The Next Generation

HSM approach delivers unparalleled cost/benefit for organizations

Hardware Security Modules, or HSMs, protect against insider and external threats by delivering confidentiality for encryption keys in a physically hardened appliance. They were initially developed by the military for the military, then were first leveraged commercially in the financial services sector. Now HSMs can be seen in a variety of applications ranging from PKI to code signing to databases.

Despite their strong security benefits, HSMs designed with older generation technology present significant hurdles to adoption. First, they are built using proprietary hardware that has a high initial acquisition cost. Second, they bring significant complexity and cost of operations. In many cases, the personnel costs to manage and operate these HSMs greatly exceed the appliance cost. The total cost and complexity prove to be prohibitive for many organizations, leading to critical gaps in encryption key management for data protection.

However, newer technologies are available today which can enable organizations to reassess their cost/benefit analysis and implement stronger security controls with low initial investment. Organizations are finding that next-generation HSM and Key Management capabilities offered as a subscription-based approach deliver powerful data protection and TCO benefits.

In the past, organizations had only the CAPEX model to purchase HSMs. The hardware typically cost at least $20,000 to deploy, $40,000 for high availability, and multiple times more for a typical enterprise deployment. Most cases required additional components and costs for such features as client-side connectors, partitions, KMIP support, Elliptical Curve algorithms, master key export, remote administration, and maintenance. Added up, deployment costs for real-world use cases often started at $250,000. This cost scenario left most organizations unable to leverage the power of HSMs and open to data breaches and insider attacks.

Next-generation HSMs today offer a subscription, or OPEX, model with flat, predictable pricing and a low barrier of entry, providing an attractive cost/benefit scenario that is attainable for most organizations. The leading appliances use commercial offthe- shelf (COTS) servers hardened for NIST FIPS 140-2 level-3, significantly reducing the initial acquisition cost. A HSM-as-aservice (HSMaaS) subscription software license combined with an all-inclusive model offers predictable pricing for current and future use cases. Additionally, those next-generation HSMs following a software-defined design can even accommodate organizations that prefer to use their own servers for cost or supply chain efficiency purposes.

The CAPEX model bundles software and hardware together and often leads to paying for the software several times.

For example, if an organization, after a few years, needs to upgrade their hardware due to growing demands, they must purchase another hardware and software bundle, effectively duplicating their software payment. Next-generation HSMs’ approach enables organizations to purchase new servers or appliances and transfer the software licenses over, thereby lowering long-term acquisition costs. The OPEX model gives organizations the flexibility to more frequently upgrade to the latest Intel x86 processor, as an example. A higher performance processor means they can do more with less, which lowers overall costs.

HSMs today should be secure, cost-effective, intuitive, and easy to use. They should:

  • Support all NSA Suite B algorithms.
  • Securely generate, manage, and rotate keys; encrypt, hash, and sign.
  • Support all common APIs (including RESTful APIs, KMIP, and traditional cryptographic interfaces) on the same platform.
  • Support multi-tenancy (the ability to securely manage multiple users/customers/departments on the same hardware/software).
  • Provide true separation of duties (ability to manage firmware/ software updates without having access to application keys).
  • Provide secure audit logs that integrate with SIEM tools such as Splunk, and offer configurable alerts.
  • Deliver built-in high availability and load balancing without costly external appliances.

Legacy HSMs require professional services and a weeklong class to get trained on deploying the solution. Additional “soft costs” associated with these deployments can be significant as well. Legacy HSMs have to be offline for firmware/software updates, which means unproductive downtime and admins required to travel worldwide to make administrative changes to data centers. Because they are so difficult to manage, few within a company understand how they work, requiring additional training classes. With next-generation HSMs, there is no downtime during software updates, and centralized remote key management software does not require admins to fly around the globe.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2018 issue of Security Today.

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