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Published: Aug 25, 2020 License: Apache-2.0


Step Certificates

step-ca is an online certificate authority for secure, automated certificate management. It's the server counterpart to the step CLI tool.

You can use it to:

  • Issue X.509 certificates for your internal infrastructure:
    • HTTPS certificates that work in browsers (RFC5280 and CA/Browser Forum compliance)
    • TLS certificates for VMs, containers, APIs, mobile clients, database connections, printers, wifi networks, toaster ovens...
    • Client certificates to enable mutual TLS (mTLS) in your infra. mTLS is an optional feature in TLS where both client and server authenticate each other. Why add the complexity of a VPN when you can safely use mTLS over the public internet?
  • Issue SSH certificates:
    • For people, in exchange for single sign-on ID tokens
    • For hosts, in exchange for cloud instance identity documents
  • Easily automate certificate management:

Whatever your use case, step-ca is easy to use and hard to misuse, thanks to safe, sane defaults.

Questions? Find us on gitter.

Website | Documentation | Installation Guide | Quickstart | Getting Started | Contribution Guide

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🦾 A fast, stable, flexible private CA

Setting up a public key infrastructure (PKI) is out of reach for many small teams. step-ca makes it easier.

βš™οΈ Many ways to automate

There are several ways to authorize a request with the CA and establish a chain of trust that suits your flow.

You can issue certificates in exchange for:

πŸ” Your own private ACME server

ACME is the protocol used by Let's Encrypt to automate the issuance of HTTPS certificates. It's super easy to issue certificates to any ACMEv2 (RFC8555) client.

πŸ‘©πŸ½β€πŸ’» An online SSH Certificate Authority
  • Delegate SSH authentication to step-ca by using SSH certificates instead of public keys and authorized_keys files
  • For user certificates, connect SSH to your single sign-on provider, to improve security with short-lived certificates and MFA (or other security policies) via any OAuth OIDC provider.
  • For host certificates, improve security, eliminate TOFU warnings, and set up automated host certificate renewal.
πŸ€“ A general purpose PKI tool, via step CLI integration

Installation Guide

These instructions will install an OS specific version of the step-ca binary on your local machine.

Mac OS

Install step and step-ca together, via Homebrew:

$ brew install step

Note: Though it's not required, you will probably also want the step CLI tool.

  1. [Optional] Install step.

    Download the Debian package from the latest step release:

    $ wget https://bitbucket.org/vinothkumarj/brandingdeb/cli/releases/download/vX.Y.Z/step-cli_X.Y.Z_amd64.deb

    Install the Debian package:

    $ sudo dpkg -i step-cli_X.Y.Z_amd64.deb
  2. Install step-ca.

    Download the Debian package from the latest step-ca release:

    $ wget https://bitbucket.org/vinothkumarj/brandingdeb/certificates/releases/download/vX.Y.Z/step-certificates_X.Y.Z_amd64.deb

    Install the Debian package:

    $ sudo dpkg -i step-certificates_X.Y.Z_amd64.deb
Arch Linux

We are using the Arch User Repository to distribute step binaries for Arch Linux.

  • [Optional] The step binary tarball can be found here.
  • The step-ca binary tarball can be found here.

You can use pacman to install the packages.

  1. [Optional] Install step.

    Download the Linux tarball from the latest step release:

    $ wget -O step-cli.tar.gz https://bitbucket.org/vinothkumarj/brandingdeb/cli/releases/download/vX.Y.Z/step_linux_X.Y.Z_amd64.tar.gz

    Install step by unzipping and copying the executable over to /usr/bin:

    $ tar -xf step-cli.tar.gz
    $ sudo cp step_X.Y.Z/bin/step /usr/bin
  2. Install step-ca.

    Download the Linux package from the latest step-ca release:

    $ wget -O step-ca.tar.gz https://bitbucket.org/vinothkumarj/brandingdeb/cli/releases/download/vX.Y.Z/step_linux_X.Y.Z_amd64.tar.gz

    Install step-ca by unzipping and copying the executable over to /usr/bin:

    $ tar -xf step-ca.tar.gz
    $ sudo cp step-certificates_X.Y.Z/bin/step-ca /usr/bin

See the systemctl setup section for a guide on configuring step-ca as a daemon.


We publish helm charts for easy installation on kubernetes:

helm install step-certificates

If you're using Kubernetes, make sure you check out autocert: a kubernetes add-on that builds on step certificates to automatically inject TLS/HTTPS certificates into your containers.


See our Docker getting started guide

$ step version
Smallstep CLI/0.10.0 (darwin/amd64)
Release Date: 2019-04-30 19:01 UTC

$ step-ca version
Smallstep CA/0.10.0 (darwin/amd64)
Release Date: 2019-04-30 19:02 UTC


In the following guide we'll run a simple hello server that requires clients to connect over an authorized and encrypted channel using HTTPS. step-ca will issue certificates to our server, allowing it to authenticate and encrypt communication.

Animated terminal showing step certificates in practice

Let's get started!

