Speeding up TLS: enabling session reuse

Vincent Bernat

Session reuse is one of the most important mechanisms to improve TLS performance: by submitting an appropriate blob to the server, a client can trigger an abbreviated handshake, improving latency and computation time. There exist two distinct ways to achieve session reuse: session identifiers as described in RFC 5246 and session tickets as depicted in RFC 5077.

Update (2018-08)

While the content of this article is still technically sound, ensure you understand it was written by the end of 2011 and therefore doesn’t take into account many important aspects, like the compatibility progression of implementations with RFC 5077 and the fall of RC4 as an appropriate cipher. Moreover, TLS 1.3 replaced both session identifiers and session tickets with a new mechanism.

Theory of operation#

To establish a TLS connection, four messages need to be exchanged between client and server. With a latency of 50 ms, we have a 200 ms overhead to establish the connection (plus TCP handshake). Moreover, to share a common secret, both the client and the server need to achieve some public-key cryptographic operations which are costly, computation-wise.

TLS full handshake
Full TLS handshake

To avoid a full TLS handshake each time a client requests a resource, it can ask for an abbreviated handshake, saving a complete round-trip (100 ms) and avoiding the costliest part of the full TLS handshake.

TLS abbreviated handshake
Abbreviated TLS handshake

Two mechanisms can be used to accomplish an abbreviated handshake:

  1. When the server sends the “Server Hello” message, it can include a session identifier. The client should store it and present it in the “Client Hello” message of the next session. If the server finds the corresponding session in its cache and accepts to resume the session, it will send back the same session identifier and will continue with the abbreviated TLS handshake. Otherwise, it will issue a new session identifier and switch to a full handshake. This mechanism is detailed in RFC 5246. It is the most common mechanism because it exists since earlier versions of TLS.

  2. In the last exchange of a full TLS handshake, the server can include a “New Session Ticket” message (not represented in the handshake described in the picture) which will contain the complete session state (including the master secret negotiated between the client and the server and the cipher suite used). Therefore, this state is encrypted and integrity-protected by a key known only by the server. This opaque datum is known as a session ticket. The details lie in RFC 5077 which supersedes RFC 4507.

The ticket mechanism is a TLS extension. The client can advertise its support by sending an empty “Session Ticket” extension in the “Client Hello” message. The server will answer with an empty “Session Ticket” extension in its “Server Hello” message if it supports it. If one of them does not support this extension, they can fall back to the session identifier mechanism built into TLS.

RFC 5077 identifies situations where tickets are desirable over session identifiers. The main improvement is to avoid to maintain a server-side session cache since the whole session state is remembered by the client, not the server. A session cache can be costly in terms of memory and difficult to share between multiple hosts when requests are load-balanced across servers.

Browser support#

Session identifiers are part of TLS and are therefore supported for a long time by clients and servers. However, session tickets are an optional TLS extension and therefore, the support is not as widespread as for session identifiers. Support for tickets was added in OpenSSL 0.9.8f (October 2007). In GnuTLS, this is version 2.9.3 (August 2009). For NSS, the set of libraries behind most browsers, support of RFC 5077 is in version 3.12 (June 2008). For Schannel, Microsoft implementation of TLS, support was added in Windows 8.1 and Windows 2012 R2.

To check if a browser supports session resume without and with tickets, I have written a web server listening to several ports with different configurations (session cache disabled or enabled, ticket support disabled or enabled). With the help of some JavaScript, it is possible to interact with this server to determine what kind of session resume a browser support.

Checking for browser support for session resume
Example of test with Chromium 14

It is difficult to get extensive results this way since you need to install a lot of browsers to get something valuable. Surprisingly, Android 2.3.4 browser (as shipped by Cyanogen Mod) does not support any session resume.

Another way to check if a browser supports session resume is to use a sniffer and to spot “Client Hello” messages. If a client tries to resume a session, it will use an appropriate session identifier or send a ticket. A simple program parsing PCAP files allows one to automate this task and get some interesting statistics. Here are random facts from more than 300 000 requests (38 000 clients) to a customer care service of an important French telco:

  • 35% of requests exhibit support of tickets;
  • 53.3% of requests ask to resume without tickets; 25.6% with tickets;
  • 67.2% of requests exhibit support of SNI;
  • 86.7% of requests use TLS 1.0; the remaining uses SSL 3.0; almost no TLS 1.1/1.2;
  • on average, a client execute 8 TLS handshakes;
  • ciphers supported by all clients are 3DES-SHA, RC4-MD5, and RC4-SHA.

With some log analysis to match each request with the appropriate user agent, we can split the world into two parts: browsers supporting RFC 5077 (Chrome and Firefox) and browsers not supporting RFC 5077 (Internet Explorer, Opera 9.80, Safari for macOS and iOS and Android browser).

