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Signer system design

This document describes the system design of the CAcert signer software. The document describes the integration as well as technical design decisions.


The signer is used to handle X.509 certificate and OpenPGP public key signing, X.509 certificate revocation and CRL handling. The signer receives commands via a serial link.

C4 Context diagram of the Signer showing the interaction with the surrounding systems described in the sections below


WebDB is the system running the user facing WebDB application. The Signer client that is part of the WebDB system, polls certificate and public key signing as well as certificate revocation request information from the WebDB database periodically. The Signer client takes care of fetching CRLs and health information from the Signer server periodically.

The requests are send via a binary protocol (msgpack + COBS) over a serial link.

Note: the database polling may be replaced with an event broker like Redis or NATS in the future.


The Signer system runs the signer software. The system is only reachable via a serial link from the outside. Information coming over that connection is trusted in the sense that requested certificate attributes where checked by the requesting WebDB application.

The Signer Server synchronizes with another Signer via a dedicated internal network link (crossover cable). The synchronization is required to make information related to issued and revoked certificates available on both signers.

Signer components

The Signer server is structured into several components with clear responsibilities.

C4 Component diagram showing the components of the signer described in the sections below.

The Singer server is implemented in Go, configured via YAML and running as a standalone process.

The serial link handler handles all communication over the serial link. It reads raw bytes and writes raw bytes, it handles the serial link and takes care of connection and configuration.

The raw bytes are framed using Consistent Overhead Byte Stuffing (COBS).

Frame data consists of msgpack formatted protocol messages and a CRC32 code to ensure integrity. Broken frames are rejected with an error frame.

Used libraries:

Protocol handler

The protocol handler receives msgpack information from the serial link handler and sends msgpack information to the serial link handler.

The protocol handler inspects incoming msgpack messages and dispatches the parsed payload to the appropriate command handler. The result from the command handler is serialized back to a msgpack message and sent to the serial link handler.

Used library:

TODO: the protocol message have to be described in more detail

X.509 signing handler

The X.509 signing handler takes care of X.509 certificate signing. It needs to support certificate profiles. The profiles decide which attributes from the request are used/accepted, which is private key is used and which extensions are set in the resulting certificate.

Actual signing is performed by the HSM access component. Signed certificate information is stored in the Certificate repository.

X.509 revocation handler

The X.509 revocation handler takes care of X.509 certificate revocation. It expects an issuer DN and serial number and supports an optional revocation reason. The revocation handler marks the corresponding certificate as revoked in the Certificate repository.

Note: CRLs are not generated immediately

X.509 CRL handler

The X.509 CRL handler takes care of generating certificate revocation lists. The handler expects an issuer DN, checks for non-expired, revoked certificates in the Certificate repository and generates a CRL.

The HSM access component is used to sign the CRL.

TODO: Clarify whether the CRL should contain expired certificates within a configurable grace period (see RFCs and potential other reference material for guidance)

TODO: Do we need specific CRLs for specific certificate profiles (i.e. only for server certificates)?

OpenPGP signing handler

The OpenPGP signing handler takes care of OpenPGP key signing.

Actual signing is performed by the HSM access component. Signed OpenPGP key information is stored in the Certificate repository.

Used library:

Health check handler

The Health check handler takes care of providing signer health information to the signer client. The health check data contains:

  • accessibility and consistency information of the Certificate repository
  • expiry information for the signing certificates
  • health information for the HSM
  • version information
  • current time of the signer

HSM access

The HSM access component provides signing capabilities backed by HSMs (hardware security modules). It uses the PKCS#11 protocol to access the HSM hardware or SoftHSM.

Used libraries:

Certificate repository

The certificate repository stores information about issued and revoked X.509 certificates as well as signed OpenPGP keys.

TODO: define the data format for the certificate repository

Used library:

Synchronization handler

The synchronization handler is used to synchronize state (signing, revocation and CRL issuing information) between signers. The handler acts as a producer and consumer for synchronization messages. The message transport should use a lightweight existing middleware like NATS.

The synchronization handler may require support for replaying messages when a signer comes back after a service interruption or when a new signer is set up.

TODO: specify the synchronization protocol in much more detail