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Why Enterprises Are Embracing the DevOps Practice of Using Certificates as Code


As modern enterprises embrace the DevOps movement, maintaining Infrastructure as Code (IaC) is increasingly becoming an industry-standard practice. IaC refers to the management and provisioning of technology infrastructure through automated, repeatable processes rather than manual ones. By tracking configuration instructions – such as operating system versions, network settings, and the like – similarly to application source code, organizations can make improvements to their infrastructure in a declarative and deterministic manner. Eliminating repetitive and error-prone steps from software deployment processes allows enterprises that practice IaC to iterate more quickly, efficiently, and effectively.

Applying IaC to PKI

With the benefits of this approach being so stark, a natural question to ask would be “where else can I apply IaC principles?” There remain many places where it can drive value for organizations, with one of the clearest examples being in the automated provisioning and maintenance of Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) certificates.

While having a modern PKI and capable certificate management system is necessary to even consider this path, such a platform also needs rich application programming interfaces (APIs) to facilitate interaction with existing IaC tools. By developing scripts and workflows using Ansible, Puppet, or similar offerings, organizations can orchestrate complex processes, including the deployment and replacement of PKI certificates.

Although they have some unique characteristics, PKI certificates are simply another type of infrastructure, making the use of “Certificates-as-Code” a viable option. Such management of certificates with IaC practices can provide substantial benefits in terms of security, reliability, and maintainability.

Enhancing security

PKI certificates are a bedrock layer for protecting global internet communications. By facilitating encrypted communications with Transport Layer Security (TLS), they ensure the confidentiality and integrity of emails, financial transactions, and other network traffic. Furthermore, they facilitate the identification and authentication of individual users and machines, preventing malicious actors from impersonating others.

Their inherent utility, however, has made them a ubiquitous feature of every network and organization. The explosion in the number of connected Internet of Things (IoT) devices, as well as the solidification of Zero Trust architectures as a cybersecurity best practice, have both led to a massive increase in the number of PKI certificates required. As a result, organizations can find themselves overwhelmed by the sheer volume of certificates they need to manage.

Maintaining appropriate security requires periodic rotation of certificates, and manual processes are almost certain to break down under this burden. This is an even more common issue today due to recent decisions by many browsers to stop accepting certificates with expiration periods longer than thirteen months. Finally, attempting to mitigate the problems caused by certificate proliferation through techniques such as deploying “wildcard” certificates can itself create security gaps.

Given these cybersecurity challenges, the best solution is to automate the lifecycle of your PKI infrastructure using IaC practices. Being able to generate certificates on demand, especially via an integrated Certificate Authority (CA), is critical to facilitating this. Fortunately, EJBCA Enterprise allows just this. Additionally, on top of securing your enterprise, IaC-capable solutions can also improve reliability and reduce maintenance costs.

Preventing outages

The majority of organizations face outages costing millions of dollars due to their certificates expiring, a trend that is likely to continue due to the aforementioned reduction in TLS certificate lifespans. Home-grown solutions, however, whether spreadsheet-driven or applications developed in house, have a poor track record when it comes to avoiding these types of mishaps. Only with a fully automated system can you have confidence in your infrastructure’s reliability. In addition to accessible APIs and current enrollment protocols, appropriate solutions must be capable of real-time certificate discovery and end-to-end machine identity management to ensure your infrastructure is secure and up-to-date. By implementing Certificate-as-Code practices using a dedicated certificate lifecycle management, enterprises can minimize costly downtime that results from certificate expiration and rotation requirements.

Eliminating “toil”

Finally, even without the risk of an outage, applying IaC practices to your PKI and certificates can provide major benefits by reducing maintenance costs. IaC practices support maintainability in general, due to the fact that time-consuming manual workflows can be tracked, modified, and triggered at scale rather than one-by-one. As the saying goes, treat servers and software like cattle, not pets.” By applying this mindset to certificate management, organizations can treat them as interchangeable commodities instead of unique snowflakes requiring laborious upkeep, saving time and effort. By minimizing “toil,” industry leaders can free their teams to work on higher-value activities. 

Especially since it takes approximately one full-time employee to manage 100 PKI certificates manually, these cost savings can add up rapidly. Furthermore, by being able to rotate and manage your PKI infrastructure more rapidly, you can focus on delivering products and services to your customers rather than on tedious IT tasks. To facilitate this level of seamless automation, however, you will need software with ready-to-deploy integrations. A CA like EJBCA Enterprise facilitates the automated generation of certificates, allowing your organization to manage PKI operations at scale. When connected with Keyfactor Command, these tools deliver centralized visibility, policy control, and automation for all certificates, regardless of where they live or where they are issued from.

Embracing the benefits of IaC

Modern technologists have fully embraced IaC as the optimal solution for deploying and operating software, allowing businesses to deliver value more rapidly and efficiently. By storing infrastructure configurations in version-controlled repositories, scripting complex operations using a declarative approach, and orchestrating network maintenance and upgrades through API-based integrations, enterprises are able to dispense with huge amounts of previously necessary manual work. Using an API-equipped certificate management system, enterprises can also apply this approach to their PKI infrastructure, deploying Certificates-as-Code. Such advanced approaches have major benefits in terms of security, reliability, and maintainability that quickly pay back any initial investment necessary to implement them.

Ready to learn more? Contact us to discover how Keyfactor Command, EJBCA Enterprise, and other offerings can help you start saving time and money by implementing IaC practices for full-spectrum PKI management.