Deploying Life Meets Code - Web Server

Adam Kammeyer
Sep 30, 2017

The first part of this series dealt with setting up and securing the operating system for our server. Now we will take a look at getting Apache up-and-running with TLS.

Note: During my initial setup, I used Vultr's Firewall to only allow traffic from my IP address. That way I could work without the fear of information disclosure.


Apache itself is simple to install. We'll include mod_ssl to allow support for https.

$ sudo yum install httpd mod_ssl
$ sudo systemctl start httpd

You should now be able to visit http://YOUR_SERVER_IP in your browser and see Apache's default welcome page. If you do not, verify you enabled the appropriate ports in firewalld. You can also execute sudo apachectl status or sudo journalctl -xe for more information about what may have happened. Once you're able to see the welcome page in the browser, you can set Apache to start on boot.

$ sudo systemctl enable httpd


Even though I prefer using CentOS for my servers, I do like the config structure that Ubuntu/Debian-based systems use for Apache. Replicating it is not hard and gives a little more flexibility in turning things on and off.

First, make two directories to hold our personal configuration changes. conf-available will hold the config files we create. conf-enabled will contain symlinks to the files in conf-available that we want Apache to actually know about.

$ sudo mkdir /etc/httpd/conf-available
$ sudo mkdir /etc/httpd/conf-enabled

Next, make sure that the SELinux contexts match the other conf directories. By default, the new directories should have a type context of httpd_config_t.

$ ls -lZ /etc/httpd

drwxr-xr-x. root root system_u:object_r:httpd_config_t:s0 conf
drwxr-xr-x. root root unconfined_u:object_r:httpd_config_t:s0 conf-available
drwxr-xr-x. root root system_u:object_r:httpd_config_t:s0 conf.d
drwxr-xr-x. root root unconfined_u:object_r:httpd_config_t:s0 conf-enabled
drwxr-xr-x. root root system_u:object_r:httpd_config_t:s0 conf.modules.d
lrwxrwxrwx. root root system_u:object_r:httpd_log_t:s0 logs -> ../../var/log/httpd
lrwxrwxrwx. root root system_u:object_r:httpd_modules_t:s0 modules -> ../../usr/lib64/httpd/modules
lrwxrwxrwx. root root system_u:object_r:httpd_config_t:s0 run -> /run/httpd

If you need to make a change, the semanage tool is quite handy. You'll need to install the policycoreutils-python package to obtain it.

$ sudo yum install policycoreutils-python

If you need to change it, semanage-fcontext will help with that.

$ sudo semanage fcontext --add --type httpd_config_t "/etc/httpd/conf-(.*)?"
$ sudo restorecon -Rv /etc/httpd

I have a single file that contains directives to improve the security of my production servers. It's something I've built up over time at work as new recommendations come in from network scan reports.

$ sudo vi /etc/httpd/conf-available/security.conf

TraceEnable off
ServerSignature off
ServerTokens Prod
FileETag None
Header edit Set-Cookie ^(.*)$ $1;HttpOnly;Secure

Now create the symlink.

$ sudo ln -s /etc/httpd/conf-available/security.conf /etc/httpd/conf-enabled/security.conf

For security purposes, the welcome.conf file should be removed from production servers.

$ sudo rm /etc/httpd/conf.d/welcome.conf

I also make two quick initial changes to the main Apache config file.

$ sudo vim /etc/httpd/conf/httpd.conf   

Look for the ServerName directive and change it's value to localhost. This allows us to control all the sites configured on the server using VirtualHost files instead of having a domain attached to the default config.

# /etc/htttpd/conf/httpd.conf
ServerName locahost

Also, look for <Directory /var/www/html>. This is the default site config. Update the Options line to remove the ability to display directory indexes.

<Directory /var/www/html>
    Options -Indexes +FollowSymLinks

At the end of the file, add an IncludeOptional directive to import the config files we enable.

IncludeOptional conf-enabled/*.conf

Verify that the basic config tests pass and restart Apache.

