Automating the letsencrypt certificate renewal

In my previous post I explain how to set up nginx running in a docker container to use a SSL certificate created by letsencrypt. The problem with that approach is that you need to update the certificate manually once every 90 days. Is nearly 100% sure that you will forget to do that, at least once. In this post, I will show you how to automatize the letsencrypt certificate renewal process with some easy steps.letsencrypt nginx in docker

For the renewal of the certificate, we’ll use another of the strategies/plugins that letencrypt client support, the webroot plugin. This plugin obtains the certificate by writing a special file in the /.well-known directory within your document root of an already running webserver. The special file will then be opened (through your web server) by the Let’s Encrypt service for validation. Depending on your configuration, you may need to explicitly allow access to the /.well-known directory. To ensure that the directory is accessible to Let’s Encrypt for validation, you can update the nginx configuration by adding the following inside the server node.

location ~ /.well-known {
      allow all;

The letsencrypt client support using a configuration file instead of parameters. This is ideal for this scenario where we plan to automatize the letsencrypt certificate renewal process, as it will be easier to update any of the parameter without needing to update the scripts. First you will need to create the configuration file, to do this, copy the one from the examples in the client folder.

sudo cp /opt/letsencrypt/examples/cli.ini /usr/local/etc/le-renew-webroot.ini

Edit the new file with your information. Note that in addition to the email and domains parameter, you need to specify the webroot-path parameter. This parameter specify the path to the folder that nginx (or your web server) is serving. In this case, that path is the local path that is linked to the /usr/share/nginx/html folder in docker.

rsa-key-size = 4096

email = [email protected]

domains =,

webroot-path = /local/path/to/www

Now that you have everything in place, test the configuration by executing the following command. Remember that nginx needs to be running and configured as described in my previous post.

/opt/letsencrypt/letsencrypt-auto certonly -a webroot --agree-tos --renew-by-default --config /usr/local/etc/le-renew-webroot.ini

This command is the same as the one below, with the difference that one uses the configuration file while the other uses configuration by parameter.

/opt/letsencrypt/letsencrypt-auto certonly -a webroot --agree-tos --renew-by-default --webroot-path=/local/path/to/www --email [email protected] -d -d

Now, that everything is in place, you will be able focus on automatize the letsencrypt certificate renewal process. In order to do this, create a new file, e.g. /usr/local/sbin/le-renew-webroot and add execution permissions.

sudo touch /usr/local/sbin/le-renew-webroot
sudo chmod +x /usr/local/sbin/le-renew-webroot

Now, edit the new file and add the following snippet, replacing the value of the compose_file_path and config_file variables.




if [ ! -f $config_file ]; then
        echo "[ERROR] config file does not exist: $config_file"
        exit 1;

domain=`grep "^\s*domains" $config_file | sed "s/^\s*domains\s*=\s*//" | sed 's/(\s*)\|,.*$//'`

if [ ! -f $cert_file ]; then
	echo "[ERROR] certificate file not found for domain $domain."

exp=$(date -d "`openssl x509 -in $cert_file -text -noout|grep "Not After"|cut -c 25-`" +%s)
datenow=$(date -d "now" +%s)
days_exp=$(echo \( $exp - $datenow \) / 86400 |bc)

echo "Checking expiration date for $domain..."

if [ "$days_exp" -gt "$exp_limit" ] ; then
	echo "The certificate is up to date, no need for renewal ($days_exp days left)."
	exit 0;
	echo "The certificate for $domain is about to expire soon. Starting webroot renewal script..."
        $le_path/letsencrypt-auto certonly -a webroot --agree-tos --renew-by-default --config $config_file
	echo "Reloading $web_service"
	docker-compose -f $compose_file_path restart
	echo "Renewal process finished for domain $domain"
	exit 0;

Test the script by executing it with sudo /usr/local/sbin/le-renew-webroot. You should see the output saying that the certificate is up to date. The idea is to renew it just when its necessary.

