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OpenSSL FIPS support

This release of OpenSSL includes a cryptographic module that is intended to be FIPS 140-2 validated. The module is implemented as an OpenSSL provider. A provider is essentially a dynamically loadable module which implements cryptographic algorithms, see the README-PROVIDERS file for further details.

The OpenSSL FIPS provider comes as shared library called fips.so (on Unix) resp. fips.dll (on Windows). The FIPS provider does not get built and installed automatically. To enable it, you need to configure OpenSSL using the enable-fips option.

Installing the FIPS module

If the FIPS provider is enabled, it gets installed automatically during the normal installation process. Simply follow the normal procedure (configure, make, make test, make install) as described in the INSTALL file.

For example, on Unix the final command

$ make install

effectively executes the following install targets

$ make install_sw
$ make install_ssldirs
$ make install_docs
$ make install_fips     # for `enable-fips` only

The install_fips make target can also be invoked explicitly to install the FIPS provider independently, without installing the rest of OpenSSL.

The Installation of the FIPS provider consists of two steps. In the first step, the shared library is copied to its installed location, which by default is

/usr/local/lib/ossl-modules/fips.so                  on Unix, and
C:\Program Files\OpenSSL\lib\ossl-modules\fips.dll   on Windows.

In the second step, the openssl fipsinstall command is executed, which completes the installation by doing the following two things:

  • Runs the FIPS module self tests
  • Generates the so-called FIPS module configuration file containing information about the module such as the self test status, and the module checksum.

The FIPS module must have the self tests run, and the FIPS module config file output generated on every machine that it is to be used on. You must not copy the FIPS module config file output data from one machine to another.

On Unix the openssl fipsinstall command will be invoked as follows by default:

$ openssl fipsinstall -out /usr/local/ssl/fipsmodule.cnf -module /usr/local/lib/ossl-modules/fips.so

If you configured OpenSSL to be installed to a different location, the paths will vary accordingly. In the rare case that you need to install the fipsmodule.cnf to non-standard location, you can execute the openssl fipsinstall command manually.

Using the FIPS Module in applications

There are a number of different ways that OpenSSL can be used in conjunction with the FIPS module. Which is the correct approach to use will depend on your own specific circumstances and what you are attempting to achieve. Note that the old functions FIPS_mode() and FIPS_mode_set() are no longer present so you must remove them from your application if you use them.

Applications written to use the OpenSSL 3.0 FIPS module should not use any legacy APIs or features that avoid the FIPS module. Specifically this includes:

  • Low level cryptographic APIs (use the high level APIs, such as EVP, instead)
  • Engines
  • Any functions that create or modify custom "METHODS" (for example EVP_MD_meth_new, EVP_CIPHER_meth_new, EVP_PKEY_meth_new, RSA_meth_new, EC_KEY_METHOD_new, etc.)

All of the above APIs are deprecated in OpenSSL 3.0 - so a simple rule is to avoid using all deprecated functions.

Making all applications use the FIPS module by default

One simple approach is to cause all applications that are using OpenSSL to only use the FIPS module for cryptographic algorithms by default.

This approach can be done purely via configuration. As long as applications are built and linked against OpenSSL 3.0 and do not override the loading of the default config file or its settings then they can automatically start using the FIPS module without the need for any further code changes.

To do this the default OpenSSL config file will have to be modified. The location of this config file will depend on the platform, and any options that were given during the build process. You can check the location of the config file by running this command:

$ openssl version -d
OPENSSLDIR: "/usr/local/ssl"

Caution: Many Operating Systems install OpenSSL by default. It is a common error to not have the correct version of OpenSSL on your $PATH. Check that you are running an OpenSSL 3.0 version like this:

$ openssl version -v
OpenSSL 3.0.0-dev xx XXX xxxx (Library: OpenSSL 3.0.0-dev xx XXX xxxx)

The OPENSSLDIR value above gives the directory name for where the default config file is stored. So in this case the default config file will be called /usr/local/ssl/openssl.cnf

Edit the config file to add the following lines near the beginning:

openssl_conf = openssl_init

.include /usr/local/ssl/fipsmodule.cnf

[openssl_init]
providers = provider_sect

[provider_sect]
fips = fips_sect
base = base_sect

[base_sect]
activate = 1

Obviously the include file location above should match the name of the FIPS module config file that you installed earlier.

