SSL Server Rating Guide

Bhushan Lokhande edited this page Mar 7, 2018 · 33 revisions

Version 2009o (8 May 2017)

The Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) protocol is a standard for encrypted network communication. We feel that there is surprisingly little attention paid to how SSL is configured, given its widespread usage. SSL is relatively easy to use, but it does have its traps. This guide aims to establish a straightforward assessment methodology, allowing administrators to assess SSL server configuration confidently without the need to become SSL experts.

Methodology Overview

Our approach consists of four steps:

  1. We first look at a certificate to verify that it is valid and trusted.
  2. We inspect server configuration in three categories:
  3. Protocol support
  4. Key exchange support
  5. Cipher support
  6. We combine the category scores into an overall score (expressed as a number between 0 and 100). A zero in any category will push the overall score to zero. Then, a letter grade is calculated, using the table below.
  7. We then apply a series of rules (documented in the Changes section) to handle some aspects of server configuration that cannot be expressed via numerical scoring. Most rules will reduce the grade (to A-, B, C, D, E, or F) if they encounter an unwanted feature. Some rules will increase the grade (to A+), to reward exceptional configurations.
  8. In certain situations we avoid the standard A-F grades if we think we've encountered a situation that's out of scope. That's the case with the M grade (certificate name mismatch) and the T grade (site certificate is not trusted). When there is no certificate trust, the actual security grade doesn't matter because active network attackers can subvert connection security.

Table 1. Letter grade translation

Numerical Score Grade
score >= 80 A
score >= 65 B
score >= 50 C
score >= 35 D
score >= 20 E
score < 20 F

Our methodology was initially designed to be simple and straightforward, but has, unfortunately, gotten more complicated over time. This document has not been fully updated to reflect the changes. In the next major version, we will start afresh, aiming to go back to the original simplicity.

What This Guide Does Not Cover

Our immediate goal is to focus on those configuration problems whose presence can be determined remotely and without manual assessment. It is only a fully automated approach that makes it possible to perform a large-scale assessment of SSL configuration practices. Our aim is to scan all SSL servers on the public Internet. In focusing on automation, we have decided not to look for certain problems. We will list those problems in this guide, and hopefully find ways to enhance our automation to include them in a future version of this guide. Some of those problems are listed here:

Certificate quality Three certificate types are currently in use: domain-validated, organization-validated and extended-validation (EV) certificates. This guide requires a certificate to be correct, but does not go beyond this basic requirement. The domain-validated and organization-validated certificates are generally treated in the same way by the current generation of browser software, and thus offer similar assurance to users. EV certificates are treated significantly better and, generally, they are recommended for high-value web sites. Without a reliable way to determine the purpose of a web site, however, there is little that this guide can do to assess whether a certificate used on an arbitrary site is suitable for the purpose of the site.

Session hijacking issues in web applications There are several ways in which web applications can subvert SSL and make it less effective. For example, session cookies that are not marked as secure can be retrieved by a determined attacker, leading to session hijacking and thus application compromise. Such problems are not the fault of SSL, but they do affect its practical applications nevertheless. Detecting web application–specific problems is non-trivial to perform in an automated fashion, and this version of the guide does not attempt to do it. We leave this problem for the consideration in the future. In the meantime, to remove any doubt that might exist about the seriousness of the above-mentioned issues, we will state that any application that incorrectly implements session token propagation should be awarded a zero score.

What Should My Score Be?

We don’t know. In order to tell you whether you’ve configured your SSL server correctly, we would need to know what your site does. Because different web sites have different needs, it is not possible for us to choose any one configuration and say that it works for everyone. But we can do two things. First, we can give you some general configuration advice and tell you what you should never do. Second, we can give you some general guidance using examples of what other web sites do. If that’s what you are interested in, skip to the end of this document for more information.

Is SSL Enough?

No. A non-trivial web site cannot be secure if it does not implement SSL, but SSL is not enough. SSL deals with only one aspect of security, and that is the security of the communication channel between a web site and its users. SSL does not and cannot address a number of possible security issues that may exist on a web site. View SSL as a foundation on which to build, but the foundation alone is not enough.


