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Chapter 5. Configuring applications to use cryptographic hardware through PKCS #11

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Separating parts of your secret information about dedicated cryptographic devices, such as smart cards and cryptographic tokens for end-user authentication and hardware security modules (HSM) for server applications, provides an additional layer of security. In RHEL, support for cryptographic hardware through the PKCS #11 API is consistent across different applications, and the isolation of secrets on cryptographic hardware is not a complicated task.

5.1. Cryptographic hardware support through PKCS #11

Public-Key Cryptography Standard (PKCS) #11 defines an application programming interface (API) to cryptographic devices that hold cryptographic information and perform cryptographic functions.

PKCS #11 introduces the cryptographic token, an object that presents each hardware or software device to applications in a unified manner. Therefore, applications view devices such as smart cards, which are typically used by persons, and hardware security modules, which are typically used by computers, as PKCS #11 cryptographic tokens.

A PKCS #11 token can store various object types including a certificate; a data object; and a public, private, or secret key. These objects are uniquely identifiable through the PKCS #11 Uniform Resource Identifier (URI) scheme.

A PKCS #11 URI is a standard way to identify a specific object in a PKCS #11 module according to the object attributes. This enables you to configure all libraries and applications with the same configuration string in the form of a URI.

RHEL provides the OpenSC PKCS #11 driver for smart cards by default. However, hardware tokens and HSMs can have their own PKCS #11 modules that do not have their counterpart in the system. You can register such PKCS #11 modules with the p11-kit tool, which acts as a wrapper over the registered smart-card drivers in the system.

To make your own PKCS #11 module work on the system, add a new text file to the /etc/pkcs11/modules/ directory

You can add your own PKCS #11 module into the system by creating a new text file in the /etc/pkcs11/modules/ directory. For example, the OpenSC configuration file in p11-kit looks as follows:

$ cat /usr/share/p11-kit/modules/opensc.module

5.2. Using SSH keys stored on a smart card

Red Hat Enterprise Linux enables you to use RSA and ECDSA keys stored on a smart card on OpenSSH clients. Use this procedure to enable authentication using a smart card instead of using a password.


  • On the client side, the opensc package is installed and the pcscd service is running.


  1. List all keys provided by the OpenSC PKCS #11 module including their PKCS #11 URIs and save the output to the file:

    $ ssh-keygen -D pkcs11: >
    $ ssh-keygen -D pkcs11:
    ssh-rsa AAAAB3NzaC1yc2E...KKZMzcQZzx pkcs11:id=%02;object=SIGN%20pubkey;token=SSH%20key;manufacturer=piv_II?module-path=/usr/lib64/pkcs11/
    ecdsa-sha2-nistp256 AAA...J0hkYnnsM= pkcs11:id=%01;object=PIV%20AUTH%20pubkey;token=SSH%20key;manufacturer=piv_II?module-path=/usr/lib64/pkcs11/
  2. To enable authentication using a smart card on a remote server (, transfer the public key to the remote server. Use the ssh-copy-id command with created in the previous step:

    $ ssh-copy-id -f -i
  3. To connect to using the ECDSA key from the output of the ssh-keygen -D command in step 1, you can use just a subset of the URI, which uniquely references your key, for example:

    $ ssh -i "pkcs11:id=%01?module-path=/usr/lib64/pkcs11/"
    Enter PIN for 'SSH key':
    [] $
  4. You can use the same URI string in the ~/.ssh/config file to make the configuration permanent:

    $ cat ~/.ssh/config
    IdentityFile "pkcs11:id=%01?module-path=/usr/lib64/pkcs11/"
    $ ssh
    Enter PIN for 'SSH key':
    [] $

    Because OpenSSH uses the p11-kit-proxy wrapper and the OpenSC PKCS #11 module is registered to PKCS#11 Kit, you can simplify the previous commands:

    $ ssh -i "pkcs11:id=%01"
    Enter PIN for 'SSH key':
    [] $

If you skip the id= part of a PKCS #11 URI, OpenSSH loads all keys that are available in the proxy module. This can reduce the amount of typing required:

