SSL client authentication


SSL client authentication is a mechanism allowing applications to identify certificates. This allows your application to make sure that the client is an authorized certificate, but makes no claim about whether the user can be trusted. This can be combined with a password based authentication to attain greater security.

The server only needs to retain the certificate serial number and the certificate issuer to authenticate the certificate. Together, they can be used to uniquely identify a certicate.

As Ranch allows the same protocol code to be used for both SSL and non-SSL transports, you need to make sure you are in an SSL context before attempting to perform an SSL client authentication. This can be done by checking the return value of Transport:name/0.

Obtaining client certificates

You can obtain client certificates from various sources. You can generate them yourself, or you can use a service like which allows you to generate client and server certificates for free.

Following are the steps you need to take to create a account, generate a certificate and install it in your favorite browser.

  • Open in your favorite browser

  • Root Certificate link: install both certificates

  • Join (Register an account)

  • Verify your account (check your email inbox!)

  • Log in

  • Client Certificates: New

  • Follow instructions to create the certificate

  • Install the certificate in your browser

You can optionally save the certificate for later use, for example to extract the IssuerID information as will be detailed later on.

Transport configuration

The SSL transport does not request a client certificate by default. You need to specify the {verify, verify_peer} option when starting the listener to enable this behavior.

Configure a listener for SSL authentication
{ok, _} = ranch:start_listener(my_ssl, 100,
        ranch_ssl, [
                {port, SSLPort},
                {certfile, PathToCertfile},
                {cacertfile, PathToCACertfile},
                {verify, verify_peer}
        my_protocol, []

In this example we set the required port and certfile, but also the cacertfile containing the root certificate, and the option to request the client certificate.

If you enable the {verify, verify_peer} option and the client does not have a client certificate configured for your domain, then no certificate will be sent. This allows you to use SSL for more than just authenticated clients.


To authenticate users, you must first save the certificate information required. If you have your users' certificate files, you can simply load the certificate and retrieve the information directly.

Retrieve the issuer ID from a certificate
certfile_to_issuer_id(Filename) ->
        {ok, Data} = file:read_file(Filename),
        [{'Certificate', Cert, not_encrypted}] = public_key:pem_decode(Data),
        {ok, IssuerID} = public_key:pkix_issuer_id(Cert, self),

The IssuerID variable contains both the certificate serial number and the certificate issuer stored in a tuple, so this value alone can be used to uniquely identify the user certificate. You can save this value in a database, a configuration file or any other place where an Erlang term can be stored and retrieved.

To retrieve the IssuerID from a running connection, you need to first retrieve the client certificate and then extract this information from it. Ranch does not provide a function to retrieve the client certificate. Instead you can use the ssl:peercert/1 function. Once you have the certificate, you can again use the public_key:pkix_issuer_id/2 to extract the IssuerID value.

The following function returns the IssuerID or false if no client certificate was found. This snippet is intended to be used from your protocol code.

Retrieve the issuer ID from the certificate for the current connection
socket_to_issuer_id(Socket) ->
        case ssl:peercert(Socket) of
                {error, no_peercert} ->
                {ok, Cert} ->
                        {ok, IssuerID} = public_key:pkix_issuer_id(Cert, self),

You then only need to match the IssuerID value to authenticate the user.

Ranch 1.3 User Guide


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