Many organizations are prioritizing projects to tighten security around their applications and services after the slew of breaches that made headlines over the past few years. The use of SSL/TLS has proliferated, and remains an important component to any software deployment. Unsurprisingly this is true for databases, and the PostgreSQL community is continuing to augment its alraedy-reliable security for the world’s most powerful open-source database.
Recently, our team has come across a few customers seeking to implement SSL on their Postgres databases, with a common question that the sought to answer: how come Postgres doesn’t reject clients connecting with
sslmode anything less strict than
Understandably, these customers seek to make sure their database connections are watertight and free of any vulnerabilities. However, there are some parts of the Postgres SSL/TLS implementation that they weren’t understanding, and while the whole topic of SSL/TLS and certifcates can be confusing and intimidating, I hope to provide an explanation here for anyone else who hasn’t had the courage to ask.
Since there have been hundreds of articles explaining how SSL/TLS works (and a few on how to enable SSL in Postgres), I won’t go into that here. However, to start off, we need to know there are 3 parts of an SSL/TLS implementation:
- The server (your Postgres database)
- The client (the
psqlprogram, your Java app that uses JDBC, your Django app, etc.)
- The SSL/TLS certificates being passed between the server and client
Once you’ve set
ssl = on in your
postgresql.conf, Postgres will use the certificate and key that have been generated to send encrypted data between itself and its clients. Note that this has nothing to do with who gets to connect to the database. That’s handled by
pg_hba.conf. So long as
ssl = on is set, Postgres can (and may or may not, depending on other factors) send/receive encrypted data for a given session.
What Happens on the Server’s Side
ssl = on in
postgresql.conf, Postgres allows for both SSL and non-SSL connections, depending on what the clients request. However, some organizations would like Postgres not to allow any non-SSL connections whatsover; this is an understandable requirement, especially for sensitive environments. To accomplish this, non-SSL connections need to be rejected, and this is done at the authentication phase in
When a connection comes in, Postgres will authenticate that connection by scanning through
pg_hba.conf to verify that it is allowed to make a connection. If the connection type, database, user, and IP address all check out, Postgres will then use the specified authentication method (final column) to verify that the human or program that opened the connection has the correct credentials to issue queries and extract data (remember, Postgres will only perform authentication on the first-matched line in
pg_hba.conf, which basically means, for example, you won’t be given a chance to enter a password if your
cert authentication failed).
The first column in
pg_hba.conf indicates the method of connection, which can be one of 4 values:
local– Local connections coming from the Unix-domain socket
host– TCP/IP connections with or without requesting SSL encryption
hostssl– TCP/IP connections requesting SSL encryption only (Postgres will skip these lines for incoming connections not requesting SSL encryption)
hostnossl– TCP/IP connections NOT requesting SSL encryption only (Postgres will skip these lines for incoming connections requesting SSL encryption)
One way to enforce SSL encryption for all TCP/IP-based sessions is by adding a
hostnossl all all all reject line at the top of your
pg_hba.conf file. This will basically reject all non-SSL connections from all IP addresses, thereby enforcing that all non-local sessions to use SSL encryption.
Using Encrypted Sessions
psql and most PostgreSQL clients will attempt to connect to PostgreSQL with an SSL connection, and if it encounters some resistance, it will fall back to a non-SSL connection. The order can be reversed or altered by changing the
sslmode parameter when creating the connection. The default value for
prefer which, as explained above, attempts SSL first, then attempts non-SSL. Using a value like
require will attempt only an SSL connection, and will not subsequently attempt with non-SSL – it is up to the developer or deployer to set
sslmode in accordance with the organization’s requirements.
