Key agreement processing provides a critical component of TLS negotiation. It allows the client and server to select the symmetric key that encrypts the remainder of the communication, but does not reveal the key to anyone who can access the communication. Although several key agreement algorithms are available, the following types are the most common:

  • RSA key exchange – The client generates random data, uses the server's public key to encrypt it, and provides it to the server, which uses its private key to decrypt it. The client and server alike derive the encryption key from the randomly generated data.
  • Diffie-Hellman (DH) key exchange – The client and server agree publicly on a pair of mathematically linked numbers, and each participant chooses its own secret value. Through a special computation, they generate a key that can be discovered only by someone who knows one of the secret values. Although several variants of the Diffie-Hellman algorithm can be used in key exchange, we recommend the ECHDE and DHE versions because they use ephemeral keys with no relation to the server's certificate. Of those two versions, ECDHE is faster and uses smaller keys.

When possible, we recommend that you use ECHDE over DHE, and either of those options over RSA. The Diffie-Hellman algorithms provide a substantial benefit over RSA in the form of forward secrecy. Because RSA key exchange uses the server certificate's public key to encrypt data, the encryption can be broken if the certificate's private key is compromised. This warning applies to previously captured data as well as to communication on new TLS connections. However, the use of ephemeral keys in ECDHE and DHE ensures that, even if the certificate's private key is compromised, the encrypted communication remains indecipherable to anyone but the client and server, although anyone with the private key can still impersonate the legitimate server.