Datacard Group, a firm that produces smart card printers and associated products, has announced its acquisition of Entrust. For those of you who are not familiar with Entrust, they were front and center in the PKI movement in the 1990s. Back then the idea was to issue a public/private key pair to uniquely identify every person and device in the universe. Ultimately that failed to scale and became unmanageable, with many firms complaining “I just spent millions of dollars so I can send encrypted email to the guy sitting next to me.” So for you old-time security people out there saying to yourself “Hey, wait, isn’t PKI dead?”, the answer is “Yeah, kinda.” Still others are saying “I thought Entrust was already acquired?”, to which the answer is “Yes”, by investment firm/holding company Thoma Bravo in 2009.

Entrust, just like all the other surviving PKI vendors, has taken its core technologies and fashioned them into other security products and services. In fact, if you believe the financial numbers in the press releases under Thoma Bravo, Entrust has been steadily growing. Still, for most of you, a smart card hardware vendor buying a PKI vendor makes no sense. But in terms of where the smart card market is heading in response to disruptive mobile and cloud computing technologies the acquisition makes sense. Here are some major points to consider:

What does this mean for Datacard?

  • One Stop Shop: The smart card market is an interesting case of ‘coopetition’, as each major vendor in the field ends up partnering on some customer deals, then competing head to head on others. “Cobbling together solutions” probably sounds overly critical, but the fact is that most card solutions are pieced together from different providers’ hardware, software, and services. Customer requirements for specific processes, card customization, adjudication requirements, and specific regional requirements tend to force smart card producers tend to partner in order to fill in the gaps. By pulling in a couple key pieces from Entrust – specifically around certificate production, cloud, and PKI services – DCG comes very close to an end-to-end solution. When I read the press release from Datacard this morning, they used an almost a meaningless marketing phrase “reduce complexity while strengthening trust.” I think they mean that a single vendor means less moving parts and fewer providers to worry about. That’s possible, provided Datacard can stitch these pieces together so the customer (or service provider) does not need to.
  • EMV Hedge: If you read this blog on a regular basis, you will have noticed that every month I say EMV is not happening in the US – at least not the way card brands envision it. While I hate to bet against Visa’s ability to force change in the payment space, consumers really don’t see the wisdom in carrying around more credit cards for shopping from their computer or mobile device. Those of you who no longer print out airline boarding passes understand carrying one object For all these simple day-to-day tasks. Entrust’s infrastructure for mobile certificates gives Datacard the potential to offer either a physical card or mobile platform solution for identity and payment. Should the market shift away from physical cards for payment or personal identification, they will be ready to react accordingly.
  • Dipping a Toe into the Cloud: Smart card production technology is decidedly old school. Dropping a Windows-based PC on-site to do user registration and adjudication seems so 1999, but this remains the dominant model for drivers’ licenses, access cards, passports, national ID, and so on. Cloud services are a genuine advance, and offer many advantages for scale, data management, software management, and linking all the phases of card production together. While Entrust does not appear to be on the cutting edge of cloud services, they certainly have infrastructure and experience which Datacard lacks. From this standpoint, the acquisition is a major step in the right direction, toward a managed service/cloud offering for smart card services. Honestly I am surprised we haven’t seen more competitors do this yet, and expect them to buy or build the comparable offerings over time.

What does this mean for Entrust Customers?

  • Is PKI Dead or Not? We have heard infamous analyst quotes to the effect that “PKI is dead.” The problem is PKI that infrastructure is often erroneously confused with PKI technologies. Most enterprises who jumped on the PKI infrastructure bandwagon in the 1990s soon realized that identity approach was unmanageable and unscalable. That said, the underlying technologies of public key cryptography and X.509 certificates are not just alive and well, but critical for network security. And getting this technology right is not a simple endeavor. These tools are use in every national ID, passport, and “High Assurance” identity card, so getting them right is critical. This is likely Datacard’s motivation for the acquisition, and it makes sense for them to leverage this technology across their all their customer engagements, so existing Entrust PKI customers should not need to worry about product atrophy.
  • SSL: SSL certificates are more prevalent now than ever because most enterprises, regardless of market, want secure network communications. Or at least they are compelled by some compliance mandate to secure network communications to ensure privacy and message integrity. For web and mobile services this means buying SSL certificates, a market which has been steadily growing for the last 5 years. While Entrust is not dominant in this field, they are one of the first and more trusted providers.

That does not mean this acquisition is without risks. Can Datacard run an SSL business? SSL certificate business is fickle, and there is little friction when switching from one vendor to another. We have been hearing complaints about one of the major vendors in this field having aggressive sales tactics and poor service, resulting in several small enterprises switching certificate vendors. There are also risks for a hardware company digesting a software business, with inevitable cultural and technical issues. And there are genuine threats to any certificate authority – Diginotar, for example – that Entrust has been addressing for the last 15-20 years. Datacard must show the same attention to security.

For the sake of full disclosure, between all of us here at Securosis, we know or have worked with people at all of the firms involved, as well as all the security firms acquired by TB. And something we have wondered internally is how well Thoma Bravo treats its portfolio companies. While we take individual assertions with a grain of salt, from our post security conference three-beer off-the-record conversations with the acquired firms, we hear a consistent story: TB requires the firm to focus on key offerings and maintaining profitability, but is generally otherwise hands-off. They are not pouring in cash, but they are also not starving off development or just “milking the cash cow” the way CA used to. Typically this is one of our first concerns, but benign neglect does not seem to be the case here. Strategically this deal makes sense, so now it is up to Datacard to deliver on their vision.