What is the Difference between HSM and KMS?
The difference between HSM and KMS is that HSM forms the strong foundation for security, secure generation, and usage of cryptographic keys. At the same time, KMS is responsible for offering streamlined management of cryptographic keys' lifecycle as per the pre-defined compliance standards.
Managing cryptographic relationships in small or big-scale environments seems challenging, given that these crypto key lifecycles need utmost security. Moreover, these crypto keys are highly sensitive and always prone to cyber threats and data loss. Sometimes the list of barriers can seem overwhelming, especially for the ones living in the internal crypto architectures’ world.
No wonder the key encryption managers are always trying to clearly state the relationship and communication between Key Management Systems (KMS) and Hardware Security Modules (HSMs), which are required for advancing the security of mission-critical business applications without any complications.
So, how do you define the relationship between HSM and KMS? Let's find out here, but first, check their concepts for reference:
What is Hardware Security Module?
A hardware security module refers to the secure cryptoprocessor, which is responsible for offering additional security to the cryptographic keys. It is also known for conducting cryptographic operations while storing and protecting the keys, along with the certification required for faster decryption, encryption, and authentication for multiple applications.
So, these HSMs are specialized security hardware devices that offer robust OS to protect cryptographic materials and are tamper-resistant. Moreover, since they provide strictly controlled access, hence it is practically virtually impossible to compromise. That is why many organizations consider these devices to be the Root of Trust for building a firm foundation of security and trust within the company.
One of the most popular HSM devices is Payment HSM, which is used in the retail banking industry to offer high-level security to cryptographic keys and customer PINs for encrypted transactions. It helps conceal the sensitive information required for credit and debit card transactions, PIN generation, cryptogram validation for transaction processing, point-to-point encryption (P2PE) key management, etc.
So, HSMs are beneficial for meeting the organization's specific regulations and security standards. These are also useful for setting high levels of authentication while storing the crypto keys at a single destination, maintaining the efficient automated lifecycle of these keys. Some top HSM brands include Amazon AWS, Thales, Entrust, Microsoft, etc.
What is a Key Management System?
Key management in cryptography refers to the management of these cryptographic keys within the typical cryptosystem. It is majorly responsible for dealing with the generation, storage, exchange, usage, and replacement of these keys as and when required at the user level. A KMS or Key Management System also includes the user procedures, protocols, key servers, cryptographic protocol designs, etc., for maintaining the utmost security of the cryptosystem.
Cryptographic keys play a significant role in any security system. They are the ones managing the data encryption as well as decryption along with user authentication. If any of these keys are compromised, it could collapse the entire organization's security infrastructure, which ultimately can allow the attacker to access the company's sensitive files, information, and data. Additionally, the attacker can authenticate himself as an authorized professional to gain access to the classified information.
But due to the availability of the key management system, it gets easier for the companies to define specific standards and privacy policies for securing these cryptographic keys while restricting access to them. So, key management forms the fundamental ground for securing sensitive data and information. Moreover, you get to invalidate the loss or any data compromise with the decryption and data encryption with the help of these cryptographic keys, provided that you have a steady internet connection.
HSM vs. KMS
The difference between HSM and KMS is that you can control the cryptographic keys and their operations with HSM devices. To get a detailed view of how these devices differ, let's talk about their connection and architecture a little in the next section.
The typical “key lifecycle” involves generation, key protection, rotation, distribution, and finally, the retirement of these keys needs to be handled with the utmost care, especially when these are responsible for protecting sensitive or valuable information like financial transactions, credit card data, etc. The key management systems are hence designed for this purpose only. It enables the keys to be proactively managed throughout their lifecycle.
A KMS is generally a server that is responsible for controlling the entire lifecycle of the cryptographic keys via a remote PC client and can securely handle both the requests for inbound as well as outbound key distribution. In addition, these systems can maintain the audit logs for tracking these keys for compliance and security reasons. However, to enable the key management team to administer the key lifestyle, the KMS must be backed up by its dedicated HSM to generate and protect the keys correctly.
As already highlighted, these HSMs are cryptographic hardware devices that are independently certified to norms, including FIPS 140-2, Common Criteria or PCI-HSM. So, these devices act as trusted sources for robust cryptography and key generation, thereby maintaining appropriate cryptographic functions for other apps and systems.
Therefore, the link here is that whenever KMS needs to generate or distribute key data, it directly interacts with its HSM for key generation, retrieval and encryption while sharing the keys to the specified target, which can be another HSM or a secure app server. PKCS #11 standard is the critical factor here as it specifies the requirements of such interactions between KMS and HSM. The end result is a set of APIs which can ensure secure communication between these two systems.
Should Businesses Use HSM or KMS?
Businesses need both HSM devices and Encryption Key Manager to create a data security encryption strategy. HSM devices can move crypto operations to protected territories. In contrast, KMS can move the key governance to secure places, separating the key management and enabling the applications to conduct their crypto functions independently.
So, controlling the enterprise encryption’s keys gets more manageable if the organization can strike the right balance and interaction between both systems and deploy a smarter strategy for advancing their data security policies. If you need the top brands offering the best cybersecurity solutions globally, get in touch with DC Gears.
Director - IT Solutions Engineering
Rahul Bogala is a seasoned IT leader, responsible for driving IT solutions, Products, Pre-sales, and customer experience. He has a successful track record of solving complex IT solutions. He also acts as a partner alliances leader nurturing partnership relationships & vendor management fostering the organic growth of business Rahul has expertise in designing and implementing solutions around: Network and Infrastructure Security, Server, Storage, and End computing Virtualization and cloud computing