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How to Scale Your PKI Through Automation

How to Scale Your PKI Through Automation

April 11, 2022 | Anastasios Arampatzis

The public key infrastructure (PKI) is the most effective strategy for securing communications between machines—network systems, mobile devices, virtual servers and the IoT—whether inside or outside the corporate boundaries. As the volume of machines, devices and network endpoints grows, so does the need for machine identities and the complexity of PKI management. As a result, the manual management of machine identities—cryptographic keys and digital certificates—throughout their lifecycle becomes unreliable. To secure the sensitive data and defend against various data breach attacks in this rapidly growing environment, it’s important that organizations understand how to safely scale their PKI. This has led many—but not all—organizations to move to automated solutions.


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Why isn’t PKI automation adopted at a greater scale?

Many organizations prefer to stick to old-fashioned, handcrafted manual processes for managing all their digital identities and certificates. Although there are only a handful of cloud-based PKI solutions that are delivered as a service, certain misperceptions are keeping organizations from adopting these solutions. These misperceptions can be summarized as follows.

  • It is easier to manually control your certificates. That was true when automated PKI management solutions were more cumbersome to administer. This is not the case anymore. For example, with ACME the creation and deployment of certificates is only a few clicks away.
  • Automation adds complexity. On the contrary. Modern cloud-based PKI offerings come as one-stop-shop for automating the management of certificates for all use cases. They are also accessible through REST APIs to integrate certificate management with existing infrastructure.
  • Automation results in increased budgeting. This is a myth as well. Cloud-based solutions offer transparent pricing solutions that facilitate budget planning and provide cost effectiveness.
  • Manual PKI management is secure. Not only is there a security downside to managing PKI certificate lifecycles manually, but it can be extremely risky to do so. Using manual certificate renewal or certificate database management in today’s complex device and user ecosystem is especially hazardous, especially considering the shortening of certificate validity.
What are the benefits of PKI automation?

Businesses are looking to automate their PKI to enhance the management of their certificate lifecycles and provide increased security for their highly sensitive data. There are three benefits identified with a shift towards PKI automation.

  • Comprehensive security. PKI automation helps to reduce human errors which would result in increasing risk of a data breach and assists in managing the certificate lifecycle. PKI automation also ensures that all machine identities are managed and protected to eliminate any risk of non-compliance due to outdated certificates in critical systems.
  • Operational efficiency. In addition to saving time and effort, it helps reduce the cost for managing digital identities.
  • Business continuity. Manually handling certificate management is the main reason for unwanted certificate expiry and improper deployment of new certificates. PKI automation includes processes like automated discovery of endpoint machines, certificate deployment and renewal or re-issuance of near expiry certificates that can eliminate the risk of system outages.
How can businesses automate PKI?

A robust platform for machine identity management is the most effective way to automate your certificate lifecycles. However, there are also certain tools that you can use to increase the use of automation within your PKI, depending on your organization’s requirements.

REST API integration

One of the most common ways of automating your PKI is using REST API provided that your Certificate Authority (CA) supports API integration. You can integrate the API into your PKI either from scratch by developing your own scripts for making API calls or through leveraging existing tools.

Simple Certificate Enrollment Protocol (SCEP)

SCEP is an open-source certificate management protocol that is supported by most operating systems such as Android, Microsoft Windows, Linux, iOS and other major OSes. This option requires a SCEP agent on the device and works in concurrence with your enterprise device management tools.

Enrollment over Secure Transport (EST)

EST is an enhancement to SCEP and provides the additional feature of supporting Elliptic Curve Cryptography (ECC). Although both SCEP and EST automate the certificate enrollment process, the difference is that SCEP uses Shared Secret protocol and CSRs for enrolling certificates, whereas EST uses TLS for authentication.

Automated Certificate Management Environment (ACME)

ACME is a protocol for automating the certificate lifecycle management processes between Certificate Authorities (CAs) and a company’s PKI-supported systems—web servers, email systems, and machines. The ACME protocol is more effective for managing and scaling the enterprise certificate and machine identity needs; hence it has become the preferred method for PKI automation by many organizations.

No organization is immune from the need to implement effective and reliable certificate lifecycle management. It is a critical function underpinning all digital transformation initiatives that is challenging to execute manually. Digital certificates provide effective and robust PKI-based security to enable the creation of trusted machine identities. Making sure these certificates are managed effectively and efficiently can be a pain point for organizations that do not understand the benefits of automated certificate lifecycle management and how best to implement it.

Organizations that leverage cloud-based PKI services with strong emphasis on automating certificate lifecycle management are better equipped to increase their security posture. Venafi Trust Protection Platform operates as an ACME server that supports automated certificate enrollment and installation with the added benefit of global visibility and machine identity intelligence. If you want to learn more, contact the experts.

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About the author

Anastasios Arampatzis
Anastasios Arampatzis

Anastasios Arampatzis is a retired Hellenic Air Force officer with over 20 years of experience in evaluating cybersecurity and managing IT projects. He works as an informatics instructor at AKMI Educational Institute, while his interests include exploring the human side of cybersecurity.

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