Counting SSL certificates

The SSL/TLS protocol — used to protect sensitive communication across the internet — combines encryption with authentication, providing a private connection to the intended recipient. To achieve this, SSL certificates bind together a cryptographic key and a domain name, and are digitally-signed by a trusted certificate authority (CA). Commercial CAs compete to sell certificates to the general public and account for the bulk of the SSL certificates seen on the internet.

Netcraft's SSL Server Survey has been running since 1996 and has tracked the evolution of this marketplace from its inception — there are now more than one thousand times more certificates on the web now than in 1996. As CAs issue certificates, and most charge (or not charge) accordingly, the number of certificates issued becomes the natural unit of measurement. Our survey therefore counts valid, trusted SSL certificates used on public-facing web servers, counting each certificate once, even if used on multiple websites.

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Two types of certificates make the distinction between counting sites and certificates most apparent: multi-domain certificates and wildcard certificates. These two types now account for almost a quarter of all certificates found.

  • Multi-domain certificates (or UCC certificates) use the Subject Alternative Name extension to specify additional hostnames for which this certificate is valid — CloudFlare uses this technique heavily, having dozens of unrelated sites share the same certificate.
  • Wildcard certificates are valid for all possible subdomains of a domain, for example *.netcraft.com would be valid for www.netcraft.com, host-a.netcraft.com, host-b.netcraft.com, etc. Our methodology counts a wildcard certificate once, no matter the number of sites for which it is valid.

Netcraft also counts certificates used by subdomains. For example, if foo.example.com, bar.example.com and baz.example.com are all using different SSL certificates, Netcraft will count all three certificates that have been issued.

Although the global SSL ecosystem is competitive, it is dominated by a handful of major CAs — three certificate authorities (Symantec, Comodo and GoDaddy) account for three-quarters of all issued SSL certificates on public-facing web servers. The top spot has been held by Symantec (or VeriSign before it was purchased by Symantec) ever since the survey began, with it currently accounting for just under a third of all certificates. To illustrate the effect of differing methodologies, amongst the million busiest sites Symantec issued 44% of the valid, trusted certificates in use — significantly more than its overall market share.

However, nothing ever stays still forever — Let's Encrypt could shake up the market for SSL certificates later on this year by offering free certificates with a simplified installation process. Whilst free certificates and automated tools are nothing new, the open approach and the backing of Mozilla, IdenTrust, the EFF, and Akamai could change the SSL ecosystem forever.

Beyond counting certificate numbers, Netcraft's SSL Survey also tracks the list and reseller prices of the most popular certificate authorities. This provides another useful market share metric, as it allows us to estimate the total monthly and annual revenue of each certificate authority attributable to public SSL issuance.

As each type of certificate — multi-domain, wildcard, or Extended Validation for example — is available at a distinct price point, the estimated revenue of a CA can vary significantly, despite initially appearing similarly sized by the total number of certificates. For example, GlobalSign comes in third-place when considering its estimated annual revenue (by list price) in 2014, despite accounting for approximately 6% of all currently valid publicly-visible SSL certificates.

For additional information or details on how to purchase Netcraft’s SSL Server Survey please contact us at sales@netcraft.com or visit our web site.