Finally, add a new cron task to execute the le-renew-webroot script. To do this, execute sudo crontab -e and add the following line that will execute the le-renew-webroot command every Monday at 2:30 am. The output produced by the command will be piped to a log file located at /var/log/le-renewal.log.

30 2 * * 1 /usr/local/sbin/le-renew-webroot >> /var/log/le-renewal.log

Now that you configure and automatized the full letsencrypt certificate renewal process, you can relax and enjoy the benefits of having a free and automatically updated Let’s Encrypt TLS/SSL certificate to securely serve HTTPS content.

Using letsencrypt with nginx on docker

Now that I have my site running on a docker container using nginx (more info here), I want to add a secure endpoint and support https. In order to do this, the first thing I would need is to have a SSL Certificate, but those are usually too expensive for a personal site. That were you can take advantage of letsencrypt.

letsencrypt nginx in docker Let’s Encrypt is a new Certificate Authority (CA) that provides an easy way to obtain and install free TLS/SSL certificates. It simplifies the process by providing a software client, letsencrypt, that attempts to automate most (if not all) of the required steps.

But, why do you need the certificate for? When you request a HTTPS connection to a webpage, the website will initially send its SSL certificate to your browser. This certificate contains the public key needed to begin the secure session. Based on this initial exchange, your browser and the website then initiate the SSL handshake. The SSL handshake involves the generation of shared secrets to establish a uniquely secure connection between yourself and the website.

The first thing you will need is to configure the access to the VM, which means that you will need to set up your DNS for each of the domains you plan to create the certificate for. In my case, I created two entries, one for and the second one for In addition to setting up your DNS, you will need to make sure that the ports 80 and 443 are available and accessible. This requirements are due to the fact that the validation process will resolve your domain and access those ports to validate that you are how you say you are.

Then, you will need to download the letsencrypt client. To do this, you need to have git and bc and then execute the following command.

sudo git clone /opt/letsencrypt

Once you have the client in your VM and you have access to it from your domain, the easiest way to obtain the certificate is to execute the following command, replacing the domains and your email.

sudo /opt/letsencrypt/letsencrypt-auto certonly --standalone --email [email protected] -d -d

This will create the certificate in your /etc/letsencrypt folder. Note that you have two folders there, archive and live. The first one contains all the certificates history while the second one contains a symlink to the latest one.

Now that you have the certificates its time to configure your docker-compose.yml file to enabling the 443 port as well as sharing the folders with the certificates.

  restart: always
  build: ./conf/
    - "80:80"
    - "443:443"
    - /local/path/to/www:/usr/share/nginx/html
    - /etc/letsencrypt:/etc/letsencrypt
    - wordpress_web_1:bloghost

Before restarting the docker container using the new configuration, let’s update the nginx configuration file to add the support for https. To do this, update the server node for your site adding the following

server {
        listen 443 ssl;


        ssl_certificate /etc/letsencrypt/live/;
        ssl_certificate_key /etc/letsencrypt/live/;

        ssl_protocols TLSv1 TLSv1.1 TLSv1.2;
        ssl_prefer_server_ciphers on;
        ssl_ciphers 'EECDH+AESGCM:EDH+AESGCM:AES256+EECDH:AES256+EDH';

        root   /usr/share/nginx/html;
        index  index.html index.htm;

        error_page  404              /404.html;

You can then add a new node that permanent redirects all the content in port 80 that target your domains to the secure endpoint.

    server {
        listen 80;
        return 301 https://$host$request_uri;

Finally, build the new image using docker-compose build and restart the container with docker-compose restart.

You should be able to connect to your https endpoint now. However, note that these certificate expires 90 days after the creation, so you’ll need to renew the certificate before it expires using the same command as before but this time adding the --renew-by-default parameter.

sudo /opt/letsencrypt/letsencrypt-auto certonly --standalone --renew-by-default --email [email protected] -d -d

Once everything is up and running, you can verify how secure its your site using this SSL Server test