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Using DNS challenge with Let’s Encrypt (and migrating from the official client)

Edited 09/03/2020: Tweaked to reflect the change in the project status and repo change
Edited 23/06/2018: Long overdue update to reflect the fact that the project has changed name from letsencrypt.sh to dehydrated

Edited 30/03/2016: Tweaked to reflect where config.sh.example can be found in letsencrypt.sh’s repo these days
Edited 02/06/2016: Tweaked again to reflect the change from “config.sh” to “config”, and an addition about securing private_key.pem

Let’s be honest – Let’s Encrypt is a great project with lofty ideals, but their official client is just awful bloatware.

I ended up duct-taping functionality I needed by wrapping their client in a shell script that could look at a list of domains and take the appropriate renew actions as required.

With the advent of support for DNS challenges in the Let’s Encrypt infrastructure but apparently no plans to add it to the standard client.. I found myself looking for alternatives.

Enter letsencrypt.sh dehydrated – essentially a 28KB bash wrapper for standard OpenSSL binaries (compare to the 14MB of crap that the official client entails) that doesn’t insist on putting things into /etc/ by default, and includes the functionality to manage a list of hostnames from a text file.

This lightweight client has added support for the DNS-01 challenge mechanism, and calls a hook script during the challenge/completion stage to achieve the actual DNS record changes (and certificate installation) necessary. You can obviously write this hook script in whatever language you see fit. There are plenty of sample hookscripts here.

A chunk of this guide will include the effort required to migrate from an existing Let’s Encrypt install, but you can just skip those bits if you are setting up a “green field” dehydrated deployment.

Getting dehydrated

First, get dehydrated downloaded, copy the sample config file, and start a blank domains.txt file (this file tracks the domains you have/want certs for – more on this later):

git clone https://github.com/dehydrated-io/dehydrated dehydrated
cd dehydrated
cp docs/examples/config config
touch domains.txt

Edit config with your preferred editor; if, like me, you want to use the dns-01 challenge mechanism, make sure you set:




(or wherever your hook script/binary will be)

You’ll probably also want to set CONTACT_EMAIL to something sensible if you’re setting up a new install and want to be able to recover your Let’s Encrypt ‘account’ if something goes wrong somehow (presumably, if you lose your private key). If you’re importing an existing Let’s Encrypt install and key, the contact email, if you set one, was determined when you created your first certificate with that installation.

Everything else can be left commented out unless you know that you need something specific for your environment.

Migrating from the Let’s Encrypt Python client

Moving from the official client to dehydrated is pretty straightforward with a few migration scripts (source). I offer a copy of the scripts here for expediency and as a backup record in case something happens to the originals, but if the versions here don’t work for you, check the source link to see if there’s an updated version available.

Import existing keys/certs/etc

First, let’s import your existing private keys, Let’s Encrypt issued certs, etc – create a script called import.sh in your dehydrated directory with the following contents:

#!/usr/bin/env bash

set -e
set -u
set -o pipefail

umask 077 # paranoid umask, we're creating private keys

SCRIPTDIR="$( cd "$( dirname "${BASH_SOURCE[0]}" )" && pwd )"

eval "$("${SCRIPTDIR}/dehydrated" --env)"

if [[ ! -e "${LETSENCRYPT}" ]]; then
  echo "No existing letsencrypt files found."
  exit 1

if [[ -e "${BASEDIR}/domains.txt" ]]; then
elif [[ -e "${SCRIPTDIR}/domains.txt" ]]; then
  echo "You have to create a domains.txt file listing the domains you want certificates for. Have a look at domains.txt.example."
  echo "For the purpose of this import script the file can be empty, but it has to exist."
  exit 1

for certdir in "${LETSENCRYPT}/live/"*; do
  domain="$(basename "${certdir}")"
  echo "Processing ${domain}"

  # Check if we already have a certificate for the same (main) domain
  if [ -e "${BASEDIR}/certs/${domain}" ]; then
    echo " + Skipping: Found existing certificate directory, don't want to delete anything."

  # Check if private-key, certificate and fullchain exist
  if [[ ! -e "${certdir}/privkey.pem" ]]; then
    echo " + Skipping: Private key is missing."
  if [[ ! -e "${certdir}/cert.pem" ]]; then
    echo " + Skipping: Certificate is missing."
  if [[ ! -e "${certdir}/fullchain.pem" ]]; then
    echo " + Skipping: Chain is missing."

  # Check if certificate still valid
  if ! openssl x509 -checkend 0 -noout -in "${certdir}/cert.pem" >/dev/null 2>&1; then
    echo " + Skipping: Certificate is expired."

