Certificate Chains

Some organizations delegate the responsibility for issuing certificates to resolve the issue of geographical separation between organization units, or that of applying different issuing policies to different sections of the organization.

Responsibility for issuing certificates can be delegated by setting up subordinate CAs. The X.509 standard includes a model for setting up a hierarchy of CAs. In this model, the root CA is at the top of the hierarchy and has a self-signed certificate. The CAs that are directly subordinate to the root CA have CA certificates signed by the root CA. CAs under the subordinate CAs in the hierarchy have their CA certificates signed by the subordinate CAs.

This illustration shows the hierarchical structure of a typical digital certificate chain.

CAs can sign their own certificates (that is, they are self-signed) or they can be signed by another CA. If the certificate is self-signed, they are called root CAs. If they are not self-signed, they are called subordinate or intermediate CAs.

If a server certificate is signed by a CA with a self-signed certificate, the certificate chain is composed of exactly two certificates: the end entity certificate and the root CA. If a user or server certificate is signed by an intermediate CA, the certificate chain is longer.

The following figure shows the first two elements are the end entity certificate (in this case, gwy01.company.com) and the certificate of the intermediate CA, in that order. The intermediate CA’s certificate is followed by the certificate of its CA. This listing continues until the last certificate in the list is for a root CA. Each certificate in the chain attests to the identity of the previous certificate.

This illustration shows a typical digital certificate chain.

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