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The Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) and Transport Layer Security (TLS) protocols are universally accepted standards for authenticated and encrypted communication between clients and servers. Both client and server authentication occur over SSL/TLS.

SSL/TLS uses a combination of public key and symmetric-key encryption. Symmetric-key encryption is much faster than public-key encryption, but public-key encryption provides better authentication techniques. An SSL/TLS session always begins with an exchange of messages called the SSL handshake, initial communication between the server and client. The handshake allows the server to authenticate itself to the client using public-key techniques, then allows the client and the server to cooperate in the creation of symmetric keys used for rapid encryption, decryption, and tamper detection during the session that follows.

Both of these protocols support using a variety of different cryptographic algorithms, or ciphers, for operations such as authenticating the server and client, transmitting certificates, and establishing session keys. Clients and servers may support different cipher suites, or sets of ciphers. Among other functions, the SSL handshake determines how the server and client negotiate which cipher suite they will use to authenticate each other, to transmit certificates, and to establish session keys.

Key-exchange algorithms like RSA and Elliptic Curve Cryptography (ECC) govern the way the server and client determine the symmetric keys to use during an SSL session. The most common SSL cipher suites use RSA key exchange, while TLS supports ECC cipher suites as well as RSA.

Note: Longer RSA keys are required to provide security as computing capabilities increase. The recommended RSA key-length is 2048 bits. Though many web servers continue to use 1024-bit keys, web servers should migrate to at least 2048 bits. For 64-bit machines, consider using stronger keys. All CAs should use at least 2048-bit keys, and stronger keys (such as 3072 or 4096 bits) if possible.

As PKIs using RSA keys and certificates transition to other cryptographic systems like ECC, servers should continue to support RSA.

Supported Cipher Suites for RSA

Cipher suites with the RSA key exchange that are commonly supported include the following:

  • AES and SHA Message Authentication. Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) ciphers have a fixed block size of 128-bits, and the keys can be either 128-bit or 256-bit. There are 3.4 x 1038 possible 128-bit keys and 1.1 x 1077 possible 256-bit keys. There are more possible keys than any other cipher, making AES the strongest cipher supported by SSL. These cipher suites are FIPS-compliant.
  • Triple DES and SHA Message Authentication. Triple DES (Data Encryption Standard) is the second-strongest cipher supported by SSL, but it is not as fast as RC4. Triple DES uses a key three times as long as the key for standard DES. Because the key size is so large, there are approximately 3.7 * 1050 possible keys. This cipher suite is FIPS-compliant.
  • RC4 and RC2 and MD5 Message Authentication. The RC4 and RC2 ciphers have 128-bit encryption, which permits approximately 3.4 * 1038 possible keys. RC4 ciphers are faster than RC2 ciphers. RC4 can use SHA message authentication as well as MD5 message authentication.
  • DES and SHA Message Authentication. DES 56-bit encryption permits approximately 7.2 * 1016 possible keys. This cipher suite is no longer FIPS-compliant because it is too weak cryptographically.

Using ECC

Elliptic Curve Cryptography (ECC) is a cryptographic system that uses elliptic curves to create keys for encrypting data. ECC creates cryptographically-stronger keys with shorter key lengths than RSA, which makes it faster and more efficient to implement.

ECC has several advantages over RSA, since it is faster and requires shorter key lengths for stronger keys. The drawback to using ECC is that it is not as widely supported as RSA.

Bits of Security RSA Key Length ECC Key Length
Table 1: Comparison of RSA and ECC Cipher Strength
80 1024 160-223
112 2048 224-255
128 3072 256-383
192 7860 384-511
256 15360 512+

The information in this table is from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). For more information, see

For more information on ECC, see RFC 4492, Section 5.6.1, Table 2.

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 Contributors to this page: chrisdavidmills, kscarfone
 Last updated by: kscarfone,