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Cloud-based Public Key Infrastructure (PKI)

Cloud-based PKI is the modern alternative to on-premise PKI deployment. It refers to the framework where the entire PKI is hosted on the provider’s servers, and PKI is provided as a service to customers on-demand. This way, the customer receives all the benefits of a full-fledged public PKI without having to deal with the hosting, maintenance, and physical management costs involved. The backend is handled exclusively by the cloud PKI provider, including installations, maintenance, security, and backups. Only the necessary PKI is provided to the customer based on business needs.

2022 Ponemon Report: The State of Certificate Lifecycle Management in Global Organizations

Challenges with On-Prem PKI

On-premise is the deployment method traditionally used by most established PKI providers. In this case, the PKI is installed on the organization’s in-house servers—it is administered and governed by the organization’s internal PKI team, and the root certificate is stored in a highly secure location within this infrastructure. 

Many providers of external certificate authority (CA)s exclusively provide on-premise PKI, as it is considered to be more secure than the alternative (hosting a PKI elsewhere) – this is primarily because on-prem setups retain complete control over the private keys and certificate issuance process. However, on-premise offerings have shortcomings of their own. Some of them are as follows:

  • Deployment complexity

Setting up a PKI is a complex undertaking. It involves multiple processes such as procuring dedicated hardware and software, building secure physical facilities, setting up disaster recovery mechanisms and backups, and hiring highly skilled PKI administrators/personnel to deploy, operate, and maintain the infrastructure. Planning and acquiring all the PKI parts and getting them up and running takes significant time and investment.

  • Time and Cost-intensive scaling

A characteristic that PKI deployments absolutely must possess is scalability, i.e. the ability to grow and change in an agile fashion without requiring a complete overhaul of the system to do so. This is a major challenge with on-premise PKI. 

As organizations expand with more users, applications, and devices, the number of digital certificates will increase proportionally. Enterprises will then have to scale their PKI to make room for the growing volume of certificates. In an on-prem PKI environment, as the entire infrastructure is on the client’s servers, scaling requires months of extensive planning and acquiring additional resources, services, and applications—which is both time and cost-intensive. 

  • High Costs 

Setting up and operating traditional on-premise PKI incurs considerable upfront investment costs. As organizations grow in size, organically or via acquisitions, PKI must evolve and adapt to meet the increasing certificate management needs.  On-premise PKI is not flexible by nature, and scalability would mean high overhead costs. 

Advantages of Cloud-based PKI

  • Easy to Provision 

With cloud-based PKI, the entire hierarchy of CAs for issuing various types of certificates can be created via the PKI service provider with minimal effort in less time. Enterprises do not have to sign up separately with CA vendors—the PKI service provider integrates with various CAs and manages everything at the backend, requiring no effort from the customer. This framework not only eliminates the complexity of setting up and maintaining complex infrastructure but also improves operational efficiency. 

  • Robust, Secure, and Compliant PKI

Cloud-based PKI providers enable enterprises to set up the root CA remotely with the highest level of security. All root CA creation functions like key ceremony etc., are also performed remotely and securely. Further, the CA key-pair is either generated on the target device or stored in advanced and secure storage devices such as the FIPS-compliant hardware security module (HSM), which removes the need for human access to the key and prevents key roaming and potential key compromises. Further, cloud-based PKI solutions equipped with automation help enforce a consistent PKI policy for using certificates and keys, which improves security and regulatory compliance.

  • Simplified PKI Management and Operations 

As all the hardware and software components of PKI are hosted and managed by the cloud PKI service provider, enterprises don’t have to deal with the hassle of deployment and maintenance. This greatly simplifies PKI operations for enterprises. 

Advanced cloud-based PKI offerings also come equipped with integrated certificate lifecycle management (CLM) that helps automate the entire lifecycle of certificate management, from discovery to enrollment to renewal or revocation, irrespective of which CA issues them. 

Automated CLM provides complete visibility and centralized certificate management across multi-cloud environments, network devices, DevOps, containers, etc. This simplifies PKI management and operations for enterprises. 

  • Highly Available and Scalable Infrastructure

As modern use cases emerge and the certificate lifespans are cut short, the number of digital certificates used in an organization spikes up. With cloud-based PKI, enterprises have an adaptable PKI that can rapidly scale on-demand without worrying about operation disruption. 

Cloud-based PKI is offered with limitless capacity and can be scaled up or down depending on business needs. As the infrastructure upgrades are handled entirely by the PKI service provider, enterprises do not have to plan on redesigning the infrastructure to achieve scalability. 

  • Reduced Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) 

Cloud-based PKI eliminates the need for enterprises to invest in the expensive hardware and software required to operate PKI. Enterprises can avail PKI service on a pay-as-you-go basis. Enterprises also save on acquiring dedicated PKI resources needed to set up, operate, and maintain the infrastructure. Hence, the costs is much less as compared to the traditional on-prem PKI or the managed PKI. 

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