$ sudo apachectl configtest
Syntax OK
$ sudo apachectl restart


At this point, we'll need a domain resolving to the server. If you have already updated the DNS of your domain to resolve to the IP address if your server, you're ready to go. If not, you should get that started since propagation could take some time. How you do this will vary based on your registrar and DNS provider. For now, a simple hosts file entry will get us up-and-going.

On your local machine, open your hosts file in a text editor. For Linux and Mac it's located at /etc/hosts. For Windows it's C:\Windows\System32\drivers\etc\hosts.

$ sudo vim /etc/hosts

Add a line that tells your PC where to resolve the domain to. Replace SERVER_IP_ADDRESS with the actual IP address of your server. Replace with your actual domain name.


We'll follow a similar directory structure for the domains as we did the configs. One for available sites and one for enabled sites.

$ sudo mkdir /etc/httpd/sites-available
$ sudo mkdir /etc/httpd/sites-enabled

Verify the SELinux contexts for the new directories like we did for the conf-* directories.

Open the httpd.conf file and add a line to include the sites-enabled directory.

$ sudo vim /etc/httpd/conf/httpd.conf
IncludeOptional sites-enabled/*.conf

Create a file in the sites-available directory for your domain.

sudo vim /etc/httpd/sites-available/

<VirtualHost *:80>
    DocumentRoot /var/www/

    ErrorLog /var/log/httpd/
    CustomLog /var/log/httpd/ combined

In the above VirtualHost, we've added the primary domain as the ServerName, added the www. version as a ServerAlias and specified the DocumentRoot where the site will live. You can update values to match your domain.

We also specified domain-specific directories for the server logs. This is helpful for tracking down errors on your site if you're hosting multiple domains on a single server. Apache won't create the folders under /var/log for us so we'll manually create them.

$ sudo mkdir /var/log/httpd/

Now we can create the symlink to our site config file for Apache to read.

$ sudo ln -s /etc/httpd/sites-available/ /etc/httpd/sites-enabled/

We also need to create the directory we used as the DocumentRoot for our VirtualHost.

$ sudo mkdir /var/www/

Verify that Apace likes everything we've done by running the config test again and restart Apache.

$ sudo apachectl configtest
Syntax OK
$ sudo apachectl restart

Create a basic index.html page in your domain's DocumentRoot to verify you can access the site from the browser.

$ vim /var/www/

<h1>Welcome to</h1>


With the existence of Let's Encrypt, there is no longer an excuse to not have your site secured. Let's Encrypt offers free 90-day TLS/SSL certificates that can be set up for auto-renewal. When getting started, I followed the excellent How to Secure Apache with Let's Encrypt on CentOS 7 post by Erika Heidi. Her post covers some stuff we've already done, but is worth the read. She also links out to additional resources for learning about TLS security. I'm going to summarize the steps we need to complete.

Note: In order to set up Let's Encrypt, you will need your domain to resolve to the server.

Install the Let's Encrypt certbot tool for managing certificates. You can include all the domains and aliases you specified in the sites Apache config file.

$ sudo yum install python2-certbot-apache
$ sudo certbot --apache -d -d

The certbot wizard is pretty straight forward. Below is the output from the wizard at the time of this post. I do recommend choosing the redirect option to only allow traffic over https.

Saving debug log to /var/log/letsencrypt/letsencrypt.log
Plugins selected: Authenticator apache, Installer apache
Enter email address (used for urgent renewal and security notices) (Enter 'c' to
cancel): ****
Starting new HTTPS connection (1):

Please read the Terms of Service at You must agree
in order to register with the ACME server at
(A)gree/(C)ancel: A

Would you be willing to share your email address with the Electronic Frontier
Foundation, a founding partner of the Let's Encrypt project and the non-profit
organization that develops Certbot? We'd like to send you email about EFF and
our work to encrypt the web, protect its users and defend digital rights.
(Y)es/(N)o: N
Obtaining a new certificate
Performing the following challenges:
tls-sni-01 challenge for
tls-sni-01 challenge for
Waiting for verification...
Cleaning up challenges
Created an SSL vhost at /etc/httpd/sites-enabled/
Deploying Certificate for to VirtualHost /etc/httpd/sites-enabled/
Deploying Certificate for to VirtualHost /etc/httpd/sites-enabled/

