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Blog Post Aug 29, 2023

TLS Server Certificates: What They Are and How They Secure Web Transactions

Today's businesses must protect sensitive information to gain customer trust and comply with data privacy regulations. A Secure Sockets Layer/Transport Layer Security (SSL/TLS) certificate provides encryption capabilities for ensuring secure data transmission between your customers' web browsers and your website server.

Table of Contents

This article shows you the ins and outs of TLS server certificates:

  • What are server certificates?
  • The importance of TLS server certificates
  • How to implement a TLS server certificate
  • TLS server certificate management

What are server certificates?

Server certificates are crucial for securing online communications, authenticating digital entities, and ensuring the privacy of a website or server. These digital certificates verify a server's identity and enable encrypted communications between a client (e.g., a web browser) and a server through secure connections using SSL/TLS protocols.

A server certificate typically includes the following information:

  • The primary domain name (common name) of the certificate holder (e.g., www.
  • The issuer's information, which is typically a trusted Certificate Authority (CA)
  • The validity period of the certificate, including the start and expiration dates
  • A public key associated with the server and the issuing CA's signature
  • Extensions containing additional information, such as Subject Alternative Names (SANs)
  • A fingerprint for confirming the certificate's integrity

When a user accesses a website via Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS), the server presents its certificate to the browser during the TLS/SSL handshake. The browser verifies the certificate's authenticity and initiates an encrypted communication session if it's valid.

What do server certificates do?

Server certificates enable the use of SSL/TLS encryption protocols to protect data privacy as users share sensitive information such as login credentials, credit card details, or personal data with a website. It allows browsers to verify the server's identity to prevent impersonation, phishing attempts, and other malicious activities. They also enable cryptographic hash functions and digital signatures to help protect data integrity.

The different types of server certificates

You can use various types of server certificates to meet different security and operational requirements. Here's an overview:

  • Domain Validation (DV) Certificates: Provide domain ownership verification and basic encryption to protect data privacy and transmission between a client and the server.
  • Organization Validation (OV) Certificates: Offer a higher level of identity validation than DV and display the organization's verified details in the certificate to enhance trust.
  • Extended Validation (EV) Certificates: Provide the highest level of security through robust encryption and validation, especially for ecommerce, financial, and government websites.
  • Wildcard Certificates: Streamline the process of securing multiple subdomains or cloud-based services under a single primary domain.
  • Multi-Domain Certificates: Secure multiple domain names and subdomains with a single certificate to simplify certificate management for organizations hosting different websites on the same server.

Web server certificates vs. client certificates: What are the differences?

TLS server certificates secure and authenticate a website server while enabling encrypted communication between the web server and users' browsers. On the other hand, a client certificate helps authenticate individual users (or clients) accessing a secure website or service. It offers an extra layer of authentication beyond the standard username/password method.

These two types of certificates can work together to provide mutual authentication and improve the security of applications where user authentication is critical. Users can trust that they're communicating securely with the intended website, while the server can verify the identity of its clients to minimize the risks of unauthorized access.

The importance of TLS server certificates

The importance of TLS server certificates

Do servers need TLS/SSL certificates? The short answer is a definitive "yes." They help organizations ensure data privacy and integrity in today's fast-changing threat landscape by protecting data exchanged between clients and the server. In particular, they're indispensable for businesses that collect sensitive customer information, such as ecommerce companies.

Secure web transactions

TLS server certificates make ecommerce transactions more secure by ensuring that data such as customer information and payment details are transmitted securely to protect against unauthorized access, interception, and tampering. The encryption and security protocols help businesses comply with security standards such as the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) and lower the risk of fraudulent activities and chargebacks.

Gain customer trust

By displaying a valid server certificate, HTTPS in your web address, and a padlock icon on the address bar, you demonstrate your commitment to protecting customer data. The trust symbols help you project an image of professionalism and reliability. This, in turn, attracts new customers and gives them peace of mind to complete their transactions. Moreover, satisfied and confident customers are more likely to return to a website they trust to make repeat purchases.

How to implement a TLS server certificate

Here are the steps to obtain and install a TLS server certificate:

  1. Choose a reputable CA.
  2. Generate a Certificate Signing Request (CSR) on your web server.
  3. Submit the CSR to the CA and follow its instructions to verify domain ownership.
  4. Select the certification type and validation level.
  5. Complete certificate issuance and receive the certificate file from the CA.
  6. Install the certificate by associating the private key generated during CSR creation with the certificate.
  7. Configure the webserver to use HTTPS for secure communications.
  8. Perform thorough testing to ensure proper functioning.

TLS server certificate management

As the number of web transactions increases dramatically, enterprises must manage thousands of TLS server certificates. Keeping track of expiration and renewal dates using manual processes has become extremely challenging, if not impossible. Yet, expired certificates can pose significant risks to your operations, including application outages, service disruptions, hidden intrusion, exfiltration, server impersonation, and disclosure of sensitive data.

Organizations must overcome challenges caused by the broad distribution of certificates, the complexity of certification management, and the multiple parties involved. For example, some administrators may not be aware of the risks posed by expired certificates, while poorly defined policies, roles, and procedures can hamper effective certification management.

How can you avoid outages caused by expired TLS server certificates cost-effectively?

Implement a certificate management solution

Leadership must implement and prioritize a TLS server certificate program across the enterprise and set organization-specific milestones to guide the progress. These may include defining policies, roles, and responsibilities, establishing an inventory of server certificates, identifying potential risks, and implementing automated implementation and renewal processes.

In particular, centralizing and automating certificate management is critical for ensuring nothing falls through the cracks as the number of certificates increases and the validity period shortens. Consolidating certificate lifecycle management—from purchasing the appropriate certificates to renewing them in a timely manner—can help you streamline workflows and strengthen your security posture.

As a trusted CA, Sectigo can support your digital certificate management from end to end. We offer a complete range of TLS server certificates to meet various business requirements. You can also use our secure web servers and load balancers solution to automate TLS certificate lifecycle management and secure every server across your environment.

Learn more about the Sectigo Certificate Manager and see how we can help you manage the lifecycle of all your digital certificates to protect your data, strengthen customer trust, and ensure compliance.

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