Desktop and Application Streaming

How to configure certificate-based authentication for Amazon WorkSpaces

In this blog, we discuss the benefits of using certificate-based authentication (CBA) for Amazon WorkSpaces. we give an overview of the short-lived CA mode offered by AWS Private Certificate Authority and why it is important to this use case. Also, we walk you through the steps to configure CBA for Amazon WorkSpaces.

Amazon WorkSpaces certificate-based authentication requires SAML 2.0 identity provider (IdP) enabled WorkSpaces directories. With CBA, the authentication experience is improved through single sign-on.  You can issue a private certificate to a WorkSpaces’ user in order to identify them as trusted. With this certificate, the user authenticates once during their login; until the certificate expires. End user certificates issued by AWS Private CA for WorkSpaces certificate-based authentication do not require renewal or revocation. WorkSpaces automatically issues a new certificate every 24 hours. This reduces the impact of a compromised certificate.


Time to read 25 minutes
Time to complete 1.5 hours
Cost to complete $50 for Private CA per month, $0.058 per certificate issued to a WorkSpace, see CloudFront pricing
Learning level 400
Services used Amazon WorkSpaces
AWS Private CA
Amazon S3
Amazon CloudFront
AWS CloudTrail

What is certificate based-authentication?

It provides an authentication experience where you authenticate once; then can access resources like Amazon WorkSpaces or Amazon AppStream 2.0, without re-entering your credentials. CBA requires a private certificate authority (CA) to create private certificates to identify users.

To issue private certificates for CBA, you can use your existing public key infrastructure (PKI), or use AWS Private Certificate Authority (AWS Private CA): a highly available, fully managed private certificate authority service you can use to create CA hierarchies, and issue private X.509 certificates. The recommendation for CBA is to use short-lived private certificates that can be used to authenticate a user and then expire shortly afterward.

Short-lived certificates are used with CBA to reduce the potential impact of a compromised credential. A short validity period for the certificate reduces the impact of a compromised certificate. After the time expires, a new certificate must be issued for authentication.

Understanding the difference between AWS Private CA short-lived CA mode, and general-purpose CA mode

AWS Private CA now offers short-lived certificate mode, a lower cost mode of AWS Private CA designed for issuing short-lived certificates. If you must issue end-entity certificates that are only intended to be valid for a week or less, use the short-lived CA mode. The default mode of AWS Private CA is now known as general-purpose mode. This mode supports certificates of any validity period. Both modes have distinct pricing for the different use cases that they support. Find more information on supported CA modes in the AWS Private CA documentation.

You can issue short-lived certificates from both the general-purpose and short-lived CA modes of AWS Private CA. The general-purpose mode CAs incur a higher monthly charge per CA than the short-lived mode CA. The general purpose-mode CA can issue certificates of any validity period. The short-lived mode CA incurs a lower monthly charge per CA when compared to the general-purpose mode CA. A short-live mode CA only issues certificates with a validity period up to 7 days. The general purpose mode CA has a tiered pricing structure for issuing certificates, based on how many certificates are issued per month. The cost of issuing certificates from a short-lived mode CA is the same for each certificate, regardless of how many certificates are issued per month. You can find more information and example pricing exercises on the AWS Private CA pricing web page.

The short-lived certificate authority mode is optimized for use cases like certificate-based authentication with WorkSpaces and AppStream 2.0. It will be the most cost-effective choice for customers who are issuing less than 75,000 short-lived certificates per month. You can find pricing examples to help you determine the first-rate choice for your workload on the AWS Private CA pricing page.

Overview of the solution

The following figure illustrates the end-to-end user authentication flow from the initial user request through SAML 2.0 and Active Directory authentication using CBA.

Flow of authetnication using a SAML 2.0 Identity Provider with Certificate-based authentication

Figure 1: CBA authentication flow

Certificate chain of trust

You can use a CA hierarchy to validate certificates issued by the subordinate certificate authority hosted in AWS Private CA you trust.

In the example, a Windows Root CA is configured to act as the top of the certificate chain of trust.  This may be an existing Root CA you use, or a new Root CA for this use case.  This Root CA then cryptographically signs the CA certificate used by the subordinate CA that you create using the AWS Private CA service.