Please choose whether or not to redirect HTTP traffic to HTTPS, removing HTTP access.
1: No redirect - Make no further changes to the webserver configuration.
2: Redirect - Make all requests redirect to secure HTTPS access. Choose this for
new sites, or if you're confident your site works on HTTPS. You can undo this
change by editing your web server's configuration.
Select the appropriate number [1-2] then [enter] (press 'c' to cancel): 2
Redirecting vhost in /etc/httpd/sites-enabled/ to ssl vhost in /etc/httpd/sites-enabled/

Congratulations! You have successfully enabled and

You should test your configuration at:

certbot doesn't know about our directory structure, so it drops the new TLS VirtualHost file into the sites-enabled folder. We can quickly move the file to keep things consistent.

$ sudo mv /etc/httpd/sites-enabled/ /etc/httpd/sites-available/
$ sudo ln -s /etc/httpd/sites-available/ /etc/httpd/sites-enabled/

Let's Encrypt automatically updated our original VirtualHost file to redirect to the https site. If you want to operate your domain without the www., you can tweak the file further.

$ sudo vim /etc/httpd/sites-available/

#Replace %{SERVER_NAME} with your actual domain name
RewriteRule ^{REQUEST_URI} [END,QSA,R=permanent]

You'll also need to update the https VirtualHost that Let's Encrypt generated.

$ sudo vim /etc/httpd/sites-available/

#Add these lines inside the VirtualHost
RewriteEngine On
RewriteCond %{HTTP_HOST} ^www\.(.*)$ [NC]
RewriteRule ^(.*)$ https://%1/$1 [R=301,L]

In my opinion, the default TLS configuration produced by Let's Encrypt is a little on the weak side, but that's understandable since they have to cater to a large audience. The default config only rates a C on Qualys SSL Labs. If you're not a TLS settings expert (which I am not), you can use the Mozilla SSL Configuration Generator to produce a configuration to your liking.

If the server is only going to have one site or you know all your sites will share the same TLS configuration, you can update the main Let's Encrypt files. Otherwise, you can make changes at the VirtualHost level. For this example I'll be updating the main Let's Encrypt settings file to match a Modern configuration from the Mozilla SSL Configuration Generator.

$ sudo cp -a /etc/letsencrypt/options-ssl-apache.conf /etc/letsencrypt/options-ssl-apache.bak
$ sudo vim /etc/letsencrypt/options-ssl-apache.conf

SSLEngine on

# Intermediate configuration, tweak to your needs
SSLProtocol             all -SSLv3 -TLSv1 -TLSv1.1
SSLHonorCipherOrder     on
SSLCompression          off

SSLOptions +StrictRequire

# HSTS (mod_headers is required) (15768000 seconds = 6 months)
Header always set Strict-Transport-Security "max-age=15768000"

One last piece of maintenance is to remove the default SSL VirtualHost that was installed with mod_ssl. We won't need the default one since certbot creates new SSL VirtualHosts for our domains.

$ sudo cp -a /etc/httpd/conf.d/ssl.conf /etc/httpd/conf.d/ssl.bak
$ sudo vim /etc/httpd/conf.d/ssl.conf

Delete everything from <VirtualHost _default_:443> through </VirtualHost> and save the file.

Once again, verify that Apache likes the config changes we made and restart the web server.

$ sudo apachectl configtest
$ sudo apachectl restart

You should now be able to visit your site under https. One last step you should take after getting TLS up-and-running is to verify your setting are correct. The easiest way to do that is using SSL Labs. Simply enter your domain name and it will give you a letter grade for your configuration. At the time this was posted, the above config should result in an A+.

Now we need to set up the renewal for our certificates. We can do this easily by adding a line to the crontab.

$ sudo crontab -e

#Check certificate renewals every Monday at 2:30am
30 2 * * 1 /usr/bin/certbot renew >> /var/log/le-renew.log

This line checks on Mondays at 2:30 a.m. for any possible renewals and writes out the results to a log file. Even though the certificates last 90 days, it is good to check frequently to catch any issues with the renewals before they expire.

Now we have our web server set up. The next step will be to deploy our site.