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Beyond Manual Processes: The Advantages of Automating Certificate Renewals

Certificate Management

Certificates are a fundamental component of IT security infrastructure, essential for establishing trust and encrypted communications. However, many organizations still manually manage certificates, a method fraught with risks and challenges, hoping to save money by undertaking the burden themselves. 

Organizations must decide when to automate certificate renewal to simplify processes, lower risks, and improve security.

In this blog, we will explore the challenges organizations face with manual certificate management and how certificate automation can help overcome these challenges. 

Understanding the risk

Understanding the risk inherent in certificate management is a crucial aspect for organizations deciding whether to maintain current processes or adopt an automated solution. When organizations manage their certificates internally, they assume complete control over the process and full responsibility for any possible failures. Issues arising from manual certificate management—issuance, renewal, revocation—can affect both the organization and its customers. 

Is the volume too much?

The modernization of technology, including advancements in IoT, digital transformation, cloud computing, and DevOps, has led to a significant increase in the number of certificates that need to be managed. Automating certificate renewal is no longer a best practice – it’s a requirement. Enterprises with thousands of active certificates simply cannot rely on manual processes. Such a task can become daunting, even for multiple individuals dedicated to the job, leading to substantial cost overhead and diverting resources from other important initiatives.

Decentralized certificate management, where the responsibility is distributed across various teams within an organization, is also fraught with problems. It’s not uncommon for teams to adopt bad habits, such as obtaining certificates from various Certificate Authorities (CAs) without proper documentation or using self-signed certificates. This lack of uniformity leads to sprawl and a misalignment in certificate management strategies. Although PKI champions strive to manage certificates correctly, not every team shares the same level of priority or understanding of the importance of this task, often placing their core responsibilities first.

The disparate focus on certificate management across different teams can result in missed deadlines, lost time, and a general lack of cohesion in the management process. These teams may not fully grasp the significance of their task, leading to a prioritization of their immediate team goals over effective certificate management. A more centralized and automated approach ensures consistency, reduces errors, and aligns certificate management strategies organization-wide.

Are expirations too long?

Many organizations opt for longer expiration periods to manage the burgeoning volume of certificates effectively. Although shorter expiration times are considered best practice, management becomes increasingly challenging. Shorter expirations necessitate frequent renewals, which can be virtually impractical with manual management processes. 

In fact, some SSL certificates have among the shortest expiry policies of any digital certificates: 3-6 months. Automating SSL certificate renewals can save teams time and effort on a quarterly basis, and keep many public-facing applications, websites, and systems available.

Does manual management cost time?

Manual certificate renewal processes are time-consuming and error-prone, primarily handled through spreadsheets. As the number of certificates increases, so does the likelihood of missing crucial expiration dates. These lapses can occur during inopportune times, such as holidays or when key team members are unavailable, creating single points of failure. Additionally, changes in organizational structure can result in unclear asset ownership, fostering confusion over responsibilities rather than a collaborative problem-solving approach.

The renewal process itself is fraught with challenges. Individuals who infrequently handle renewals may find themselves relearning the process each time, increasing the risk of errors. This can lead to a loss of availability, thus compromising security and potentially causing service disruptions. 

Have missed deadlines created downtime and outages?

Certificates form a critical backbone of many IT services and failure to maintain them can lead to unplanned downtime and outages. Manual management of certificates only focuses on known certificates, causing service failures and unavailability when untracked certificates expire. The repercussions of such lapses are significant, particularly when they occur in production and customer-facing systems. Missed deadlines can lead to service outages or inaccessible websites, disrupting user experience, causing loss of revenue, and damaging reputation. Internally, expired certificates may disrupt access and authentication processes, leading to widespread work stoppages, considerable time wasted in troubleshooting, and additional time spent renewing and installing updated certificates.

Automating certificate renewals streamlines operations

Automation in certificate management fundamentally transforms how organizations handle their digital certificates and is a recommended process, according to NIST. It eliminates manual tracking and renewal, saving considerable time and resources. By streamlining these processes, automation enhances operational efficiency and positions the business for greater scalability and speed.

Reducing Errors

Moving to automated processes in certificate management significantly reduces errors, particularly regarding renewal deadlines. Automated systems can be programmed to initiate renewals well before certificates expire, ensuring continuous validity and eliminating manual oversight. This streamlines the management process and provides uniformity in certificate issuance and renewal, reducing discrepancies. 

Uniformity is crucial for maintaining compliance with various mandates and providing clear, consistent audit evidence across the organization. Every step in the automated process is executed as programmed, ensuring a consistent approach and minimizing the chances of human error, enhancing operational efficiency.

Improving certificate discoverability

Advanced automated solutions in certificate management greatly enhance certificate discoverability within an organization. These systems provide a comprehensive overview of all certificates, including those issued by both on-premise and third-party CAs. Thorough visibility is crucial in creating a solid foundation for future certificate management. 

Additionally, automation allows for streamlined management of various certificate-related tasks, such as requests, revocations, renewals, and tracking of expiration dates. Certificates can be found in various locations, like Java KeyStores (JKS), F5 devices, IIS servers, or cloud services like Azure Key Vault and AWS Certificate Manager. By identifying and bringing these certificates under management, discovery tools can prevent unexpected outages caused by rogue or untracked certificates.

Lowering costs

At first glance, managing the certification process internally from start to finish may seem cost-effective compared to deploying an automated solution. However, manual processes are labor-intensive, including the repetitive process of renewing and replacing old certificates.

Automated certificate management processes, while involving the cost of the service, bring several financial benefits. They eliminate the time and resources spent tracking certificates, expiration dates, and the ownership chain. More importantly, automation can prevent costly downtime resulting from certificate management errors. Automated systems can be crucial in meeting various reporting mandates. Non-compliance, particularly with standards like PCI-DSS and GDPR, can result in significant direct costs, including fines and mandatory remediation plans.

Improving security

Automated management of certificates plays a pivotal role in enhancing IT security. Automation maintains continuous uptime and operational security by ensuring that certificates are renewed before expiration. This proactive approach allows organizations to quickly identify and address any irregularities or unauthorized attempts to access or issue certificates. Moreover, automated solutions offer continuous monitoring, providing instant alerts for any security anomalies and enabling swift and effective action to safeguard against potential breaches. 

Is it time for an automated solution?

Determining the right moment to adopt an automated solution for certificate lifecycle management is a decision each organization faces, ideally before reaching a critical juncture that necessitates urgent action. If your organization is navigating the complexities of an increasing volume of certificates, experiencing the drawbacks of manual processes, or facing the demands of modern, cloud-based environments, the transition to automation may not just be beneficial – it could be essential.

Keyfactor’s Certificate Lifecycle Automation solution is ready to streamline your PKI management, offering an end-to-end automated system to prevent outages, reduce manual workload, and bolster security. It’s time to embrace a solution that integrates seamlessly with your infrastructure, ensuring efficiency and compliance. 

If you are ready to embrace automation, request a demo and see how Keyfactor can simplify your entire certificate lifecycle.