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Cloud-based Public Key Infrastructure (PKI)

Cloud-based PKI, also referred to as PKI-as-a-Service, is the modern alternative to on-premises PKI deployments. It refers to the framework where the PKI is hosted and maintained in the cloud and is provided as a service to customers on demand. Customers receive all of the benefits of a full-fledged PKI without having to deal with the hosting, maintenance, and physical infrastructure costs involved. Instead, the backend infrastructure is handled by the cloud PKI provider, including maintenance, security, and backups.

2023 EMA Report: SSL/TLS Certificate Security-Management and Expiration Challenges

Challenges with On-Premises (On-prem) PKI

On-premises PKI is a traditional deployment method where the infrastructure and resources are installed and managed within the customer’s environment. The on-prem PKI is also administered and governed by the customer’s internal PKI team, and the root certificate needs to be stored in a highly secure location within their infrastructure. 

Some external Certificate Authorities (CAs) provide on-prem PKI for customers because it allows the end organization to retain complete control over the private keys and certificate issuance process. However, on-premises PKI has shortcomings and challenges including:

  • Deployment complexity

Setting up a PKI in-house 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 components and getting them up and running requires significant time and upfront investments.

  • Time and Cost-intensive scaling

PKI deployments without a doubt need to be scalable and have the ability to expand and adapt in an agile fashion without requiring a complete system overhaul. However, this is a major challenge with on-premises PKI. 

As organizations grow in size organically or via acquisitions, the number of digital certificates in use increases proportionally. Enterprises will then have to scale their PKI to support the growing volume of certificates and new use cases. In an on-prem PKI environment, as the entire infrastructure is handled by the customer, scaling requires months of extensive planning and acquiring additional resources, services, and applications—which is both time and cost-intensive. On-premises PKI is not flexible by nature and scaling results in high overhead costs. 

Time to move to a modern and cloud-based private PKI

Advantages of Cloud-based PKI

  • Easy to Provision 

With cloud-based PKI, the entire CA hierarchy for issuing various types of end entity certificates can be created in the cloud via the PKI service provider with minimal effort in less time. 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 will handle the root CA creation process and in some cases enable enterprises to set up the root CA remotely, with the highest level of security. With this, the root CA creation functions like the key ceremony, etc., are also performed remotely and securely. Further, the CA key-pair is either generated or stored in advanced and secure storage devices such as the FIPS-compliant hardware security module (HSM). Further, cloud-based PKI solutions equipped with automation help enforce a consistent PKI policy for issuing and managing certificates and keys, which improves security and helps ensure regulatory compliance.

  • Simplified PKI Management and Operations 

Advanced cloud-based PKI solutions also come equipped with built-in certificate lifecycle management (CLM) that helps automate the entire lifecycle of certificates, including discovery, enrollment, installation, renewal, and 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 shorter, the number of digital certificates used in an organization multiplies. 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 consume PKI services on a pay-as-you-go basis. Enterprises also save on acquiring dedicated PKI personnel and expertise needed to set up, operate, and maintain the infrastructure. Hence, the cost is much less as compared to the traditional on-prem PKI. 

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