IE8 on Windows XP does not support SNI

, 64px-Internet_Explorer_7_Logoor “you desktop IT people have broken something”.

Just before Windows XP gets to take a well earned retirement on “the farm”, it popped it’s ugly head up this week with an end user complaining we did something to break their new website

On purpose no less.

It seems IE8/Windows XP was receiving the wrong HTTPS certificate.

Upon investigation, I realised that the issue was that IE8 on WinXP does not support SNI.

Server Name Indication allows a web browser to tell a web host what site it is connecting to.  (A web host can host multiple web sites …).  The reason why a browser needs to tell the web host it connects to, is so the web browser gets the right HTTPS certificate.

If the browser does not support SNI then the browser will get the default web host certificate.  Which may cause certificate errors to be displayed in the browser.

To prove that it was a lack of SNI support causing the issue, I used the excellent Qualys SSL Labs SSL Server Test tool.

I suggested to the customer that they use an alternate web browser, until they can replace Windows XP.

SSL errors, and how to diagnose them.

Frankly, I don’t know, but here’s what I learnt.

It started with a customer reporting a problem

When we press the publish button on the website, we get a 403 error.

A co-worker of mine picked up the call.  After trying many different things, he asks our Network team for help.

If it works on a standard Windows PC, we’re not interested in even having a look.

“What next?”, asked my colleague.

Never, ever volunteer; but the words sprang from my mouth,

“Perhaps I can be of assistance.”

SSL Malformed Packet Some network tracing was done, and the problem was SSL related.  An SSL error was being thrown.  The application server was throwing a SSL Malformed Packet back at us.

As SSL traffic is encrypted, you can’t tell much more than that, unless you turn off encryption.  Not going to happen on a production system.

My first guess at the solution was wrong.  An schannel.dll update didn’t fix the problem.  I spent a bit of time analysing what the JavaScript code was doing as well.  Couldn’t find any issues with it.

So what else do we see in the network trace?  Ah… we’re getting packet fragmentation.


Told my colleague to look at the PMTU Discovery setting and to turn it on, to eliminate the packet fragmentation.  That was wrong too, as it was already on.
But turning it OFF fixed the issue.

So what are the important “take-aways”?

  • Sometimes your first, second, and even third guess, can be wrong.
  • Sometimes you need to cut your losses with an issue, but in this particular case, we did not get to that stage.
    IMHO, I thought we were close.
  • Know what is “normal” behaviour, and what is “abnormal” behaviour.  Spot the difference.
    In this case, we had two network traces; a working one, and one which captured the problem.

Update 4th Oct 2009: Eric Law’s MSDN Blog post is worth a read: Internet Explorer Cannot Download https://something
Update 6th Dec 2009: Deb Shinder’s article is worth a read: SSL Acceleration and Offloading: What Are the Security Implications?
Update 17th Dec 2009:
I had to revisit SSL sniffing in Internet Explorer has issues with session cookies, fancy that.

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