The first version of this guide was written by Ivan Ristic, and subsequently enhanced by the contributions from the following individuals, listed in alphabetical order: Christian Bockermann, Christian Folini, Robert Hansen, Ofer Shezaf and Colin Watson.

Certificate Inspection

Server certificate is often the weakest point of an SSL server configuration. A certificate that is not trusted (i.e., is not ultimately signed by a well-known certificate authority) fails to prevent man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks and renders SSL effectively useless. A certificate that is incorrect in some other way (e.g., a certificate that has expired) erodes trust and, in the long term, jeopardizes the security of the Internet as a whole.

For these reasons, any of the following certificate issues immediately result in a zero score:

  • Domain name mismatch
  • Certificate not yet valid
  • Certificate expired
  • Use of a self-signed certificate
  • Use of a certificate that is not trusted (unknown CA or some other validation error)
  • Use of a revoked certificate
  • Insecure certificate signature (MD2 or MD5)
  • Insecure key


Some organizations create their own (private) CA certificates, a practice that is entirely legitimate, provided such CA certificates are distributed, in a safe manner (e.g., through the use of customized browsers) to all those who need it. Without the access to such certificates we may not be able to verify that a site we are inspecting has a trusted certificate, but we believe that such sites will be relatively rare. Such issues can be considered on a case-by-case basis.


SSL is a complex hybrid protocol with support for many features across several phases of operation. To account for the complexity, we rate the configuration of an SSL server in three categories, as displayed in . We calculate the final score as a combination of the scores in the individual categories, as described in the “Methodology Overview” section.

Table 2. Criteria categories

Category Score
Protocol support 30%
Key exchange 30%
Cipher strength 40%

The sections that follow explain the rating system for each of the categories.

Protocol Support

First, we look at the protocols supported by an SSL server. For example, both SSL 2.0 and SSL 3.0 have known weaknesses. Because a server can support several protocols, we use the following algorithm to arrive to the final score:

  1. Start with the score of the best protocol.
  2. Add the score of the worst protocol.
  3. Divide the total by 2.

Table 3. Protocol support rating guide

Protocol Score
SSL 2.0 0%
SSL 3.0 80%
TLS 1.0 90%
TLS 1.1 95%
TLS 1.2 100%

Key Exchange

The key exchange phase serves two functions. One is to perform authentication, allowing at least one party to verify the identity of the other party. The other is to ensure the safe generation and exchange of the secret keys that will be used during the remainder of the session. The weaknesses in the key exchange phase affect the session in two ways:

  • Key exchange without authentication allows an active attacker to perform a MITM attack, gaining access to the complete communication channel.
  • Most servers also rely on public cryptography for the key exchange. Thus. the stronger the server’s private key, the more difficult it is to break the key exchange phase. A weak key, or an exchange procedure that uses only a part of the key (the so-called exportable key exchanges), can result in a weak key exchange phase that makes the per-session secret keys easier to compromise. Some servers use key exchange mechanisms that do not depend on the private key (the key is still used for authentication). Two popular algorithms are the ephemeral Diffie-Hellman key exchange (DHE) and its Elliptic Crypto variation ECDHE. If a separate key exchange mechanism is used, the overall strength will depend on its strength and the strength of the private key.

Table 4. Key exchange rating guide

Key exchange aspect Score
Weak key (Debian OpenSSL flaw) 0%
Anonymous key exchange (no authentication) 0%
Key or DH parameter strength < 512 bits 20%
Exportable key exchange (limited to 512 bits) 40%
Key or DH parameter strength < 1024 bits (e.g., 512) 40%
Key or DH parameter strength < 2048 bits (e.g., 1024) 80%
Key or DH parameter strength < 4096 bits (e.g., 2048) 90%
Key or DH parameter strength >= 4096 bits (e.g., 4096) 100%


For suites that rely on DHE or ECDHE key exchange, the strength of DH parameters is taken into account when determining the strength of the handshake as a whole. Many servers that support DHE use DH parameters that provide 1024 bits of security. On such servers, the strength of the key exchange will never go above 1024 bits, even if the private key is stronger (usually 2048 bits).

