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IaaS Encryption: External Key Manager Deployment and Feature Options

By Rich

Deployment and topology options

The first thing to consider is how you want deploy external key management. There are four options:

  • An HSM or other hardware key management appliance. This provides the highest level of physical security but the appliance will need to be deployed outside the cloud. When using a public cloud this means running the key manager internally, relying on a virtual private cloud, and connecting the two with a VPN. In private clouds you run it somewhere on the network near your cloud, which is much easier.
  • A key management virtual appliance. Your vendor provides a pre-configured virtual appliance (instance) for you to run in your private cloud. We do not recommend you run this in a public cloud because – even if the instance is encrypted – there is significantly more exposure to live memory exploitation and loss of keys. If you decide to go this route anyway, use a vendor that takes exceptional memory protection precautions. A virtual appliance doesn’t offer the same physical security as a physical server, but they do come hardened and support more flexible deployment options – you can run it within your cloud.
  • Key management software, which can run either on a dedicated server or within the cloud on an instance. The difference between software and a virtual appliance is that you install the software yourself rather than receiving a configured and hardened image. Otherwise it offers the same risks and benefits as a virtual appliance, assuming you harden the server (instance) as well as the virtual appliance.
  • Key management Software as a Service (SaaS). Multiple vendors now offer key management as a service specifically to support public cloud encryption. This also works for other kinds of encryption, including private clouds, but most usage is for public clouds. There are a few different deployment topologies, which we will discuss in a moment.

When deploying a key manager in a cloud there are a few wrinkles to consider. The first is that if you have hardware security requirements your only option is to deploy a HSM or encryption/key management appliance compatible with the demands of cloud computing – where you may have many more dynamic network connections than in a traditional network (note that raw key operations per second is rarely the limiting factor). This can be on-premise with your private cloud, or remote with a VPN connection to the virtual private cloud. It could also be provided by your cloud provider in their data center, offered as a service, with native cloud API support for management. Another option is to store the root key on your own hardware, but deploy a bastion provisioning and management server as a cloud instance. This server handles communications with encryption clients/agents and orchestrates key exchanges, but the root key database is maintained outside the cloud on secure hardware.

If you don’t have hardware security requirements a number of additional options open up. Hardware is often required for compliance reasons, but isn’t always necessary.

Virtual appliances and software servers are fairly self-explanatory. The key issue (no pun intended) is that you are likely to need additional synchronization and orchestration to handle multiple virtual appliances in different zones and clouds. We will talk about this more in a moment, when we get to features.

Like deploying a hardware appliance, some key management service providers also deploy a local instance to assist with key provisioning (this is provider dependent and not always needed). In other cases the agents will communicate directly with the cloud provider over the Internet. A final option is for the security provider to partner with the cloud provider and install some components within the cloud to improve performance, to enhance resilience, and/or to reduce Internet traffic – which cloud providers charge for.

To choose an appropriate topology answer the following questions:

  • Do you need hardware-level key security?
  • How many instances and key operations will you need to support?
  • What is the topology of your cloud deployment? Public or private? Zones?
  • What degree of separation of duties and keys do you need?
  • Are you willing to work with a key management service provider?

Cloud features

For a full overview of key management servers, see our paper Understanding and Selecting a Key Management Solution. Rather than copying and pasting an 18-page paper we will focus on a few cloud-specific requirements we haven’t otherwise covered yet.

  • If you use any kind of key management service, pay particular attention to how keys are segregated and isolated between cloud consumers and from service administrators. Different providers have different architectures and technologies to manage this, and you should to map your security requirements agains how they manage keys. In some cases you might be okay with a provider having the technical ability to get your keys, but this if often completely unacceptable. Ask for technical details of how they manage key isolation and the root of trust.
  • Even if you deploy your own encryption system you will need granular isolation and segregation of keys to support cloud automation. For example if a business unit or development team is spinning up and shutting down instances dynamically, you will likely want to provide the capability to manage some of their own keys without exposing the rest of the organization.
  • Cloud infrastructure is more dynamic than traditional infrastructure, and relies more on Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) and network connectivity – you are likely to have more network connections from a greater number of instances (virtual machines). Any cloud encryption tool should support APIs and a high number of concurrent network connections for key provisioning.
  • For volume encryption look for native clients/agents designed to work with your specific cloud platform. These are often able to provide information above and beyond standard encryption agents to ensure only acceptable instances access keys. For example they might provide instance identifiers, location information, and other indicators which do not exist on a non-cloud encryption agent. When they are available you might use them to only allow an instance to access encrypted storage if it is located in the correct availability zone, to verify that an authorized user launched the instance, etc. They may also work more effectively with the peculiarities of IaaS storage. For boot volume encryption this is mandatory.
  • Cloud-specific management and reporting enables you to better manage keys for the cloud and manually provision keys as needed. The encryption tool should report instance-level details of key provisioning, such as instance and zone identifiers. This information is critical for manual provisioning or approval of key releases to make sure someone doesn’t just clone an instance, modify it, and then use it to steal keys.
  • Cloud encryption agents should pay particular attention to minimizing key exposure in volatile memory (RAM). This is essential to reduce exposure of keys to cloud administrator and other tenant on the same physical server, depending on the memory protection features of the cloud platform.

These are merely the cloud-specific features to look for, in addition to all the standard key management and encryption features.

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