Web server support#

There is no unique recipe to configure a web server to handle appropriately and efficiently session resume. Here are some general directions:

  • if the web server uses multiple processes, you need to configure a shared memory session cache; usually, tickets will work just fine in this setup;
  • if you use local load-balancing, one easy way to avoid any problem is to use ensure that one IP is mapped to one server (either statically with hashing or dynamically with a stick table); if your load-balancer understands TLS, you can also use session identifier (and disable tickets1) to build a stick table;
  • if you don’t want to apply the previous advice, you need to share the session cache between the servers with something like memcached and disable tickets;
  • if you use global load-balancing (DNS based), there is no need to ensure that session resumption works across geographic pools since a user will usually stick to one pool.

Remember that only one client out of three supports TLS tickets. Therefore, you cannot rely on them to ensure proper session resume. You need a session cache.

Setting a session cache with Apache & nginx#

Apache features two different TLS engines. The first one is mod_ssl and uses OpenSSL as the backend. It is possible to setup a shared session cache with SSLSessionCache but the memcached-enabled session cache is available only in the development branch. You can also get one by switching to mod_gnutls backend. The cache is enabled with GnuTLSCache. In this case, do not enable tickets because they cannot be shared.

With nginx, you need to enable the shared session cache with ssl_session_cache. Currently, it lacks a memcached-enabled session cache but Matt Palmer has some patches to add it to the 0.8 branch. However, these patches can have a serious impact on nginx performance since retrieving a session from memcached is done synchronously (mostly because of a limitation in OpenSSL design who does not allow us to register asynchronous callbacks with SSL_CTX_sess_set_get_cb()).

As a proof of concept, I have also added a similar feature to stud, the scalable TLS unwrapping daemon, a very efficient network proxy terminating TLS connections. The same limitation as for nginx applies: performance will suffer. Look at the pull request for more details.

Sharing tickets#

RFC 5077 explains that tickets allow us to load-balance requests across servers. However, to the best of my knowledge, there is currently no web server able to share tickets across a pool. When a server initializes its TLS stack, it will randomly generate some keys that will be used to protect and encrypt tickets. In OpenSSL, from ssl/ssl_lib.c:

/* Setup RFC4507 ticket keys */
if ((RAND_pseudo_bytes(ret->tlsext_tick_key_name, 16) <= 0)
        || (RAND_bytes(ret->tlsext_tick_hmac_key, 16) <= 0)
        || (RAND_bytes(ret->tlsext_tick_aes_key, 16) <= 0))
        ret->options |= SSL_OP_NO_TICKET;

Therefore, with a round-robin load-balanced pool of servers, tickets have to be disabled because servers would not accept tickets from neighbors. One way to solve this is to generate keys deterministically by hashing some common secret with the private key. I have implemented this approach for stud. Here is a simplified version (no error handling, no allocation) of the pull request for this feature:

unsigned char keys[48];
EVP_PKEY *pkey = grab_private_key();

/* To get our key, we sign the seed with the private key */
unsigned int siglen;
unsigned char sign[LARGE_ENOUGH];
EVP_MD_CTX mdctx;
EVP_SignInit(&mdctx, EVP_sha256());
EVP_SignUpdate(&mdctx, some_secret, strlen(some_secret));
EVP_SignFinal(&mdctx, sign, &siglen, pkey);

/* And we keep only the first bytes. */
memcpy(keys, sign, sizeof(keys));

/* Tell OpenSSL to use these keys */
SSL_CTX_set_tlsext_ticket_keys(ctx, keys, sizeof(keys));

Update (2011-11)

Paul Querna has added support for configuring keys protecting session tickets in Apache HTTPD. This adds two new directives: SSLTicketKeyFile and SSLTicketKeyDefault.

Update (2011-11)

If you care about perfect forward secrecy like the one provided by cipher suites like DHE-RSA-AES128-SHA, using tickets this way will weaken it. The keys should be rotated in some synchronized way.


While tests can be done with just openssl s_client and openssl sess_id, testing all aspects can take a lot of time. For this purpose, I have written a client testing session resume with and without tickets. Here is a typical result:

twitter.com RFC session resume
Example of test with twitter.com

The program will try to establish five consecutive TLS connections for each IP without and with tickets. For each IP, the last four TLS connections should always reuse the first TLS session. Here, Twitter web servers seem properly configured: for each IP, session resume is successful. Their web servers do not support tickets or they may have disabled it because they share the session cache between servers inside the same pool.

  1. RFC 5077 describes interactions between session identifiers and session tickets. When using tickets, the server should send back an empty session identifier. The client may present an empty session identifier or generate one. However, for all practical purposes, it seems that servers send back a non-empty session identifier and clients just stick to this identifier. Please, investigate if you want to use TLS session identifiers for load-balancing while keeping tickets enabled. ↩︎