Pragmatic Key Management: Introduction

By Rich

Few terms strike as much dread in the hearts of security professionals as key management. Those two simple words evoke painful memories of massive PKI failures, with millions spent to send encrypted email to the person in the adjacent cube. Or perhaps it recalls the head-splitting migraine you got when assigned to reconcile incompatible proprietary implementations of a single encryption standard. Or memories of half-baked product implementations that worked fine on in isolation on a single system, but were effectively impossible to manage at scale. And by scale, I mean “more than one”.

Over the years key management has mostly been a difficult and complex process. This has been aggravated by the recent resurgence in encryption – driven by regulatory compliance, cloud computing, mobility, and fundamental security needs.

Fortunately, encryption today is not the encryption of yesteryear. New techniques and tools remove much of the historical pain of key management – while also supporting new and innovative uses.

We also see a change in how organizations approach key management – a move toward practical and lightweight solutions.

In this series we will explore the latest approaches for pragmatic key management. We will start with the fundamentals of crypto systems rather than encryption algorithms, what they mean for enterprise deployment, and how to select a strategy that suits your particular project requirements.

The historic pain of key management

Technically there is no reason key management needs to be as hard as it has been. A key is little more than a blob of text to store and exchange as needed. The problem is that everyone implements their own methods of storing, using, and exchanging keys. No two systems worked exactly alike, and many encryption implementations and products didn’t include the features needed to use encryption in the real world – and still don’t.

Many products with encryption features supported only their own proprietary key management – which often failed to meet enterprise requirements in areas such as rotation, backup, separation of duties, and reporting. Encryption is featured in many different types of products but developers who plug an encryption library into an existing tool have (historically) rarely had enough experience in key management to produce refined, easy to use, and effective systems.

On the other hand, some security professionals remember early failed PKI deployments that costs millions and provided little value. This was at the opposite end of the spectrum – key management deployed for its own sake, without thought given to how the keys and certificates would be used.

Why key management isn’t as hard as you think it is

As with most technologies, key management has advanced significantly since those days. Current tools and strategies offer a spectrum of possibilities, all far better standardized and with much more robust management capabilities.

We no longer have to deploy key management with an all-or-nothing approach, either relying completely on local management or on an enterprise-wide deployment. Increased standardization (powered in large part by KMIP, the Key Management Interoperability Protocol) and improved, enterprise-class key management tools make it much easier to fit deployments to requirements.

Products that implement encryption now tend to include better management features, with increased support for external key management systems when those features are insufficient. We now have smoother migration paths which support a much broader range of scenarios.

I am not saying life is now perfect. There are plenty of products that still rely on poorly implemented key management and don’t support KMIP or other ways of integrating with external key managers, but fortunately they are slowly dying off or being fixed due to constant customer pressure. Additionally, dedicated key managers often support a range of non-standards-based integration options for those laggards.

It isn’t always great, but it is much easier to mange keys now than even a few years ago.

The new business drivers for encryption and key management

These advances are driven by increasing customer use of, and demand for, encryption. We can trace this back to 3 primary drivers:

  • Expanding and sustained regulatory demand for encryption. Encryption has always been hinted at by a variety of regulations, but it is now mandated in industry compliance standards (most notably the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard – PCI-DSS) and certain government regulations. Even when it isn’t mandated, most breach disclosure laws reduce or eliminate the need to publicly report loss of client information if the lost data was encrypted.
  • Increasing use of cloud computing and external service providers. Customers of cloud and other hosting providers want to protect their data when they give up physical control of it. While the provider often has better security than the customer, this doesn’t reduce our visceral response to someone else handling our sensitive information.
  • The increase in public data exposures. While we can’t precisely quantify the growth of actual data loss, it is certainly far more public than it has ever been before. Executives who previously ignored data security concerns are now asking security managers how to stay out of the headlines.

More enforcement of more regulations, increasing use of outsiders to manage our data, and increasing awareness of data loss problems, are all combining to produce the greatest growth the encryption market has seen in a long time.

Key management isn’t just about encryption (but that is our focus today)

Before we delve into how to manage keys, it is important to remember that cryptographic keys are used for more than just encryption, and that there are many different kinds of encryption.

Our focus in this series is on data encryption – not digital signing, authentication, identity verification, or other crypto operations. We will not spend much time on digital certificates, certificate authorities, or other signature-based operations. Instead we will focus on data encryption, which is only one area of cryptography.

Much of what we see is as much a philosophical change as improvement in particular tools or techniques. I have long been bothered people’s tendency to either indulge in encryption idealism at one end, and or dive into low-level details that don’t practically affect security at the other end – both reinforced by our field’s long-running ties to cryptography. But with the new pressures to encrypt more information in more places (while keeping auditors happy), we are finally seeing much more focus on pragmatic implementation.

Next we will cover the major components of an encryption system, and how they affect key management options. We will follow up with the four major key management strategies, and suggestions for how to pick the right one for your requirements.

As you have probably guessed by now, this will all culminate in a nifty new white paper. As always, to keep our content as objective and transparent as possible, I will write it all out here in public for open review, then incorporate and attribute feedback in the final work.

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Something to keep in mind is that a good “key management” system will actually really be a “credential management” system. Because the reality is that no matter how much you use keys to accomplish tasks there are always cases where you can’t escape passwords or passphrases. This is especially true when you look at things like running databases which have stored credentials in config files or you have the need to securely manage SSL certs. I can’t tell you how many tomcat configs I’ve seen with the passphrase for the ssl keys embedded in the config files.

By David Mortman

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