6 Benefits of EKM for Storage – What To Consider When Choosing a Key Management Solution

The storage market is seeing an increase in KMIP (Key Management Interoperability Protocol) compliant External Key Management (EKM) integrations from storage vendors. Security-conscious organizations are driving these integration requests due to the multitude of benefits that an EKM can provide an organization with.

Benefit #1 – Compliance and Security Best Practices
The definition of what’s appropriate, or ‘good enough’ for security and compliance is different for every organization. Many factors influence EKMthis, from internal IT benchmarks to industry compliance standards (that are related to that company’s market such as HIPAA, DFAR or PCI-DSS), and those mandated by governments at various levels like GDPR. Onboard Key Storage (OKS) solutions allow companies to use a built-in solution for that storage device. This provides a one-stop shop to resolve storage data encryption, as well as provides basic key availability services on that storage device. For other organizations, their solution cannot be that simple for many reasons, including some of these typical issues that can occur:

Multiple Storage Devices: If a company owns multiple storage devices to host their corporate data (or have inherited the storage devices due to a merger or an acquisition of other companies), the OKS model implies that each storage platform would come with different key management offerings. This creates issues with feature parity, as well as making sure each key storage system provides the same key management capabilities. Furthermore, when an enterprise has a myriad of different systems that provide the same type of capabilities, but with different features and user interfaces, it is much more prone to user error which can result in data compromise or even loss of data.

Storing Keys Separately from Data: Depending on industry governance, there may be reasons that any keys and data they encrypt must be stored separately. For example, Section 3.5 of the PCI-DSS standard states: “Protect any keys used for encryption of cardholder data from disclosure and misuse.” Most storage vendors will state that internal or onboard key management systems protect against unauthorized access to physical storage devices—but not entire storage systems. The keys are embedded and stored within the product itself. If you choose to use an onboard key management system, you should consider that keys – and therefore your data – will be accessible if the entire storage system is compromised.

For companies that are mandated to support items such as FIPS 140-2 compliance (to stop use of encryption algorithms deemed unsafe and tamper proofing of appliances), onboard key storage systems may provide FIPS 140-2 Level 1. This ensures the organization that key algorithms used by the appliance are deemed safe, and comply with FIPS. Achieving FIPS certification can be a lengthy and involved process, so not all storage vendors will certify their onboard key management. For those that require more than just the disabling of unsafe encryption key algorithms, FIPS Level 2 (storing keys in tamper proof evident hardware) or Level 3 (tamper resistant key storage) external key managers, can help provide that level of security.

A well designed external key manager can be configured to meet Level 1 compliance, restricting use of unsafe algorithms, as well as be configured to provide higher levels of assurance. This provides organizations with a future proof system in case their compliance standards change. Combined with the added flexibility of having a key manager that can operate on-premises or in a remote datacenter, as a physical appliance, or virtual appliance (running on a private or public cloud), provides companies with options to meet their budget constraints without sacrificing security. External key management solutions protect the data when storage devices or entire storage systems can be physically accessed by an intruder, or become lost or stolen.

Benefit #2 – Key Lifecycle Management
Encryption key management should incorporate some level of centralized policy and control. It’s not as simple as creating the key, encrypting the data and forgetting about it, a customer should also be able to perform actions on keys such as: key generation; key retirement; determining the activation or de-activation of the key; key rotation to ensure the key content is updated periodically or as needed; and key destruction (when required). All of these functions should be part of a company’s key lifecycle management strategy. In the case of onboard key storage systems – assuming they have these capabilities – most of the key management is done through a command line interface. Depending on the scope of requirements, a true management console providing a visual interface to the key vault greatly simplifies the process.

Benefit #3 – Flexible Deployment Options
When looking at their IT infrastructure, many organizations are being faced with the decision to either maintain various applications (including key management), onsite, or in a remote datacenter and move it to the cloud. In reality, that choice is based on several factors. For key management, organizations will want to ensure that their solution will function in any of these environments to futureproof their investment. With onboard key storage, companies will not have that flexibility in the deployment – it will tie to the storage platform and be for a single purpose environment. With an external key manager, companies have the ability to manage and store their encryption keys, consistently regardless of the environment.

Benefit #4 – Audit Trails
To help meet corporate and industry compliance requirements, key management systems can provide signed, validated information on key management, as well as key consumption – detailing who accessed the key, the event time, and the success or failure of the operation. In addition, alert mechanisms such as SNMP Traps can notify staff if any issues arise with the key management appliance or other appliances communicating with the key manager. One of the primary benefits of an external key management system, is its ability to help companies streamline their audit reporting. Trying to prove to an external compliance auditor that the keys are secure, protected, and have strong access controls on them, would be much more difficult and costly to do with onboard key storage, especially without consistency between vendors. This would also result in all storage systems to be audited individually.

Benefit #5 – Separation of Duties
External key management systems have the ability to define permissions for the key administrators, as well as the key consumers. A common example of this is the ability to allow a key administrator to create a key for encrypt/decrypt purposes, but also deny the administrator ability to use that key by utilizing LDAP or AD user attributes. Major compliance requirements such as HIPAA, GDPR along with others, require this separation of duties to ensure appropriate data access. Typically, Onboard Key Storage systems will not have this level of granularity in administrative roles – the storage administrator is also the encryption key administrator.

Benefit #6 – Ecosystem Support
Sometimes, it’s difficult to envision how much effort is involved when it comes to managing your sensitive data and where it exists. Databases, CRM/ERP systems, various commercial and in-house applications are among the few places where the proper management of sensitive data needs to be considered. Chances are, most companies have a storage system that will support a portion of these data repositories – so the OKS can help protect this information. Where there are more dispersed data repositories (as well as different security concerns among lines of business consuming these repositories), a stand-alone, external key manager helps bring all this disparate effort under one umbrella from a policy management viewpoint. An EKM that includes technology standards such as KMIP helps provide a consistent interface to applications and appliances interfacing with your external key management system.

It’s important for companies to examine what their ‘big picture’ looks like when it comes to making the right choice for a key management solution that meets the needs of their organization. The main question companies should ask themselves is: Is onboard key storage a ‘good enough’ solution, or is an external key management system something that should be deployed? There are clear benefits to a KMIP compliant external key management solution, which could help take their organization’s security and compliance to another level.

Interested in learning more about the benefits of external key management for various storage environments? Check out the following resources from Gemalto:

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