Automatic Certificate creation in Private Public Key Infrastructure (PKI)

Over the past one week ago, I try to spike and setup private PKI in my lab environment mostly for ingress and gateway testing. There is a reason why I don’t go with public one like Let’s Encrypt because you need to buy a domain and host in ACME supported DNS01 challenge like AWS route53 and the pricing is too high.

Currently, I can resolve this problem by integrating multiple platform like:

  • step-ca, online certificate authority for secure, automated certificate management.
  • CoreDNS, as private DNS server.
  • acme-dns, A simplified DNS server with a RESTful HTTP API to provide a simple way to automate ACME DNS01 challenges.

With this three platform (all running in Docker), I can have a private certificate generated by private root CA automatically via ACME DNS01 challenge with private domain all is done via certbot command like:

certbot certonly --manual --manual-auth-hook --preferred-challenges dns --debug-challenges -d --server

For Kubernetes, I use cert-manager, a native Kubernetes certificate management controller that support ACME protocol.


below picture is the flow generate private certificate with private domain via certbot. In this example I will use:

  • Certificate requested for
  • acme-dns resolve *


  1. User register with acme-dns, acme-dns will expose an limited random domain (example:
  2. acme-dns will return a JSON response contain a domain that exposed, username and password for API call to populate the domain with TXT record later.
  3. User create a CNAME record in CoreDNS based on limited random domain that acme-dns give to the user. 	IN CNAME
  4. Certbot request an certificate to the certificate authority step-ca (example: step-ca will request the certbot to prove that user is authorized with HTTP01 or DNS01 challenge.
  5. Certbot will call acme-dns and populate the TXT record in with key that step-ca give.
  6. Certbot will create a private key, create a CSR and send to certificate authority step-ca to sign the CSR.
  7. step-ca will verify the authority by contacting DNS server to resolve (CoreDNS in this case).
  8. CoreDNS will resolve to CoreDNS will forward this request to acme-dns via subzone delegation concept.
  9. acme-dns resolve the DNS request and give the key in the TXT record
  10. CoreDNS will send the result to step-ca.
  11. step-ca verify the authority of the domain, sign the CSR and send the cert to the certbot.

Setup CoreDNS

I use CoreDNS as the main DNS server in my lab. The configuration is pretty easy for me. You only need to provide the Corefile and Zone file. Also some modification in the docker entrypoint.

It is pretty simple right?

Setup step-ca

Configuring step-ca probably is the most difficult one in this spike. In the official documentation running step-ca in docker, the first thing is we need to bootstrap the directory used by step-ca and run step ca init to create the whole infrastructure certificate like root CA and intermediate CA.

There is a problem in my side because I already have self signed root CA created and mounted in all my VM. step ca init can support --root and --key flag for exisiting root CA. Follow this step to bootstrap initial directory:

  • Create a directory in your machine where you want to run the step-ca via docker (this will be mounted to the container)
  • for simplicity, copy your root certificate and root private key (this is not recomended, please check this document on how the step ca init actually works)
  • Run initial docker container to bootstrap the directory
 docker run -it -v $(pwd):/home/step smallstep/step-ca sh 
  • Run the init command
 step ca init --root=root-cert.pem --key=root-key.pem 
  • Note your password and root fingerprint, also create a password file in the secrets directory
 echo <your password here> > /home/step/secrets/password 
  • Enable ACME support
 step ca provisioner add acme --type ACME 
  • Exit the initial container for bootstraping

After that, we can run with docker-compose:

Try to curl the step-ca



Setup acme-dns

We use acme-dns to store the key in TXT record automatically with API call. CoreDNS will translate the ACME magic domain into domain in the acme-dns (check the flow). acme-dns API will listen in So you need to create a certificate from the root CA and mount that to the acme-dns container.

When its finish, you can try to register a domain through the API (you must limit this if acme-dns access publicly)

curl -X POST -H "Content-Type: application/json" 

It will return a JSON response

    "username": "963b23b3-bba7-4adb-ab2f-6fc6b03e8b97",
    "password": "Isc2jFjmKF3Y7KPB5f33Y-R_1om1J5qMpwpbxw8_",
    "fulldomain": "",
    "subdomain": "173a5dcb-4777-498d-9abd-87d84bb4fe54",
    "allowfrom": []

certbot with acme-dns-certbot-hook or cert-manager support acme-dns for automatically register the TXT via API in the domain that acme-dns created (in this cases We need to change the structure of the JSON file and use the file in the certbot hook or cert-manager:

    "": {
        "username": "963b23b3-bba7-4adb-ab2f-6fc6b03e8b97",
        "password": "Isc2jFjmKF3Y7KPB5f33Y-R_1om1J5qMpwpbxw8_",
        "fulldomain": "",
        "subdomain": "173a5dcb-4777-498d-9abd-87d84bb4fe54",
        "allowfrom": []
Written on September 19, 2020