To demonstrate, I have configured a server with a
hostnossl all all all reject at the top of
hostssl all all all password after it (note that the Linux environment variable
PGSSLMODE is the way to set
sslmode for the driver making the connection):
[postgres@my-server data]# cat pg_hba.conf hostnossl all all all reject hostssl all all all password [postgres@my-server data]# PGPASSWORD=testpassword PGSSLMODE=disable psql -h 127.0.0.1 -c "select * from pg_stat_ssl where pid = pg_backend_pid" psql.bin: FATAL: pg_hba.conf rejects connection for host "127.0.0.1", user "postgres", database "postgres", SSL off [postgres@my-server data]# PGPASSWORD=testpassword PGSSLMODE=allow psql -h 127.0.0.1 -c "select * from pg_stat_ssl where pid = pg_backend_pid" pid | ssl | version | cipher | bits | compression | clientdn -------+-----+---------+-----------------------------+------+-------------+---------- 11585 | t | TLSv1.2 | ECDHE-RSA-AES256-GCM-SHA384 | 256 | f | (1 row) [postgres@my-server data]# PGPASSWORD=testpassword PGSSLMODE=prefer psql -h 127.0.0.1 -c "select * from pg_stat_ssl where pid = pg_backend_pid" pid | ssl | version | cipher | bits | compression | clientdn -------+-----+---------+-----------------------------+------+-------------+---------- 11599 | t | TLSv1.2 | ECDHE-RSA-AES256-GCM-SHA384 | 256 | f | (1 row) [postgres@my-server data]# PGPASSWORD=testpassword PGSSLMODE=require psql -h 127.0.0.1 -c "select * from pg_stat_ssl where pid = pg_backend_pid" pid | ssl | version | cipher | bits | compression | clientdn -------+-----+---------+-----------------------------+------+-------------+---------- 11606 | t | TLSv1.2 | ECDHE-RSA-AES256-GCM-SHA384 | 256 | f | (1 row) [postgres@my-server data]# PGPASSWORD=testpassword PGSSLMODE=verify-ca psql -h 127.0.0.1 -c "select * from pg_stat_ssl where pid = pg_backend_pid" psql.bin: postgres certificate file "/home/postgres/.postgresql/root.crt" does not exist Either provide the file or change sslmode to disable server certificate verification. [postgres@my-server data]# PGPASSWORD=testpassword PGSSLMODE=verify-full psql -h 127.0.0.1 -c "select * from pg_stat_ssl where pid = pg_backend_pid" psql.bin: postgres certificate file "/home/postgres/.postgresql/root.crt" does not exist Either provide the file or change sslmode to disable server certificate verification.
As you can see, when
sslmode is set to
disabled, it is rejected because it attempts to connect to the database without SSL encryption, but all other modes will either make a second attempt with SSL encryption turned on, or make an SSL connection on the first try.
Verifying the Server
The above output leads us to our customers’ question: What about
verify-full? Why are only these rejected while the other
sslmode values allowed? Is Postgres allow non-SSL connections? Is there a bug in Postgres? No, these messages aren’t indicating that Postgres is rejecting the client, but rather that the client is rejecting the server. Bear in mind that with the exception of
sslmode=disable, all connections above are attempting to connect to the database with SSL encryption turned on. The data flowing on the wire is encrypted. Sniffers will be unable to read the data on the wire without the certificate.
What then, is the purpose of
verify-full? They are for the client to verify the server. The Postgres database authenticates the clients based on their authentication method (password, certificate, LDAP credentials, etc.), but clients like your
psql program or your Django app cannot verify if the database they have connected to is indeed the database that it claims to be. After all, what if someone is spoofing a DNS name and masquerading to be a Postgres database when it really is some malicious program stealing credentials? That’s what
verify-full are for.
Recall that when a client (i.e., you) initiates an SSL connection with a server, the server will issue you a certificate with which to encrypt/decrypt all the communication between you two. You can choose to trust that the server giving you the certificate is indeed the server you wanted to connected to, but if you want to be extra sure, you can take the certificate and verify that it was signed by a third-party Certificate Authority (CA), which requires a good sum of money (enough to prevent me from getting one to demo in this article). If you as the client verify the certificate to be signed by a CA, you can be almost 100% certain that the server you are talking to is not an impostor (unless, of course, the DBA or sysadmin of that server had lost the corresponding keys to some malicious entity).
As demonstrated above, with
hostnossl ... reject at the top of your
pg_hba.conf, you’ll be enforcing all sessions to be opened with SSL encryption enabled. If you are unsure, wondering whether the data sent across the wire is actually encrypted, and you don’t have the wherewithal to spin up a packet sniffer, take a look at
pg_stat_ssl and see if the
ssl column is true. A Postgres database will give its SSL certificate to anyone who asks for it (just like any website will give you its SSL certificate when you visit), but it is up to the client to decide whether to trust that certificate or not (just like your browser will warn you if the website you’re visiting is using a self-signed certificate, forcing you to click through with “I know what I’m doing, proceed to website”). Whether the certificate is self-signed or verified by a CA, any
disabled can create an SSL-encrypted session into the Postgres database, thereby keeping your data on the wire safe from sniffers.
Stay safe out there!