Businesses employ a series of controls and processes for establishing trust across the massive scale of connected machines. As the ecosystem of users, devices, applications, and Internet of things (IoT) continues to expand, PKI plays an increasingly central role in protecting machine-to-machine connectivity and managing machine identities. To manage these machine identities, organizations are turning towards private PKI services, either on-premises or hosted and managed by a service provider.
Why businesses need a private PKI service?
Publicly trusted digital certificates (such as TLS/SSL certificates) are highly effective tools for securing public-facing websites and servers. However, they often don’t work well for internal networks, servers, and devices. Certificate Authority (CA) compliance rules don’t allow the issue of a publicly trusted TLS/SSL certificate for a private IP address or internal domain.
Therefore, many companies look to use a private PKI to meet their business needs. A private certificate authority is what you use to issue certificates that only your internal network knows and trusts. Some of the most common use cases for private PKI are:
- Machine identities for secure authentication and communication for IoT devices/networks
- PKI-based authentication for smart cards
- Device certificates for VPN or network authentication
- Private TLS/SSL certificates for securing connections between servers
- Code signing for securing DevOps containers and packages
On-premises private PKI service
Some organizations are opting for an in-house PKI service using Active Directory Certificate Services (the Microsoft CA). This comes with the advantage of maintaining full control of your machine identities and code signing management. In-house solutions can be customized to meet specific business needs, something that isn’t always possible with third party offerings. If a company is using a PKI to manage confidentiality, integrity and authenticity services for its own employees, it may make sense to keep the solution in-house.
However, the downsides of the in-house approach make it impractical for many companies:
- Extensive time investment to properly manage the certificate authority
- Hard costs for a hardware security module (HSM) and other infrastructure
- Limited certificate management capabilities, especially on non-Windows devices
Many companies do not have the skills and expertise to deploy an in-house PKI system. In addition, organizations have to acquire all the hardware and software components required to generate digital certificates and machine identities. They then need to integrate digital signatures and authentication mechanisms into internal applications. Assuming that the onboarding process is carried out smoothly, the company will then have to commit itself to carrying out regular audits.
Managed private PKI service
As an alternative to maintaining an in-house PKI, many organizations are outsourcing their PKI infrastructure to a managed service provider, with the technology managed and hosted by a trusted third party. There are several advantages to this model, including faster time to deployment and lower total cost of ownership. Literally, all the disadvantages of an in-house PKI are advantages when it comes to a managed PKI.
The primary benefits of a managed PKI solution are the following:
1. Speed to market and scalability
One of the major advantages of a managed PKI solution over an in-house model is how much quicker and more cost effectively you can begin implementing digital certificate and machine identity provisioning. A managed PKI service provides scalable identity provisioning that can be increased or reduced on demand.
2. Enhanced security of cryptographic keys
Managed PKIs use hardware security modules (HSMs) to ensure keys and cryptographic operations are fully protected and never appear in the clear. When subscribing to a managed PKI service, you can take advantage of a flexible as-you-grow business model with no initial cost for HSM or key storage.
3. Lifecycle certificate management
Managing machine identities over the lifespan of a machine is a complicated task when building an in-house PKI platform. To maintain trust in the public key infrastructure, a managed PKI service continuously monitors the issuing, renewal, use, and potential misuse of machine identities (digital certificates like TLS and SSL) throughout their lifecycle. Compromised credentials could allow attackers to infiltrate secure ecosystems. To prevent this, a managed PKI service maintains a Certificate Revocation List, which identifies compromised or misused certificates that should no longer be trusted.
4. Enhanced physical security
Managed PKIs aren’t as susceptible to physical security weaknesses as in-house private PKIs can be. Generally, their servers are kept in extremely secure and stable environments where they are sheltered from earthquakes, fires, and power outages. They are also usually locked down, so you can be sure bad actors don’t have access to them.
5. Get access to a team of experts
Experts build managed PKIs, so you can rest assured that nothing is overlooked—as opposed to what might happen if you relied on an IT professional who might only have a small amount of experience. When you use a managed PKI, you are getting 24/7 access to the same team of experts that builds and maintains the PKI, so whenever you have an issue, it will be quickly resolved, ensuring seamless operation.
6. Cost savings
With a managed PKI service, you don’t need to hire extra staff to implement a PKI, nor do you have to invest in costly physical hardware. Additionally, you don’t need to find space in your office to keep the PKI safe.
With advanced expertise at their disposal, managed PKI service providers can offer a more consistent, secure, resilient, and flexible proposition that is not dependent on hard-to-find skills. As the environment becomes more complex, regulations stricter, and compliance fines significantly larger, businesses should place their trust in the expert hands of a PKI provider rather than wrongly assuming that security and control are better managed in house.
Venafi Zero Touch PKI is a fully SaaS-based alternative to creating and running your own internal PKI. It can be configured and managed in any way you need, in conjunction with multiple CAs and with the options you need for security and traceability. Talk to a Venafi expert about how you can discover the benefits of a managed PKI solution.