The SSL handshake is nothing but a conversation between two parties (client and server) wanting to accomplish the same purpose – securing the communication with the help of symmetric encryption.

The main purpose of an SSL handshake is to provide privacy and data integrity for communication between a server and a client. During the Handshake, server and client will exchange important information required to establish a secure connection.

A typical connection example follows, illustrating a handshake where the server (but not the client) is authenticated by its certificate:

  1. Negotiation phase:
    • A client sends a ClientHello message specifying the highest TLS protocol version it supports, a random number, a list of suggested cipher suites and suggested compression methods. If the client is attempting to perform a resumed handshake, it may send a session ID. If the client can use Application-Layer Protocol Negotiation, it may include a list of supported application protocols, such as HTTP/2.
    • The server responds with a ServerHello message, containing the chosen protocol version, a random number, cipher suite and compression method from the choices offered by the client. To confirm or allow resumed handshakes the server may send a session ID. The chosen protocol version should be the highest that both the client and server support. For example, if the client supports TLS version 1.1 and the server supports version 1.2, version 1.1 should be selected; version 1.2 should not be selected.
    • The server sends its Certificate message (depending on the selected cipher suite, this may be omitted by the server).
    • The server sends its ServerKeyExchange message (depending on the selected cipher suite, this may be omitted by the server). This message is sent for all DHE and DH_anon cipher suites.
    • The server sends a ServerHelloDone message, indicating it is done with handshake negotiation.
    • The client responds with a ClientKeyExchange message, which may contain a PreMasterSecret, public key, or nothing. (Again, this depends on the selected cipher.) This PreMasterSecret is encrypted using the public key of the server certificate.
    • The client and server then use the random numbers and PreMasterSecret to compute a common secret, called the “master secret”. All other key data for this connection is derived from this master secret (and the client- and server-generated random values), which is passed through a carefully designed pseudorandom function.
  2. The client now sends a ChangeCipherSpec record, essentially telling the server, “Everything I tell you from now on will be authenticated (and encrypted if encryption parameters were present in the server certificate).” The ChangeCipherSpec is itself a record-level protocol with content type of 20.
    • The client sends an authenticated and encrypted Finished message, containing a hash and MAC over the previous handshake messages.
    • The server will attempt to decrypt the client’s Finished message and verify the hash and MAC. If the decryption or verification fails, the handshake is considered to have failed and the connection should be torn down.
  3. Finally, the server sends a ChangeCipherSpec, telling the client, “Everything I tell you from now on will be authenticated (and encrypted, if encryption was negotiated).”
    • The server sends its authenticated and encrypted Finished message.
    • The client performs the same decryption and verification procedure as the server did in the previous step.
  4. Application phase: at this point, the “handshake” is complete and the application protocol is enabled, with content type of 23. Application messages exchanged between client and server will also be authenticated and optionally encrypted exactly like in their Finished message. Otherwise, the content type will return 25 and the client will not authenticate.

Client-authenticated TLS handshake

The following full example shows a client being authenticated (in addition to the server as in the example above) via TLS using certificates exchanged between both peers.

  1. Negotiation Phase:
    • A client sends a ClientHello message specifying the highest TLS protocol version it supports, a random number, a list of suggested cipher suites and compression methods.
    • The server responds with a ServerHello message, containing the chosen protocol version, a random number, cipher suite and compression method from the choices offered by the client. The server may also send a session id as part of the message to perform a resumed handshake.
    • The server sends its Certificate message (depending on the selected cipher suite, this may be omitted by the server).
    • The server sends its ServerKeyExchange message (depending on the selected cipher suite, this may be omitted by the server). This message is sent for all DHE and DH_anon ciphersuites.
    • The server sends a CertificateRequest message, to request a certificate from the client so that the connection can be mutually authenticated.
    • The server sends a ServerHelloDone message, indicating it is done with handshake negotiation.
    • The client responds with a Certificate message, which contains the client’s certificate.
    • The client sends a ClientKeyExchange message, which may contain a PreMasterSecret, public key, or nothing. (Again, this depends on the selected cipher.) This PreMasterSecret is encrypted using the public key of the server certificate.
    • The client sends a CertificateVerify message, which is a signature over the previous handshake messages using the client’s certificate’s private key. This signature can be verified by using the client’s certificate’s public key. This lets the server know that the client has access to the private key of the certificate and thus owns the certificate.
    • The client and server then use the random numbers and PreMasterSecret to compute a common secret, called the “master secret”. All other key data for this connection is derived from this master secret (and the client- and server-generated random values), which is passed through a carefully designed pseudorandom function.
  2. The client now sends a ChangeCipherSpec record, essentially telling the server, “Everything I tell you from now on will be authenticated (and encrypted if encryption was negotiated). ” The ChangeCipherSpec is itself a record-level protocol and has type 20 and not 22.
    • Finally, the client sends an encrypted Finished message, containing a hash and MAC over the previous handshake messages.
    • The server will attempt to decrypt the client’s Finished message and verify the hash and MAC. If the decryption or verification fails, the handshake is considered to have failed and the connection should be torn down.
  3. Finally, the server sends a ChangeCipherSpec, telling the client, “Everything I tell you from now on will be authenticated (and encrypted if encryption was negotiated). “
    • The server sends its own encrypted Finished message.
    • The client performs the same decryption and verification procedure as the server did in the previous step.
  4. Application phase: at this point, the “handshake” is complete and the application protocol is enabled, with content type of 23. Application messages exchanged between client and server will also be encrypted exactly like in their Finished message.

After successful authentication and generating the pre-master secrets/master secrets, a change cipher spec message will be sent by both client and server indicating that the rest of the communication will be encrypted.

The Finished message will immediately follow the change cipher spec message. This will be the first message encrypted with the negotiated algorithms. Application data will be transferred only after both parties send the finished message and verifying the content of the message.