What is an SSL Server Certificate and How Does It Work?

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An SSL server certificate is just another name for an SSL certificate. While it’s possible to install SSL on a client, the vast majority of the time when you’re referring to SSL/TLS, it’s done in the context of a server.

So, What Does an SSL Certificate Actually Do?

To put it in the simplest terms, an SSL server certificate asserts the identity of the server or the organization running the server and facilitates an HTTPS connection. That’s kind of a high-level description, so let’s bore down a little bit.

When you arrive at a website — we’ll refer to you as the client — your computer is really making a connection with the server hosting the website. And that connection is not a 1:1 connection; rather, it gets routed through dozens of different points on the way to its destination.

Now, typically, any information or data you send to the website — and vice versa — traverses that path in plaintext, meaning it’s easily readable by anyone eavesdropping on any of those dozens of points. This is called an HTTP connection. You may have noticed an “http://” at the beginning of URLs. That’s referring to the protocol that’s used for the connection.

Unfortunately, HTTP was never designed with security in mind. So, as commercial elements and healthcare organizations arrived online, something needed to be done to ensure that all of the sensitive information they’d handle would be secure while it’s in transit between the client and server. This is where SSL/TLS came into the fray. SSL/TLS + HTTP = HTTPS. It’s a secure form of HTTP that encrypts data being transmitted between the two parties.

How Does an SSL Server Certificate Work?

So, let’s go back to the example we started with. You arrive at a website, the website has an SSL/TLS server certificate installed, and the site is using HTTPS. But before the connection can begin, you’re going to need to share an encryption key via an insecure channel. Encryption requires keys to both encrypt and decrypt the information. During an HTTPS connection, the two parties use symmetric keys — keys that can handle both functions — for the actual communication.

Before that can happen, though, you first need to be able to share the key. This occurs with the handshake. The server certificate authenticates the server and confirms that it’s the rightful owner of the associated public/private key pair. These keys are asymmetric, meaning that one encrypts and one decrypts. They’re used to authenticate the certificate to ensure it is valid and trusted — and, in some cases, to pass the symmetric keys.

The SSL server certificate facilitates all of this. It tells the client who the server is, what key to use to complete the handshake, and assists with the key exchange. Bear in mind, the certificate itself is not encrypting anything; it just functions as an identifier and proof of ownership over the encryption keys.

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