Any applications that use OpenSSL 3.0 and are started after these changes are made will start using only the FIPS module unless those applications take explicit steps to avoid this default behaviour. Note that this configuration also activates the "base" provider. The base provider does not include any cryptographic algorithms (and therefore does not impact the validation status of any cryptographic operations), but does include other supporting algorithms that may be required. It is designed to be used in conjunction with the FIPS module.

This approach has the primary advantage that it is simple, and no code changes are required in applications in order to benefit from the FIPS module. There are some disadvantages to this approach:

  • You may not want all applications to use the FIPS module. It may be the case that some applications should and some should not.
  • If applications take explicit steps to not load the default config file or set different settings then this method will not work for them
  • The algorithms available in the FIPS module are a subset of the algorithms that are available in the default OpenSSL Provider. If those applications attempt to use any algorithms that are not present, then they will fail.
  • Usage of certain deprecated APIs avoids the use of the FIPS module. If any applications use those APIs then the FIPS module will not be used.

Selectively making applications use the FIPS module by default

A variation on the above approach is to do the same thing on an individual application basis. The default OpenSSL config file depends on the compiled in value for OPENSSLDIR as described in the section above. However it is also possible to override the config file to be used via the OPENSSL_CONF environment variable. For example the following on Unix will cause the application to be executed with a non-standard config file location:

$ OPENSSL_CONF=/my/non-default/openssl.cnf myapplication

Using this mechanism you can control which config file is loaded (and hence whether the FIPS module is loaded) on an application by application basis.

This removes the disadvantage listed above that you may not want all applications to use the FIPS module. All the other advantages and disadvantages still apply.

Programmatically loading the FIPS module (default library context)

Applications may choose to load the FIPS provider explicitly rather than relying on config to do this. The config file is still necessary in order to hold the FIPS module config data (such as its self test status and integrity data). But in this case we do not automatically activate the FIPS provider via that config file.

To do things this way configure as per the section "Making all applications use the FIPS module by default" above, but edit the fipsmodule.cnf file to remove or comment out the line which says activate = 1 (note that setting this value to 0 is not sufficient). This means all the required config information will be available to load the FIPS module, but it is not actually automatically loaded when the application starts. The FIPS provider can then be loaded programmatically like this:

#include <openssl/provider.h>

int main(void)
{
    OSSL_PROVIDER *fips;
    OSSL_PROVIDER *base;

    fips = OSSL_PROVIDER_load(NULL, "fips");
    if (fips == NULL) {
        printf("Failed to load FIPS provider\n");
        exit(EXIT_FAILURE);
    }
    base = OSSL_PROVIDER_load(NULL, "base");
    if (base == NULL) {
        OSSL_PROVIDER_unload(fips);
        printf("Failed to load base provider\n");
        exit(EXIT_FAILURE);
    }

    /* Rest of application */

    OSSL_PROVIDER_unload(base);
    OSSL_PROVIDER_unload(fips);
    exit(EXIT_SUCCESS);
}

Note that this should be one of the first things that you do in your application. If any OpenSSL functions get called that require the use of cryptographic functions before this occurs then, if no provider has yet been loaded, then the default provider will be automatically loaded. If you then later explicitly load the FIPS provider then you will have both the FIPS and the default provider loaded at the same time. It is undefined which implementation of an algorithm will be used if multiple implementations are available and you have not explicitly specified via a property query (see below) which one should be used.

Also note that in this example we have additionally loaded the "base" provider. This loads a sub-set of algorithms that are also available in the default provider - specifically non cryptographic ones which may be used in conjunction with the FIPS provider. For example this contains algorithms for encoding and decoding keys. If you decide not to load the default provider then you will usually want to load the base provider instead.

In this example we are using the "default" library context. OpenSSL functions operate within the scope of a library context. If no library context is explicitly specified then the default library context is used. For further details about library contexts see the OSSL_LIB_CTX(3) man page.

