Force SSL for your site with Varnish and Nginx


For those of you who depend on Varnish to offer robust caching and scaling potential to your web stack, hearing about Google’s prioritization (albeit arguably small, for now) of sites that force SSL may cause pause in how to implement.

Varnish currently doesn’t have the ability to handle SSL certificates and encrypt requests as such. It may never actually have this ability because its focus is to cache content and it does a very good job I might add.

So if Varnish can’t handle the SSL traffic directly, how would you go about implementing this with Nginx?

Well, nginx has the ability to proxy traffic. This is one of the many reasons why some admins choose to pair Varnish with Nginx. Nginx can do reverse proxying and header manipulation out of the box without custom modules or configuration. Combine that with the lightweight production tested scalability of Nginx over Apache and the reasons are simple. We’re not interested in that debate here, just a simple implementation.

Nginx Configuration

With Nginx, you will need to add an SSL listener to handle the ssl traffic. You then assign your certificate. The actual traffic is then proxied to the (already set up) non-https listener (varnish).

The one thing to note before going further is the second last line of the configuration. That is important because it allows you to avoid an infinite redirect loop of a request proxying to varnish, varnish redirecting non-ssl to ssl and back to nginx for a proxy. You’ll notice that pretty quickly because your site will ultimately go down 🙁

What nginx is doing is defining a custom HTTP header and assigning a value of “https” to it :

So the rest of the nginx configuration can remain the same (the configuration that varnish ultimately forwards requests in order to cache).


What you’re going to need in your varnish configuration is a minor adjustment :

What the above snippet is doing is simply checking if the header “X-Forwarded-Proto” (that nginx just set) exists and if the value equals (case insensitive) to “https”. If that is not present or matches , it sets a redirect to force the SSL connection which is handled by the nginx ssl proxy configuration above. Its also important to note that we are not just doing a clean break redirect, we are still appending the originating request URI in order to make it a smooth transition and potentially not break any previously ranked links/urls.

The last thing to note is the error 750 handler that handles the redirect in varnish :

You can see that were using a 302 temporary redirect instead of a permanent 301 redirect. This is your decision though browsers tend to be stubborn in their own internal caching of 301 redirects so 302 is good for testing.

After restarting varnish and nginx you should be able to quickly confirm that no non-SSL traffic is allowed anymore. You can not only enjoy the (marginal) SEO “bump” but you are also contributing to the HTTPS Everywhere movement which is an important cause!

Testing for weak SSL ciphers for security audits

During security audits, such as a PCI-DSS compliance audit, it is very commonplace to test the cipher mechanism that a website / server uses and supports to ensure that weak / outdated cipher methods are not used.

Weak ciphers allow for an increased risk in encryption compromise, man-in-the-middle attacks and other related attack vectors.

Due to historic export restrictions of high grade cryptography, legacy and new web servers are often able and configured to handle weak cryptographic options.

Even if high grade ciphers are normally used and installed, some server misconfiguration could be used to force the use of a weaker cipher to gain access to the supposed secure communication channel.

Testing SSL / TLS cipher specifications and requirements for site

The http clear-text protocol is normally secured via an SSL or TLS tunnel, resulting in https traffic. In addition to providing encryption of data in transit, https allows the identification of servers (and, optionally, of clients) by means of digital certificates.

Historically, there have been limitations set in place by the U.S. government to allow cryptosystems to be exported only for key sizes of, at most, 40 bits, a key length which could be broken and would allow the decryption of communications. Since then, cryptographic export regulations have been relaxed (though some constraints still hold); however, it is important to check the SSL configuration being used to avoid putting in place cryptographic support which could be easily defeated. SSL-based services should not offer the possibility to choose weak ciphers.

Testing for weak ciphers : examples

In order to detect possible support of weak ciphers, the ports associated to SSL/TLS wrapped services must be identified. These typically include port 443, which is the standard https port; however, this may change because a) https services may be configured to run on non-standard ports, and b) there may be additional SSL/TLS wrapped services related to the web application. In general, a service discovery is required to identify such ports.

The nmap scanner, via the “–sV” scan option, is able to identify SSL services. Vulnerability Scanners, in addition to performing service discovery, may include checks against weak ciphers (for example, the Nessus scanner has the capability of checking SSL services on arbitrary ports, and will report weak ciphers).

Example 1. SSL service recognition via nmap.

Example 2. Identifying weak ciphers with Nessus. The following is an anonymized excerpt of a report generated by the Nessus scanner, corresponding to the identification of a server certificate allowing weak ciphers

Example 3. Manually audit weak SSL cipher levels with OpenSSL. The following will attempt to connect to with SSLv2.

These tests usually provide a very in-depth and reliable method for ensuring weak and vulnerable ciphers are not used in order to comply with said audits.

Personally, I prefer the nessus audit scans. Usually the default “free” plugins are enough to complete these types of one-off audits. There are, however, commercial nessus plugins designed just for PCI-DSS compliance audits and are available for purchase from the nessus site.