Cipher Strength

To break a communication session, an attacker can attempt to break the symmetric cipher used for the bulk of the communication. A stronger cipher allows for stronger encryption and thus increases the effort needed to break it. Because a server can support ciphers of varying strengths, we arrived at a scoring system that penalizes the use of weak ciphers. To calculate the score for this category, we follow this algorithm:

  1. Start with the score of the strongest cipher.
  2. Add the score of the weakest cipher.
  3. Divide the total by 2.

Table 5. Cipher strength rating guide

Cipher strength Score
0 bits (no encryption) 0%
< 128 bits (e.g., 40, 56) 20%
< 256 bits (e.g., 128, 168) 80%
>= 256 bits (e.g., 256) 100%

SSL Configuration Advice

The configuration advice from the original document has been superseded by a standalone document with comprehensive coverage of this topic. You can download the SSL/TLS Deployment Best Practices document from the SSL Labs web site.


We are planning to release a completely new version of the rating guide in Q1 2017, building on what we have learned from the current version. In the meantime, we are making small revisions in order to react to the threats as they come and go.

Changes in 2009c (7 February 2013)

Changes to the grading criteria:

  • SSL 2.0 is not allowed (F).
  • Insecure renegotiation is not allowed (F).
  • Vulnerability to the BEAST attack caps the grade at B.
  • Vulnerability to the CRIME attack caps the grade at B.
  • The test results no longer show the numerical score (0-100) because we have realized that the letter grade (A-F) is more useful. In addition, we've taken the opportunity to remove the old configuration advice, directing the readers to our SSL/TLS Deployment Best Practices document instead.

Changes in 2009d (9 September 2013)

  • No longer require server-side mitigation for the BEAST attack.

Changes in 2009e (21 January 2014)

  • Support for TLS 1.2 is now required to get the A grade. Without, the grade is capped a B.
  • If vulnerable to the Heartbleed attack, it will be given F.
  • If vulnerable to the OpenSSL CVE-2014-0224 vulnerability, it will be given F.
  • Keys below 2048 bits (e.g., 1024) are now considered weak, and the grade capped at B.
  • Keys under 1024 bits are now considered insecure (F).
  • This version introduces warnings as part of rating criteria. In most cases, warnings are about issues that do not yet affect the grade, but likely will in the future. Server administrators are advised to correct the warnings as soon as possible.
  • Warning: RC4 is used with TLS 1.1 or newer protocol. Because RC4 is weak, the only reason to use it is to mitigate the BEAST attack. For some, BEAST is still a threat. Because TLS 1.1 and newer are not vulnerable to BEAST, there is no reason to use RC4 with them.
  • Warning: No support for Forward Security.
  • Warning: Secure renegotiation is not supported.
  • New grade A- is introduced for servers with generally good configuration that have one or more warnings.
  • New grade A+ is introduced for servers with exceptional configurations. At the moment, this grade is awarded to servers with good configuration, no warnings, and HTTP Strict Transport Security support with a max-age of at least 6 months.
  • MD5 certificate signatures are now considered insecure (F).
  • Clarified that insecure certificate signatures affect the certificate score. This has always been the case for MD2.
  • Clarified that the strength of DHE and ECDHE parameters affects key exchange scoring. This has always been the case, but previous revisions of the text were not clear about it.

Changes in 2009f (4 September 2014)

  • Don’t award A+ to servers that use SHA1 certificates.

Changes in 2009g (15 October 2014)

  • Cap to C if vulnerable to POODLE.
  • Note: POODLE TLS is treated as a patchable and exploitable vulnerability, which means it gets an F.

Changes in 2009h (30 October 2014)

  • Don’t award A+ to servers that don’t support TLS_FALLBACK_SCSV.
  • Cap to B if SSL 3 is supported.