The subordinate CA is now trusted by the Root CA, meaning any end-entity certificates issued by the subordinate CA will also be trusted.  For more details on CA hierarchies and certificate trust chains, refer to the AWS Private CA documentation.  The following instructions describe the certificate signing process:

A. The certificate signing request (CSR) is generated and sent to the Windows Root CA hosted in your data center.

B. The Root CA provides a signed CA certificate that is imported to the subordinate CA in AWS.

User authentication flow

  1. To authenticate to the identity provider, select Continue to sign in to WorkSpaces on the WorkSpaces client application.
  2. Authenticate to the SAML 2.0 identity provider.
  3. As a federated user, you are authorized to access your provisioned WorkSpaces resource.
  4. Based on attributes in the SAML assertion, WorkSpaces is issued a short-lived private certificate, signed by the subordinate CA hosted in AWS Private CA.
  5. WorkSpaces publishes the short-lived certificate to your WorkSpaces desktop.
  6. WorkSpaces seamlessly authenticates you to Active Directory using the short-lived certificate issued from the subordinate CA hosted in AWS Private CA.
  7. Domain Controllers validate the revocation status of the short-lived certificate against the certificate revocation list (CRL), which is stored in Amazon S3 and made public by Amazon CloudFront.
  8. You are authenticated to your WorkSpaces desktop.


  • AWS CLI (or if you prefer to use AWS CloudShell) and Console IAM permissions to perform commands for the AWS Services used.
  • Installation of OpenSSL on the device running this blog.
  • SAML 2.0 Identity Provider (IdP) configured for the WorkSpaces directory.
  • Windows WorkSpaces created with a WorkSpaces Streaming Protocol (WSP) Bundle.
  • Your WorkSpaces must reside in the same AWS Account as the AWS Private CA.
  • WorkSpaces Client for Windows version or later, or WorkSpaces Client for macOS version or later.
  • Additional SAML attributes configured in the WorkSpaces application for your SAML 2.0 IdP:
      • Request for the Subject Alternative Name field in certificates issued.
      • NOTE: The User Principal Name (UPN) must be the primary assigned in Windows Active Directory matching its DNS name, not an alternate UPN.
      • Optional for a strong mapping to the Active Directory User.

Enabling CBA for Amazon WorkSpaces with AWS Private CA

In this walk-through, you configure certificate-based authentication for Amazon WorkSpaces with streaming protocol WorkSpaces Streaming Protocol (WSP). You use AWS Private CA to issue short-lived certificates with an Active Directory Certificate Server Root Authority.

Step 1: Create public repository to host certificate revocation list (CRL)

  1. Create an Amazon S3 Bucket, keep ACLs disabled, and blocking all public access.
  2. Create a CloudFront distribution:
    1. Navigate to the CloudFront console.
    2. Create a Distribution.
    3. For Origin Domain, select the S3 Bucket created as the Origin domain specified in the first step.
    4. For Origin access, select Origin access control settings (recommended).
    5. Choose Create control setting.
    6. Choose Create distribution.
  3. Create the S3 Bucket Policy:
    1. Navigate to the Amazon S3 Console.
    2. Select the S3 Bucket.
    3. Choose the Permissions tab.
    4. Select the Bucket Policy, choose Edit.
    5. Enter as the following. Replace S3-BUCKET-NAME, AWS-ACCOUNT-NUMBER, and CLOUDFRONT-DISTRIBUTION with your values. Then, choose Save.
    "Version": "2012-10-17",
    "Statement": [
            "Effect": "Allow",
            "Principal": {
                "Service": ""
            "Action": [
            "Resource": [
            "Condition": {
                "StringEquals": {
                    "aws:SourceAccount": "AWS-ACCOUNT-NUMBER"
            "Sid": "AllowCloudFrontServicePrincipal",
            "Effect": "Allow",
            "Principal": {
                "Service": ""
            "Action": "s3:GetObject",
            "Resource": "arn:aws:s3:::S3-BUCKET-NAME/*",
            "Condition": {
                "StringEquals": {
                    "AWS:SourceArn": "arn:aws:cloudfront::AWS-ACCOUNT-NUMBER:distribution/CLOUDFRONT-DISTRIBUTION"

Step 2: Establish Active Directory root certificate authority and subordinate template

The steps outlined here are specific to Active Directory Certificate Services. Do you have a different Enterprise PKI service for your organization? If so, follow the vendor instructions for this and the following sections for non-AWS service specific instructions.

