Key Management with Acuity: On-Premises, Cloud, Hybrid

Designed to provide the rigor and security required for the most sensitive transactions, hardware security modules (HSMs) are widely used by financial services, enterprises, and government entities, as the most secure way to manage encryption. The core requirements for encryption key management are universal: 

  • Robust security 
  • Control
  • Scalability

In terms of key management, HSMs are tasked with compliantly managing the lifecycle of encryption keys used across an organization’s estate of applications. This includes creating, managing, storing, distributing, and retiring or revoking keys.

Sophisticated key management solutions are essential to any cryptographic operation because encrypted information is only as secure as the encryption keys. If the keys are compromised, then so is the encrypted data.

An on-premises key management solution gives organizations complete and isolated control over their key management. For example, financial services organizations handling transaction processing require systems and networks that are optimized to process a very high volume of data with minimal latency (delay).

To meet compliance, they require primary keys to be stored in secure, tamper-resistant hardware. What about organizations that operate in countries with strict requirements on data localization? A cloud-only provider may not have a local data center in that geographic location. As you work to monitor your organization’s IT operations, ask yourself:

  • Can my infrastructure handle higher volumes of users and transactions?
  • How would my organization handle a service disruption if we experienced and outage?

The cloud offers access to on-demand scalability — ideal for cryptographic operations that can face significant spikes in usage. The cloud can increase capacity and facilitate remote access to vital business functions, especially now when redundancy and scalability are more important than ever.

For example, the cloud could be an ideal solution for on-demand scalability for a retailer with an existing payment processing infrastructure that’s overloaded and delaying or declining transactions as a result. This covers a sudden surge in demand or can serve as a stand-in in the event of a full-blown outage, and you’re only paying for the capacity you need when you need it.

When moving workloads to the cloud, security is of paramount importance. Major public cloud providers — including AWS, Azure, and Google Cloud Platform — offer functions to help secure these workloads and applications; and allow users to self-manage encryption keys, using an approach known as Bring Your Own Key (BYOK). BYOK allows organizations to retain control of their own cryptographic keys even after moving to the cloud.


A Hybrid Option Works for Many
Many organizations simply prefer to own and physically oversee their own HSMs, but they also seek the accessibility and convenience of the cloud. A hybrid model would contain a combination of on-premises HSMs and cloud HSMs to account for:

  • Scalability
  • Backup
  • Failover

This model is often used by organizations that have large on-premises HSM estates, but want to limit further investments in on-premises and want to tap into the scalability of the cloud. With a hybrid infrastructure, if an organization sees an unexpectedly high volume, cloud-based HSMs can seamlessly provide additional capacity, preventing slowdowns or outages. 

A few years ago, on-premises was the only option for key management. That has changed and you now have the option to move fully to the cloud or adopt a hybrid model. As you’re considering your options, ask these seven questions of your cryptographic solution: 

  1. Security. Look for validation under FIPS 140-2 Level 3 and PCI HSM standards. If financial services are using it, then shouldn’t you?
  2. Scalability. Does it scale to meet your needs?
  3. Compliance. Will the infrastructure pass audits?
  4. High availability. Does it eliminate single points of failure in real-time?
  5. Integration. Does it integrate with your current systems?
  6. Resources. Do you have a dedicated key management and crypto team? 
  7. Cost. Hardware is capex-centric, cloud is an operating expense model.

If your organization is facing scalability issues, interruptions, access failure, it might be time to extend your critical infrastructure beyond your physical premises. Fortunately, you have several options: moving to the cloud, renting rack space, or looking for hybrid options.

To account for a newly remote workforce, data center and social distancing challenges, and an increasingly diverse set of cyber threats — not to mention the ever-present need to account for traffic peaks, balance workloads, and ensure uninterrupted access — managing encryption key management with acuity is more important than ever.

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