  # Import certificate
  timestamp="$(date +%s)"

  echo " + Adding list of domains to ${DOMAINS_TXT}"
  SAN="$(openssl x509 -in "${certdir}/cert.pem" -noout -text | grep -A1 "Subject Alternative Name" | grep "DNS")"
  SAN="${SAN//, / }"
  for altname in ${SAN}; do
    if [[ ! "${altname}" = "${domain}" ]]; then
      altnames="${altnames} ${altname}"
  echo "${altnames}" >> "${DOMAINS_TXT}"

  mkdir -p "${BASEDIR}/certs/${domain}"

  echo " + Importing private key"
  cat "${certdir}/privkey.pem" > "${BASEDIR}/certs/${domain}/privkey-${timestamp}.pem"
  ln -s "privkey-${timestamp}.pem" "${BASEDIR}/certs/${domain}/privkey.pem"

  echo " + Importing certificate"
  cat "${certdir}/cert.pem" > "${BASEDIR}/certs/${domain}/cert-${timestamp}.pem"
  ln -s "cert-${timestamp}.pem" "${BASEDIR}/certs/${domain}/cert.pem"

  echo " + Importing chain"
  cat "${certdir}/fullchain.pem" > "${BASEDIR}/certs/${domain}/fullchain-${timestamp}.pem"
  ln -s "fullchain-${timestamp}.pem" "${BASEDIR}/certs/${domain}/fullchain.pem"

and run it to import all your keys/certs/domains into your dehydrated environment.

bash import.sh

Certs, Keys and the like will end up in individual dehydrated/certs/<domain> directories so make sure you update any paths to the certs in your Apache/nginx/Exim/whatever configuration to reflect this.

Importing your Let’s Encrypt account private key

Then to import your private key – create a script called exportkey.pl next to your private_key.json file in your existing Let’s Encrypt installation – by default, you’ll find this in a unique-to-you subdirectory under /etc/letsencrypt/accounts/acme-v01.api.letsencrypt.org/directory/ (eg: /etc/letsencrypt/accounts/acme-v01.api.letsencrypt.org/directory/3ca73eb3d1e1c3ea9123a3ecb278d43e)

NB: You’ll need the perl JSON library for this script to work. ( Debian users can just apt-get install libjson-perl )

#!/usr/bin/env perl

use strict;

use Crypt::OpenSSL::RSA;
use Crypt::OpenSSL::Bignum;
use JSON;
use File::Slurp;
use MIME::Base64;

my $json_file = "private_key.json";
my $json_content = read_file($json_file);
$json_content =~ tr/-/+/;
$json_content =~ tr/_/\//;

my $json = decode_json($json_content);

my $n = Crypt::OpenSSL::Bignum->new_from_bin(decode_base64($json->{n}));
my $e = Crypt::OpenSSL::Bignum->new_from_bin(decode_base64($json->{e}));
my $d = Crypt::OpenSSL::Bignum->new_from_bin(decode_base64($json->{d}));
my $p = Crypt::OpenSSL::Bignum->new_from_bin(decode_base64($json->{p}));
my $q = Crypt::OpenSSL::Bignum->new_from_bin(decode_base64($json->{q}));

my $rsa = Crypt::OpenSSL::RSA->new_key_from_parameters($n, $e, $d, $p, $q);


and execute it:

perl exportkey.pl

This will spit out your private key in the standard PEM format. Cut and paste the output into a new file – private_key.pem – in your dehydrated directory.

Setting up your DNS challenge hook script

With the DNS-01 challenge mechanism, you need some way of creating/deleting DNS records on the fly. If you use a DNS service that provides an API or uses a database back-end, this should be nice and easy for you to implement. If you don’t, well, you’re going to need to figure out that stuff on your own.

If you use one of the DNS services covered by the sample scripts I linked to earlier, you can just download, tweak, and away you go.

If you’re writing your own hook script, your script needs to take arguments on the command line:

$1 = operation
$2 = hostname
$3 = challenge token (not used in DNS-01)
$4 = challenge response

$1 has three possible values indicating the required action from your script:

  • deploy_challenge – create the DNS record
  • clean_challenge – delete the DNS record (cleaning up after the challenge attempt)
  • deploy_cert – deploy the new certificate (you may or may not need to do anything here depending on your environment; such as reload daemons to load the new cert)

The DNS record you need to create/delete is then, effectively:

_acme-challenge.$2. IN TXT “$4”

How best you do this is left as an exercise to you, the reader. If you want to “try out” the DNS challenge mechanism, you can create a manual hook script that simply outputs the record to create/delete and waits for you to press enter to continue – that way you can run dehydrated, the hook script will spit out the DNS record, you can create it, reload your nameserver if necessary, and then press enter in the hookscript when you’re ready to continue:


echo "Method: $1"
echo "_acme-challenge.$2.  IN  TXT \"$4\""

read -s -r -e < /dev/tty

Using dehydrated

NB: If you haven’t imported an existing account key (and perhaps even if you have?) you might need to run the following to accept LEs terms and conditions (read them first!)

./dehydrated --register --accept-terms

Run dehydrated -c once to see what happens (it should check your existing certs and renew any less than 30 days old)

./dehydrated -c

Run a cron, say, once a month, that executes dehydrated -c to refresh any certs that have less than 30 days left on them.

Getting a cert for a new domain

Add your domain to the end of domains.txt followed by any SANs you want, such as the below:

mydomain.com wiki.mydomain.com support.mydomain.com

Remember that combining hostnames into one cert means using the same private key and cert (duh) for all of those hostnames – consider if this is an acceptable risk to you!

Then run

dehydrated -c

to create the request, do the challenge/response – done!


I’ve just realised that on my test systems when migrating, private_key.pem was created world readable. Given this key is used to identify you to Let’s Encrypt, you should definitely consider changing the permissions to only be readable by the user you run dehydrated as:

chmod go-r private_key.pem

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