  1. On a domain-joined Windows Server, verify Certificate Authority Role has been installed and configured to your organization’s policies.
  2. Verify the following additional Role is installed: Certificate Authority Web Enrollment.
  3. Configure the Certificate Authority:
    1. Launch certsrv.msc, or open Certification Authority Microsoft Management Console (MMC).
    2. Select Certificate Templates and choose Manage.
    3. Select Subordinate Certification Authority, secondary select Duplicate Template.
    4. In the General tab, change the name to Private CA – Subordinate Certification Authority.
    5. In the Security tab, add a domain user you will later use to create the subordinate request, and select the box to Enroll for permissions.
    6. Return to Certification Authority (Local) and secondary select Certificate Templates.
    7. Choose New -> Certificate Template to Issue.
    8. Select Private CA – Subordinate Certification Authority, then choose OK.
  4. Configure the Web Service:
    1. Launch inetmgr.msc, or open Internet Information Services (IIS) Manager.
    2. Navigate to Sites. Expand, and choose Default Web Site.
    3. In Edit Site, choose Bindings.
    4. Add a binding for ‘https 443‘.
    5. Assign the generated SSL certificate from the drop-down for SSL Certificate.
    6. Choose OK. Close out of Bindings.
    7. Select the Default Web Site. Select CertSrv. Then choose SSL Settings from the IIS section.
    8. Choose the checkbox to Require SSL. Choose Apply.

Step 3: Create a subordinate CA using AWS Private Certificate Authority

Review how to incorporate AWS Private CA into your existing Windows Active Directory Certificate Services. This section is not a substitute for the depth covered in that blog.

NOTE: At launch, your Amazon WorkSpaces must reside in the same AWS account as the AWS Private CA.


For specific CLI guidance in completing this section, review the Private CA administrative guide for Procedure for creating a CA (CLI).

  1. Create a ca_config.txt file, formatted with the following information and replacing information in bold with your organizational information:
  1. Create a revoke_config.txt file, formatted with the following information (make sure HTTPS is not included in the FQDN for CustomCname) replacing information in bold.
  1. Enter the following AWS CLI (or use AWS CloudShell) command to create the short lived Subordinate AWS Private CA. (Note: These values are required and must be not altered):
aws acm-pca create-certificate-authority \
      --certificate-authority-configuration file://ca_config.txt \
      --revocation-configuration file://revoke_config.txt \
      --certificate-authority-type "SUBORDINATE" \
      --idempotency-token 01234567 \
      --tags Key=euc-private-ca,Value= \
      --usage-mode SHORT_LIVED_CERTIFICATE
  1. Once the command completes, copy the AWS ARN for the certificate authority that is returned to be used later.
  2. Launch the AWS Certificate Manager (ACM) Console in the Region of your choice.
  3. Choose AWS Private CA.
  4. In the AWS Private CA Console, select the newly created Subordinate with status ‘Pending certificate‘.
  5. Choose Actions -> Install CA Certificate.
  6. Select External Private CA.
  7. ‘CSR for this CA’ is presented. Select the certificate. Choose Copy.

Certificate Authority Web Enrollment

  1. Using a web browser, visit your Active Directory Certificate Authority Web Enrollment server. The URL will be in the following format, where the FQDN is the FQDN of your CS Web Enrollment server: https://FQDN/CertSrv/certrqxt.asp
  2. Paste CSR into the Base-64-encoded certificate request (CMC or PKCS #10 or PKCS #7) field.
  3. From the Certificate Template drop-down, choose Private CA – Subordinate Certification Authority.
  4. Choose Submit, Note: If using Internet Explorer, you may receive an error if the FQDN is not a member of Trusted Sites.
  5. Choose Yes.
  6. Select Base 64 encoded.
  7. Choose Download for both certificate and certificate chain as certnew.p7b onto the device with OpenSSL installed.