$ ssh -i pkcs11:
Enter PIN for 'SSH key':
[] $

Additional resources

5.3. Configuring applications for authentication with certificates on smart cards

Authentication by using smart cards in applications may increase security and simplify automation. You can integrate the Public Key Cryptography Standard (PKCS) #11 URIs into your application by using the following methods:

  • The Firefox web browser automatically loads the p11-kit-proxy PKCS #11 module. This means that every supported smart card in the system is automatically detected. For using TLS client authentication, no additional setup is required and keys and certificates from a smart card are automatically used when a server requests them.
  • If your application uses the GnuTLS or NSS library, it already supports PKCS #11 URIs. Also, applications that rely on the OpenSSL library can access cryptographic hardware modules, including smart cards, through the pkcs11 engine provided provided by the openssl-pkcs11 package.
  • Applications that require working with private keys on smart cards and that do not use NSS, GnuTLS, nor OpenSSL can use the p11-kit API directly to work with cryptographic hardware modules, including smart cards, rather than using the PKCS #11 API of specific PKCS #11 modules.
  • With the the wget network downloader, you can specify PKCS #11 URIs instead of paths to locally stored private keys and certificates. This might simplify creation of scripts for tasks that require safely stored private keys and certificates. For example:

    $ wget --private-key 'pkcs11:token=softhsm;id=%01;type=private?pin-value=111111' --certificate 'pkcs11:token=softhsm;id=%01;type=cert'
  • You can also specify PKCS #11 URI when using the curl tool:

    $ curl --key 'pkcs11:token=softhsm;id=%01;type=private?pin-value=111111' --cert 'pkcs11:token=softhsm;id=%01;type=cert'

    Because a PIN is a security measure that controls access to keys stored on a smart card and the configuration file contains the PIN in the plain-text form, consider additional protection to prevent an attacker from reading the PIN. For example, you can use the pin-source attribute and provide a file: URI for reading the PIN from a file. See RFC 7512: PKCS #11 URI Scheme Query Attribute Semantics for more information. Note that using a command path as a value of the pin-source attribute is not supported.

Additional resources

  • curl(1), wget(1), and p11-kit(8) man pages

5.4. Using HSMs protecting private keys in Apache

The Apache HTTP server can work with private keys stored on hardware security modules (HSMs), which helps to prevent the keys' disclosure and man-in-the-middle attacks. Note that this usually requires high-performance HSMs for busy servers.

For secure communication in the form of the HTTPS protocol, the Apache HTTP server (httpd) uses the OpenSSL library. OpenSSL does not support PKCS #11 natively. To use HSMs, you have to install the openssl-pkcs11 package, which provides access to PKCS #11 modules through the engine interface. You can use a PKCS #11 URI instead of a regular file name to specify a server key and a certificate in the /etc/httpd/conf.d/ssl.conf configuration file, for example:

SSLCertificateFile    "pkcs11:id=%01;token=softhsm;type=cert"
SSLCertificateKeyFile "pkcs11:id=%01;token=softhsm;type=private?pin-value=111111"

Install the httpd-manual package to obtain complete documentation for the Apache HTTP Server, including TLS configuration. The directives available in the /etc/httpd/conf.d/ssl.conf configuration file are described in detail in the /usr/share/httpd/manual/mod/mod_ssl.html file.

5.5. Using HSMs protecting private keys in Nginx

The Nginx HTTP server can work with private keys stored on hardware security modules (HSMs), which helps to prevent the keys' disclosure and man-in-the-middle attacks. Note that this usually requires high-performance HSMs for busy servers.

Because Nginx also uses the OpenSSL for cryptographic operations, support for PKCS #11 must go through the openssl-pkcs11 engine. Nginx currently supports only loading private keys from an HSM, and a certificate must be provided separately as a regular file. Modify the ssl_certificate and ssl_certificate_key options in the server section of the /etc/nginx/nginx.conf configuration file:

ssl_certificate     /path/to/cert.pem
ssl_certificate_key "engine:pkcs11:pkcs11:token=softhsm;id=%01;type=private?pin-value=111111";

Note that the engine:pkcs11: prefix is needed for the PKCS #11 URI in the Nginx configuration file. This is because the other pkcs11 prefix refers to the engine name.

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