transport Layer Security (TLS), HTTP over SSL, and HTTP Secure encrypts the traffic between the client browser and the server hosting the website. This encryption provides data integrity and privacy. Browser manufacturers, such a Google, are increasingly providing warnings to computer users that the site they are visiting is not secure. Any input mechanism on a web page, be it a comment form, search box, or credit card entry form, will be marked as insecure in the near future if the site isn't using HTTPS.

Until the advent of Let's Encrypt creating certificates for a web site could be costly and time consuming. Let's Encrypt is a free, automated, and open Certificate Authority.

I have wanted to switch my web sites, and those I help to support, to HTTPS for some time, and two weekends ago I took the plunge and updated Zanshin.net. I describe how I did that below.

This process, while relatively straight forward, does require comfort with the Linux command line, ready access to an SFTP client, and a WebFacton hosted web site. Each hosting environment has it's own quirks; please consult your host's documentation regarding HTTPS. As always, backup your site(s) before making significant changes. I managed to cause several hours of downtime to my site, your mileage may vary.

Resources

I made use of the following resources:

Getting Setup

I started by making a list of all my WebFaction websites. In the case of this site, there are a total of 8 subdomains. Let's Encrypt does let you create SAN certificates, which would in theory allow me to have one certificate for zanshin.net and all its subdomains. The documentation says that they all have to have the same web root folder. In my case each subdomain, other than the www one, are in their own unique folders under ~/webapps. Therefore I opted to create separate certificates for each subdomain. In some cases, as with my Cello site, the subdomain is a wholly separate site from the parent, and not functional subdomain like www. or mail..

Keeping Score

I used a Google Spreadsheet to list all the websites, with columns to keep track of the steps I would need to take for each. The steps as I have them are:

ACME Command Line Tool

I used the acme.sh command line tool to create my certificates. Here are the steps I used to install it in the root of my account at WebFaction:

mkdir -p $HOME/src
cd $HOME/src
git clone 'https://github.com/Neilpang/acme.sh.git'
cd ./acme.sh
./acme.sh --install

With my checklist in hand, and the acme.sh script installed, I was ready to begin.

Step One

Using the websites page on my.webfaction.com I created a second entry for zanshin.net and each of its subdomains. For example, my cello site has an entry in the websites list of cello. I create a new website called cello_ssl that points to the same domain as cello: cello.zanshin.net, and serves the same static application. The new _ssl entry uses the HTTPS protocol.

Step Two

Next I ran the acme.sh command for each domain/subdomain in my list. The command format looks like this:

acme.sh --issue -d example.com -d www.example.com -w ~/webapps/example

The -d flag specifies a domain or subdomain. The -w flag indicates the web root for the site. Running acme.sh --help reveals all the options available.

Once the command finished running, the output will tell you where the newly created certificates are located. By default that is in a new folder under the .acme.sh directory that was created when you installed the tool. The folder is named for the first -d name passed to the command. There will be several files in this folder, three of which are needed for the next step. They are:

The first is the certificate, the second the private key, and the third is the intermediates bundle.

Step Three

The WebFaction SSL Certificates Upload certificate panel doesn't provide any way to copy the certificates from your WebFaction account. So I used my SFTP client to copy them to my personal computer. This had the added benefit of making a second copy of the files. Once they are copied you are ready to upload them.

Step Four

On the Domains/Websites | SSL Certificates page I filled in the form, providing a unique name for the certificate (I used same names I had used for the website), and selecting the *.cer, *.key, and ca.cer files. Clicking the Upload button completes this process.

Next I switched to the Domains/Websites | Websites page and for the domain or subdomain in question, clicked on the Security column. On the form that expands, I selected the appropriate certificate from the drop down list.

Step Five

In order to redirect people who may have book marked my site, or pages on my site, to the HTTPS version, I added these lines to my site's .htaccess file:

RewriteEngine On
RewriteCond %{HTTP:X-Forwarded-SSL} !on
RewriteRule ^(.*)$ https://%{HTTP_HOST}%{REQUEST_URI} [R=301,L]

With that in place it was time to test the site.

Step Six

Testing proved to be the most time consuming part of this process. Zanshin.net has been my domain since 1996, and I've been using it as a weblog since 1999. There are over 2100 postings, several hundred images, and more links that I care to count. My site has been hosted as a Blogger site, a MoveableType site, using WordPress, using Octopress, and now using Jekyll. Link formats have undergone a couple major revisions - resulting in a massive .htaccess file with some 1300 redirect rules.

Using Google Chrome, and specifically the Console found under Developer Tools, proved to be invaluable. I never would have discovered the final insecure links otherwise.

Using find and sed I was able to update all my image links to be secure. Various incarnations of this command:

find _posts/ -type f -print0 | xargs -0 sed -i '' -e 's#http://zanshin.net/images#https://zanshin.net/images#g'

allowed me to update most of the links. I did have to make some changes by hand, as some of the insecure links were individual and not easily found by regex patterns in sed.

The hardest problem to solve, and one that took the longest time, was finding and updating a small handful of image links hosted by Amazon. Once those were corrected, my site finally showed the green Secure in Chrome and a padlock in Safari.

Summary

My site has been running under HTTPS for over a week now and everything appears to be working fine. I still need to tackle a couple of WordPress sites that are hosted on WebFaction and, depending on how different that process is, I may update this posting with more details. For now, I am very happy with my secure site.

Author's profile picture

Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Twitter.