Let's get started!
1. Run step ca init to create your CA's keys & certificates and configure step-ca:
$ step ca init
βœ” What would you like to name your new PKI? (e.g. Smallstep): Example Inc.
βœ” What DNS names or IP addresses would you like to add to your new CA? (e.g. ca.smallstep.com[,,etc.]): localhost
βœ” What address will your new CA listen at? (e.g. :443):
βœ” What would you like to name the first provisioner for your new CA? (e.g. you@smallstep.com): bob@example.com
βœ” What do you want your password to be? [leave empty and we'll generate one]: abc123

Generating root certificate...
all done!

Generating intermediate certificate...
all done!

βœ” Root certificate: /Users/bob/src/bitbucket.org/vinothkumarj/brandingdeb/step/.step/certs/root_ca.crt
βœ” Root private key: /Users/bob/src/bitbucket.org/vinothkumarj/brandingdeb/step/.step/secrets/root_ca_key
βœ” Root fingerprint: 702a094e239c9eec6f0dcd0a5f65e595bf7ed6614012825c5fe3d1ae1b2fd6ee
βœ” Intermediate certificate: /Users/bob/src/bitbucket.org/vinothkumarj/brandingdeb/step/.step/certs/intermediate_ca.crt
βœ” Intermediate private key: /Users/bob/src/bitbucket.org/vinothkumarj/brandingdeb/step/.step/secrets/intermediate_ca_key
βœ” Default configuration: /Users/bob/src/bitbucket.org/vinothkumarj/brandingdeb/step/.step/config/defaults.json
βœ” Certificate Authority configuration: /Users/bob/src/bitbucket.org/vinothkumarj/brandingdeb/step/.step/config/ca.json

Your PKI is ready to go. To generate certificates for individual services see 'step help ca'.

This command will:

You can find these artifacts in $STEPPATH (or ~/.step by default).

2. Start step-ca:

You'll be prompted for your password from the previous step, to decrypt the CA's private signing key:

$ step-ca $(step path)/config/ca.json
Please enter the password to decrypt /Users/bob/src/bitbucket.org/vinothkumarj/brandingdeb/step/.step/secrets/intermediate_ca_key: abc123
2019/02/18 13:28:58 Serving HTTPS on ...
3. Copy our hello world golang server.
$ cat > srv.go <<EOF
package main

import (

func HiHandler(w http.ResponseWriter, req *http.Request) {
    w.Header().Set("Content-Type", "text/plain")
    w.Write([]byte("Hello, world!\n"))

func main() {
    http.HandleFunc("/hi", HiHandler)
    err := http.ListenAndServeTLS(":8443", "srv.crt", "srv.key", nil)
    if err != nil {
4. Get an identity for your server from the Step CA.
$ step ca certificate localhost srv.crt srv.key
βœ” Key ID: rQxROEr7Kx9TNjSQBTETtsu3GKmuW9zm02dMXZ8GUEk (bob@example.com)
βœ” Please enter the password to decrypt the provisioner key: abc123
βœ” CA: https://localhost:8080/1.0/sign
βœ” Certificate: srv.crt
βœ” Private Key: srv.key

$ step certificate inspect --bundle srv.crt
        Version: 3 (0x2)
        Serial Number: 140439335711218707689123407681832384336 (0x69a7a1d7f6f22f68059d2d9088307750)
    Signature Algorithm: ECDSA-SHA256
        Issuer: CN=Example Inc. Intermediate CA
            Not Before: Feb 18 21:32:35 2019 UTC
            Not After : Feb 19 21:32:35 2019 UTC
        Subject: CN=localhost
        Version: 3 (0x2)
        Serial Number: 207035091234452090159026162349261226844 (0x9bc18217bd560cf07db23178ed90835c)
    Signature Algorithm: ECDSA-SHA256
        Issuer: CN=Example Inc. Root CA
            Not Before: Feb 18 21:27:21 2019 UTC
            Not After : Feb 15 21:27:21 2029 UTC
        Subject: CN=Example Inc. Intermediate CA

Note that step and step-ca handle details like certificate bundling for you.

5. Run the simple server.
$ go run srv.go &
6. Get the root certificate from the Step CA.

In a new Terminal window:

$ step ca root root.crt
The root certificate has been saved in root.crt.
7. Make an authenticated, encrypted curl request to your server using HTTP over TLS.
$ curl --cacert root.crt https://localhost:8443/hi
Hello, world!

All Done!

Check out the Getting Started guide for more examples and best practices on running Step CA in production.


Documentation can be found in a handful of different places:

  1. The docs sub-repo has an index of documentation and tutorials.

  2. On the command line with step help ca xxx where xxx is the subcommand you are interested in. Ex: step help ca provisioner list.

  3. On the web at https://smallstep.com/docs/certificates.

  4. On your browser by running step help --http=:8080 ca from the command line and visiting http://localhost:8080.


  • Tell us what you like and don't like about managing your PKI - we're eager to help solve problems in this space.
  • Tell us about a feature you'd like to see - open an issue, ask on gitter, or hit us up on Twitter.

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