Loading the FIPS module at the same time as other providers

It is possible to have the FIPS provider and other providers (such as the default provider) all loaded at the same time into the same library context. You can use a property query string during algorithm fetches to specify which implementation you would like to use.

For example to fetch an implementation of SHA256 which conforms to FIPS standards you can specify the property query fips=yes like this:

EVP_MD *sha256;

sha256 = EVP_MD_fetch(NULL, "SHA2-256", "fips=yes");

If no property query is specified, or more than one implementation matches the property query then it is undefined which implementation of a particular algorithm will be returned.

This example shows an explicit request for an implementation of SHA256 from the default provider:

EVP_MD *sha256;

sha256 = EVP_MD_fetch(NULL, "SHA2-256", "provider=default");

It is also possible to set a default property query string. The following example sets the default property query of "fips=yes" for all fetches within the default library context:

EVP_set_default_properties(NULL, "fips=yes");

If a fetch function has both an explicit property query specified, and a default property query is defined then the two queries are merged together and both apply. The local property query overrides the default properties if the same property name is specified in both.

There are two important built-in properties that you should be aware of:

The "provider" property enables you to specify which provider you want an implementation to be fetched from, e.g. provider=default or provider=fips. All algorithms implemented in a provider have this property set on them.

There is also the fips property. All FIPS algorithms match against the property query fips=yes. There are also some non-cryptographic algorithms available in the default and base providers that also have the fips=yes property defined for them. These are the encoder and decoder algorithms that can (for example) be used to write out a key generated in the FIPS provider to a file. The encoder and decoder algorithms are not in the FIPS module itself but are allowed to be used in conjunction with the FIPS algorithms.

It is possible to specify default properties within a config file. For example the following config file automatically loads the default and fips providers and sets the default property value to be fips=yes. Note that this config file does not load the "base" provider. All supporting algorithms that are in "base" are also in "default", so it is unnecessary in this case:

openssl_conf = openssl_init

.include /usr/local/ssl/fipsmodule.cnf

[openssl_init]
providers = provider_sect
alg_section = algorithm_sect

[provider_sect]
fips = fips_sect
default = default_sect

[default_sect]
activate = 1

[algorithm_sect]
default_properties = fips=yes

Programmatically loading the FIPS module (non-default library context)

In addition to using properties to separate usage of the FIPS module from other usages this can also be achieved using library contexts. In this example we create two library contexts. In one we assume the existence of a config file called "openssl-fips.cnf" that automatically loads and configures the FIPS and base providers. The other library context will just use the default provider.

OSSL_LIB_CTX *fipslibctx, *nonfipslibctx;
OSSL_PROVIDER *defctxnull = NULL;
EVP_MD *fipssha256 = NULL, *nonfipssha256 = NULL;
int ret = 1;

/*
 * Create two non-default library contexts. One for fips usage and one for
 * non-fips usage
 */
fipslibctx = OSSL_LIB_CTX_new();
nonfipslibctx = OSSL_LIB_CTX_new();
if (fipslibctx == NULL || nonfipslibctx == NULL)
    goto err;

/* Prevent anything from using the default library context */
defctxnull = OSSL_PROVIDER_load(NULL, "null");

/*
 * Load config file for the FIPS library context. We assume that this
 * config file will automatically activate the FIPS and base providers so we
 * don't need to explicitly load them here.
 */
if (!OSSL_LIB_CTX_load_config(fipslibctx, "openssl-fips.cnf"))
    goto err;

/*
 * We don't need to do anything special to load the default provider into
 * nonfipslibctx. This happens automatically if no other providers are
 * loaded. Because we don't call OSSL_LIB_CTX_load_config() explicitly for
 * nonfipslibctx it will just use the default config file.
 */

/* As an example get some digests */

/* Get a FIPS validated digest */
fipssha256 = EVP_MD_fetch(fipslibctx, "SHA2-256", NULL);
if (fipssha256 == NULL)
    goto err;

/* Get a non-FIPS validated digest */
nonfipssha256 = EVP_MD_fetch(nonfipslibctx, "SHA2-256", NULL);
if (nonfipssha256 == NULL)
    goto err;

