SSL/TLS Server Mode

SSL/TLS Server Mode


Fossil has supported client-side SSL/TLS since 2010. This means that commands like "fossil sync" could use SSL/TLS when contacting a server. But on the server side, commands like "fossil server" operated in clear-text only. To implement an encrypted server, you had to put Fossil behind a web server or reverse proxy that handled the SSL/TLS decryption/encryption and passed cleartext down to Fossil.

Beginning in late December 2021, this has been fixed. Commands like

now all handle server-mode SSL/TLS encryption natively. It is now possible to run a secure Fossil server without having to put Fossil behind an encrypting web server or reverse proxy. Hence, it is now possible to stand up a complete Fossil project website on an inexpensive VPS with no added software other than Fossil itself and something like certbot for obtaining a CA-signed certificate.


To put any of the Fossil server commands into SSL/TLS mode, simply add the "--cert" command-line option.

fossil ui --cert unsafe-builtin

The --cert option is what tells Fossil to use TLS encryption. Normally, the argument to --cert is the name of a file containing the certificate (the "fullchain.pem" file) for the website. In this example, the magic name "unsafe-builtin" is used, which causes Fossil to use a self-signed cert rather than a real cert obtained from a Certificate Authority or "CA". As the name implies, this self-signed cert is not secure and should only be used for testing. Your web-browser will complain bitterly and will refuse to display the pages using the "unsafe-builtin" cert. Firefox will allow you to click an "I know the risks" button and continue. Other web browsers will stubornly refuse to display the page, under the theory that weak encryption is worse than no encryption at all. Continue reading to see how to solve this.

About Certs

Certs are based on public-key or asymmetric cryptography. To create a cert, you first create a new "key pair" consisting of a public key and a private key. The public key can be freely shared with the world, but you must keep the private key secret. If anyone gains access to your private key then he will be able to impersonate you and break into your system.

To obtain a cert, you send your public key and the name of the domain you want to protect to a certificate authority. The CA then digitally signs the combination of those two things using their own private key and sends the signed combination back to you. The CA's digital signature of your public key and domain name is the cert.

SSL/TLS servers need two things in order to prove their identity to clients:

  1. The cert that was signed by a CA
  2. The private key

The SSL/TLS servers send the cert to each client, so that the client can verify it. But the private key is kept strictly private and is never shared with anyone.

How To Tell Fossil About Your Cert And Private Key

If you do not have your own cert and private key, you can ask Fossil to use "unsafe-builtin", which is a self-signed cert that is built into Fossil. This is wildly insecure, since the private key is not really private - it is in plain sight in the Fossil source tree for anybody to read. Never add the private key that is built into Fossil to your OS's trust store as doing so will severely compromise your computer. The built-in cert is only useful for testing. If you want actual security, you will need to come up with your own private key and cert.

Fossil wants to read certs and public keys in the PEM format. PEM is a pure ASCII text format. The private key consists of text like this:

*base-64 encoding of the private key*  

Similarly, a PEM-encoded cert will look like this:

*base-64 encoding of the certificate*  

In both formats, text outside of the delimiters is ignored. That means that if you have a PEM-formatted private key and a separate PEM-formatted certificate, you can concatenate the two into a single file and the individual components will still be easily accessible.

If you have a single file that holds both your private key and your cert, you can hand it off to the "fossil server" command using the --cert option. Like this:

fossil server --port 443 --cert mycert.pem /home/www/myproject.fossil

The command above is sufficient to run a fully-encrypted web site for the "myproject.fossil" Fossil repository. This command must be run as root, since it wants to listen on TCP port 443, and only root processes are allowed to do that. This is safe, however, since before reading any information off of the wire, Fossil will put itself inside a chroot jail at /home/www and drop all root privileges.

Keeping The Cert And Private Key In Separate Files

If you do not want to combine your cert and private key into a single big PEM file, you can keep them separate using the --pkey option to Fossil.

fossil server --port 443 --cert fullchain.pem --pkey privkey.pem /home/www/myproject.fossil

The ACME Protocol

The ACME Protocol is used to prove to a CA that you control a website. CAs require proof that you control a domain before they will issue a cert for that domain. The usual means of dealing with ACME is to run the separate certbot tool. Here is, in a nutshell, what certbot will do to obtain your cert:

  1. Certbot sends your "signing request" (the document that contains your public key and your domain name) to the CA.

  2. After receiving the signing request, the CA needs to verify that you control the domain of the cert. To do this (or, one common way of doing this, at least) the CA sends a secret token back to certbot through a secure backchannel, and instructs certbot to make that token accessible on the (unencrypted, ordinary "http:") web site for the domain in a particular file under the ".well-known" subdirectory.

  3. Certbot puts the token where the CA requested it, then notifies the CA that it is there.

  4. The CA accesses the token to confirm that you do indeed control the website. It then creates the cert and sends it back to certbot.

  5. Certbot stores your cert and deletes the ".well-known" token.

In order for all of this to happen, certbot needs to be able to create a subdirectory named ".well-known", within a directory you specify, and then populate that subdirectory with a token file of some kind. To support this, the "fossil server" and "fossil http" commands have the --acme option. When the --acme option is specified and Fossil sees a URL where the path begins with ".well-known", then instead of doing its normal processing, it looks for a file with that pathname and returns it to the client. If the "server" or "http" command is referencing a single Fossil repository, then the ".well-known" sub-directory should be in the same directory as the repository file. If the "server" or "http" command are run against a directory full of Fossil repositories, then the ".well-known" sub-directory should be in that top-level directory.

Thus, to set up a project website, you should first run Fossil in ordinary unencrypted HTTP mode like this:

fossil server --port 80 --acme /home/www/myproject.fossil

Then you create your public/private key pair and run certbot, giving it a --webroot of /home/www. Certbot will create the sub-directory named "/home/www/.well-known" and put token files there, which the CA will verify. Then certbot will store your new cert in a particular file.

Once certbot has obtained your cert, then you can concatenate that cert with your private key and run Fossil in SSL/TLS mode as shown above.