Certificate management is the act of monitoring, facilitating, and executing digital x.509 certificates (SSL certificates). It plays a critical role in keeping communications between a client and server operating, encrypted, and secure.
Certificate lifecycle management catches faulty, misconfigured, and expired certificates, then performs the following processes:
A good certificate lifecycle management system can perform these actions for an entire certificate infrastructure, automatically and in real-time, to prevent downtime and outages.
What is a Digital Certificate and How do They Work?
The digital certificate definition is basically the same as the definition of an SSL certificate. That is, SSL certificates are digital documents that verify ownership of a public key (signature) to ensure confidentiality and security when information is exchanged between a user’s browser and the web server. If the certificate is valid, then the HTTP changes to HTTPS and all connections will remain private.
Certificates work by performing the following processes when a browser requests to connect to a secure web server:
- The server sends back to the browser its SSL certificate and public key.
- The browser checks the legitimacy of the SSL certificate and then creates a session key, which is then sent back to the server.
- The server uses its private key to decrypt the message and sends back an encrypted acknowledgment.
- The browser starts the session and exchanges encrypted information with the server.
This system works very well unless there is a problem with a certificate. Certificates expire after a predefined duration (generally between 3 months and 2 years) and policies are continually being changed. This means there is a constant need for renewal and sometimes suspension, revocation, or replacement of certificates. Otherwise, browsers won’t trust the legitimacy of a website and will send error messages. Another problem is that illegitimate certificates can open the door to security breaches. Thus, the need to really take to heart the importance of SSL certificate managers.
Stages of Certificate Lifecycle Management
Just like passwords or other credentials, digital certificates go through a cycle from creation to revocation/renewal. For security reasons, they aren't simply issued and then remain forever in the infrastructure. They are only valid for a limited time before they expire. The lifecycle of digital certificate management is:
- Generate a certificate or purchase one from a certificate authority (CA)
- Discover where each certificate is installed and if it is implemented correctly
- Monitor the certificate to ensure it is stored securely and is not expiring
- Validate that the certificate is still legitimate with the CA or server
- Revoke or renew the certificate before it expires
Certificate Lifecycle Management Systems
To ward off any problems, establishing SSL certificate management is a must. There are two ways to go about doing this: a manual system or an automated one.
Manual Certificate Management
Manually managing certificates involves using a calendar or spreadsheet to keep track of every detail of each SSL certificate, including policy changes, any required actions, and expiration dates. This may be manageable if you are a very small business with maybe a dozen certificates to oversee. But, as your business grows and becomes more complex, those dozen certificates can quickly turn into hundreds, each with its own issuer, policies, effectiveness, vulnerabilities, and expiration date.
Keeping on top of such volume becomes time consuming, burdensome, error-prone, and risky. A simple missed deadline or typo can prove costly with a breakdown or breach that causes lost traffic, sales, data, and trust.
Automated Certificate Management System
By far, the safest, easiest way to manage certificates is by employing an automated certificate management system. SSL certificate managers will conquer all the critical tasks for you without any hiccups or hangups.
The 8 steps automatically covered by such a system are:
- Creating, configuring, signing, and issuing certificates
- Provisioning and configuring of servers, applications, and devices
- Scanning, locating, and validating certificates
- Inventorying and organizing group certificates and managing entities
- Dynamically monitoring, auditing, and reporting
- Encrypting private key storage for security
- Preemptively renewing certificates and preventing expiration
- Revoking and discarding certificates once invalid
The Benefits of Using an Automated Certificate Management System
As you can imagine, satisfactorily completing the above 8 steps of SSL management is only possible with the right automated certificate management tool. Other benefits that come from the features of such a tool are many:
- Operational costs and associated staff time is reduced.
- Human errors are eliminated.
- Outages are prevented.
- Acquisition, deployment, and renewal are streamlined.
- Certificates are consolidated and organized.
- Data is aggregated.
- SSL environments are transparent and controlled.
- Accountability is established in accordance with defined policies.
- Whole-system health and vulnerability are constantly being checked.
- Availability, capability, and scalability are enhanced.
- Risk is managed.
- Brand reputation is protected.
Since security of SSL certificates is such a big deal and a huge benefit that comes with using a dedicated certificate lifecycle management tool, let’s go into this subject a bit more. The industry of stolen digital certificates has grown to become the next big underground market. With certificate misuse comes compromised protective capabilities of firewalls and authentication, resulting in data loss and damaged trust.
Protecting SSL certificates (and the digital assets they provide) from cyber-attacks are made significantly easier and stronger with the automation of certificate generation and authentication. A proper system features compliance enforcement and verification, rapid incident response, and automated remediation. It’s simply impossible to gain any of these benefits unless an automated certificate management system is employed.
Venafi Certificate Management
Now that you know what certificate management is, you also know the key takeaways are that it is: 1) necessary, and 2) nearly impossible to do well without a professional certificate management system.
Learn more about SSL certificates, DevOps, SSH Keys, Code Signing, and more in Venafi’s free Education Center! Or get started immediately, start a free 30 day trial of Venafi as a Service.