/* Use the digests */

printf("Success\n");
ret = 0;

err:
EVP_MD_free(fipssha256);
EVP_MD_free(nonfipssha256);
OSSL_LIB_CTX_free(fipslibctx);
OSSL_LIB_CTX_free(nonfipslibctx);
OSSL_PROVIDER_unload(defctxnull);

return ret;

Note that we have made use of the special "null" provider here which we load into the default library context. We could have chosen to use the default library context for FIPS usage, and just create one additional library context for other usages - or vice versa. However if code has not been converted to use library contexts then the default library context will be automatically used. This could be the case for your own existing applications as well as certain parts of OpenSSL itself. Not all parts of OpenSSL are library context aware. If this happens then you could "accidentally" use the wrong library context for a particular operation. To be sure this doesn't happen you can load the "null" provider into the default library context. Because a provider has been explicitly loaded, the default provider will not automatically load. This means code using the default context by accident will fail because no algorithms will be available.

Using Encoders and Decoders with the FIPS module

Encoders and decoders are used to read and write keys or parameters from or to some external format (for example a PEM file). If your application generates keys or parameters that then need to be written into PEM or DER format then it is likely that you will need to use an encoder to do this. Similarly you need a decoder to read previously saved keys and parameters. In most cases this will be invisible to you if you are using APIs that existed in OpenSSL 1.1.1 or earlier such as i2d_PrivateKey. However the appropriate encoder/decoder will need to be available in the library context associated with the key or parameter object. The built-in OpenSSL encoders and decoders are implemented in both the default and base providers and are not in the FIPS module boundary. However since they are not cryptographic algorithms themselves it is still possible to use them in conjunction with the FIPS module, and therefore these encoders/decoders have the "fips=yes" property against them. You should ensure that either the default or base provider is loaded into the library context in this case.

Using the FIPS module in SSL/TLS

Writing an application that uses libssl in conjunction with the FIPS module is much the same as writing a normal libssl application. If you are using global properties and the default library context to specify usage of FIPS validated algorithms then this will happen automatically for all cryptographic algorithms in libssl. If you are using a non-default library context to load the FIPS provider then you can supply this to libssl using the function SSL_CTX_new_ex(). This works as a drop in replacement for the function SSL_CTX_new() except it provides you with the capability to specify the library context to be used. You can also use the same function to specify libssl specific properties to use.

In this first example we create two SSL_CTX objects using two different library contexts.

/*
 * We assume that a non-default library context with the FIPS provider
 * loaded has been created called fips_libctx.
 /
SSL_CTX *fips_ssl_ctx = SSL_CTX_new_ex(fips_libctx, NULL, TLS_method());
/*
 * We assume that a non-default library context with the default provider
 * loaded has been created called non_fips_libctx.
 */
SSL_CTX *non_fips_ssl_ctx = SSL_CTX_new_ex(non_fips_libctx, NULL,
                                           TLS_method());

In this second example we create two SSL_CTX objects using different properties to specify FIPS usage:

/*
 * The "fips=yes" property includes all FIPS approved algorithms as well as
 * encoders from the default provider that are allowed to be used. The NULL
 * below indicates that we are using the default library context.
 */
SSL_CTX *fips_ssl_ctx = SSL_CTX_new_ex(NULL, "fips=yes", TLS_method());
/*
 * The "provider!=fips" property allows algorithms from any provider except
 * the FIPS provider
 */
SSL_CTX *non_fips_ssl_ctx = SSL_CTX_new_ex(NULL, "provider!=fips",
                                           TLS_method());

Confirming that an algorithm is being provided by the FIPS module

A chain of links needs to be followed to go from an algorithm instance to the provider that implements it. The process is similar for all algorithms. Here the example of a digest is used.

To go from an EVP_MD_CTX to an EVP_MD, use the EVP_MD_CTX_md() call. To go from the EVP_MD to its OSSL_PROVIDER, use the EVP_MD_provider() call. To extract the name from the OSSL_PROVIDER, use the OSSL_PROVIDER_name() call. Finally, use strcmp(3) or printf(3) on the name.