Changes in 2009i (8 December 2014)

  • Cap to B if RC4 is supported.
  • Cap to B if the chain is incomplete.
  • Fail servers that have SSL3 as their best protocol.
  • If using insecure DH parameters (less than 1024 bits) grade will be set to F.
  • If using export suites grade will be set to F.

Changes in 2009j (20 May 2015)

  • Cap to B if using weak DH parameters (less than 2048 bits).
  • Increase CRIME penalty to C (was B).
  • Cap to C if RC4 is used with TLS 1.1+.
  • Cap to C if not supporting TLS 1.2.

Changes in 2009k (14 October 2015)

  • Fail servers that support only RC4 suites.

Changes in 2009l (4 March 2016)

  • Detect when RSA exponent 1 is used. This is insecure and gets an F.
  • Hosts that have HPKP issues can't have A+.
  • Added DROWN testing. Vulnerable servers get an F.

Changes in 2009m (6 June 2016)

  • If vulnerable to CVE-2016-2107 (Padding oracle in AES-NI CBC MAC check) it will be given F.

Changes in 2009n (19 January 2017 - 3 April 2017)

  • With this revision we introduced an early warning system about grade changes. We list two dates; one when we started warning about the new grade and (to be added later), when the new grading becomes effective.
  • Introduce a penalty (C) for using 3DES (and other ciphers with block sizes of 64 bits) with TLS 1.1+. (Note: For a period of time this document incorrectly stated that the penalty applies only to TLS 1.2. Sorry.)
  • SHA1 certificates are now longer trusted (T).
  • Introduce an explicit penalty for using cipher suites weaker than 112 bits. This was necessary to address a flaw in the algorithm that didn't sufficiently penalize these weak suites.
  • Moved this document to the SSL Labs wiki on GitHub.

Changes in 2009o (8 May 2017)

  • If vulnerable to the Ticketbleed (CVE-2016-9244), it will be given F.
  • WoSign/StartCom certificates distrusted, will get 'T' grade.

Changes in 2009l (1 March 2018)

  • If vulnerable to the Return Of Bleichenbacher's Oracle Threat (ROBOT), it will be given F.
  • Cap to B if Forward Secrecy is not supported.
  • Cap to B if Authenticated encryption (AEAD) ciphers not supported.
  • Symantec certificates issued before June 2016 are distrusted, will get 'T' grade.

About SSL

The Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) protocol is a standard for encrypted network communication. It was conceived at Netscape in 1994; version 2.0 was the first public release. SSL was later upgraded to 3.0, and, with further minor improvements, standardized under the name TLS (Transport Layer Security). TLS v1.2, the most recent version, is defined by RFC 5246.

About SSL Labs

SSL Labs is Qualys’s research effort to understand SSL/TLS and PKI as well as to provide tools and documentation to assist with assessment and configuration. Since 2009, when SSL Labs was launched, hundreds of thousands of assessments have been performed using the free online assessment tool. Other projects run by SSL Labs include periodic Internet-wide surveys of SSL configuration and SSL Pulse, a monthly scan of about 170,000 most popular SSL-enabled web sites in the world.

About Qualys

Qualys, Inc. (NASDAQ: QLYS) is a pioneer and leading provider of cloud-based security and compliance solutions with over 9,300 customers in more than 100 countries, including a majority of each of the Forbes Global 100 and Fortune 100. The Qualys Cloud Platform and integrated suite of solutions help organizations simplify security operations and lower the cost of compliance by delivering critical security intelligence on demand and automating the full spectrum of auditing, compliance and protection for IT systems and web applications. Founded in 1999, Qualys has established strategic partnerships with leading managed service providers and consulting organizations including Accenture, BT, Cognizant Technology Solutions, Deutsche Telekom, Fujitsu, HCL, HP Enterprise, IBM, Infosys, NTT, Optiv, SecureWorks, Tata Communications, Verizon and Wipro. The company is also a founding member of the Cloud Security Alliance (CSA). For more information, please visit

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