Create Plain Text Data

  1. Create the PEM file with Open SSL using the following command: openssl pkcs7 -print_certs -in certnew.p7b -out subordinate.pem
  2. Open subordinate.pem with a text editor.
  3. Return to Private CA Console to ‘Import a signed certificate authority (CA) certificate’ section.
  4. Paste top portion of PEM starting with ‘-----BEGIN CERTIFICATE-----’ and ending with ‘-----END CERTIFICATE-----’ in the Certificate body field.
  5. Paste the bottom portion of PEM starting with ‘-----BEGIN CERTIFICATE-----’ and ending with ‘-----END CERTIFICATE-----’ in the Certificate chain field.
  6. Choose ‘Confirm and install’ to publish.

Step 4: Publish subordinate CA in Windows Active Directory

  1. Open the AWS Private CA console.
  2. Select Subordinate. Then choose Actions -> Get CA.
  3. Choose Export certificate body to a file. Then choose Done.
  4. On a domain-joined Windows instance (such as an existing WorkSpace), enter the following commands in an elevated command prompt to publish to Active Directory:

certutil -dspublish -f subordinate.pem RootCA
certutil -dspublish -f subordinate.pem NTAuthCA

NOTE: If you receive a return the certificate already exists in DS Store, the certificate chain was exported and published in error, not the certificate body.

  1. Allow time for publishing Root and Subordinate through the Domain. The exact time it will take varies on the size of your AD Site Topology.

Step 5: Validate Certificate

For Active Directory Domain Controllers to successfully authenticate you to your WorkSpaces, the Domain Controllers must have certificates installed through auto-enrollment and be able to access the public CRL created in CloudFront.

  1. Return to the S3 Bucket you created in Step 1. Verify the creation of crl/ folder.
  2. Explore crl/ to get the full path to the CRL.
  3. Copy the Cloudfront Distribution URL and append /crl/ and the full string including .crl (for example:
  4. In a web browser, paste the new URL and verify the CRL is publicly accessible from the Active Directory Domain Controllers used specifically for WorkSpaces authentication and the WorkSpaces themselves. On success, a CRL file downloads.
  5. Follow the instruction to View certificates in the MMC Snap-in:
    1. Select Certificates (Local Computer) → Trusted Root Certification Authorities → Certificates and locate the subordinate CA.
    2. Select the Subordinate Certificate. Choose Certification Path.
    3. Validate Certificate Status is This certificate is OK.
    4. Select (Local Computer) → Intermediate Certification Authorities → Certificates and locate the subordinate CA.
    5. Select the Subordinate Certificate and choose Certification Path.
    6. Validate Certificate Status is This certificate is OK.

Step 6: Enable CBA on Amazon WorkSpaces directory

Follow the instructions to Enable certificate-based authentication from the WorkSpaces administration guide.

AWS CloudTrail is used to verify Windows WorkSpaces are authenticating with AWS Private CA as detailed in Logging and Monitoring.

Cleaning up

  1. Open Amazon WorkSpaces console in the Region of your choice.
  2. Select WorkSpaces Directory -> Authentication Details.
  3. Deselect ‘Enable Certificate-Based Authentication‘.
  4. In AWS Private CA Console, delete the Private CA you created.
  5. In CloudFront Console, delete the CloudFront Distribution you created.


In this post, you learned how to configure Amazon WorkSpaces SAML 2.0 Certificate Based Authentication (CBA). The key goal of CBA is to remove a secondary password prompt for Windows Active Directory after authenticating to your SAML 2.0 IdP.

We outlined the WorkSpaces CBA logon authentication workflow. By combining WorkSpaces CBA with AWS Private CA, and short-lived certificate mode you reduce reliance on passwords and streamline the end user experience.

To learn more about how to get started with WorkSpaces certificate-based authentication review the Administration Guide.