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The Rise of Certificate Automation

How are you securing your digital frontier? The volume of machine identities and digital certificates has risen due to an expanding digital ecosystem of cloud services, IoT devices, and complex network environments. Securing these assets requires public-key cryptography to be managed throughout their lifecycle. The 2023 State of Machine Identity Management Report found 72% think the rising use of keys and certificates added operational burden. 

Poor visibility compounds these PKI challenges, especially when the organization signs its own certificates. Organizations quickly scale beyond manual tracking, leaving keys and certificates installed but not adequately tracked. This article explores the challenges of legacy key management and the benefits of automation.

certificate automation

Why certificates are hard to manage

certificate automation

Organizations struggle with the complex task of managing digital certificates, often leading to headline-grabbing outages, such as a major incident at Microsoft where one certificate caused a multi-hour outage of Microsoft 365. Similarly, an expired certificate at SpaceX led to a global outage of Starlink for numerous hours.

Certificate management issues spell trouble no matter how large or small the organization is. Without adequate expertise, centralized management, and automated processes, the risk of human error and oversight in certificate renewals and management increases, leading to potential operational issues such as outages.  

The teams managing PKI don’t really know how. 

In many organizations, the responsibility for managing certificates and machine identities falls on IT or Security teams rather than a dedicated Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) team. With tight IT budgets and staffing shortages, everyone is perpetually busy, often leading to a prioritization dilemma. When forced to choose, overburdened staff overlook PKI management until an outage occurs. 

These teams also often lack specialized skills and knowledge in PKI. Management issues may occur infrequently, forcing teams to re-learn the remediation steps that are forgotten between incidents. Without expertise or automated tooling to assist in this process, organizations never develop procedures based on best practices, leaving certificates and identities exposed. 

A lack of centralization

Centralization is critical to effective Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) management. Without a centralized hub and organizational policies for managing certificates, different teams may adopt their own processes and procedures. Teams issue certificates without centralized tracking, leaving the organization unaware of how many certificates they possess and who has control of them. Decentralization leads to certificate sprawl, loss of availability, and potential security vulnerabilities across the enterprise. 

Manual processes

Many teams lack enterprise tools for managing certificates and fall back to manual processes, like spreadsheets or ad hoc tools. This may work early on but quickly becomes cumbersome as the number of machine identities increases. 

Manual processes require extensive effort, especially when revoking, requesting, and reissuing certificates. When a batch of certificates needs simultaneous revocation and re-issuance, manual methods falter. Additionally, these methods often only track known certificates, which leaves decentralized organizations at even greater risk. 

The benefits of certificate automation

Certificate challenges do not have to doom organizations to a constant cycle of outages and expired licenses. With certificate automation, organizations can easily keep a comprehensive inventory of their global certificates and digital identities in one place. Automation ensures that certificates are updated on time and all actions are fully logged and monitored, which enables compliance with internal policies and regulatory requirements. 

Automated discovery of certificates

Automating the discovery of certificates enables comprehensive accounting of all certificates within an organization’s landscape. Automation can ensure that every certificate is accounted for and reveal the extent of certificate sprawl. The visibility gained through this process is invaluable, as it aids organizations in understanding the full scope of their certificate usage and allows them to consolidate certificates, CAs, and other PKI aspects. By doing so, organizations can significantly lower costs and reduce complexity, leading to more efficient and secure certificate management.

Moreover, centralized visibility and control streamline the entire management process, enhancing the organization’s security posture. No certificate goes unnoticed or unmanaged, thereby significantly reducing the risk of errors common in manual certificate management. Reduction in human error is vital, considering the critical role of certificates in organizational security and compliance. Automating certificate lifecycles and discovery translates into a more robust, reliable, and scalable PKI.

Centralized certificate management

Centralizing certificate management is a critical step towards efficient PKI automation. Organizations can achieve unified control by implementing a certificate automation tool that consolidates control of all certificates from various CAs into a single platform, simplifying the management process and enabling easier monitoring and control of certificates. Centralization ensures that all certificates, regardless of origin, are managed under consistent policies and standards.

Moreover, centralization significantly enhances the scalability of certificate management. As an organization grows, its certificate needs expand, and a centralized system can adapt more efficiently than fragmented management systems. By centralizing certificate management, businesses can streamline their processes, enforce consistent policies, and scale their certificate management with their growing enterprise.

Automated certificate lifecycles

Automation of the certificate lifecycle involves logging, monitoring, and replacing certificates throughout their shelf life without user intervention, improving overall efficiency. 

Automation of the lifecycle also provides continuous monitoring of certificate statuses, preventing unexpected expiration and loss of availability. Automated renewals keep certificates current while simultaneously building an auditable record of certificate compliance. 

Automated systems also reduce the stress associated with the renewal process. Teams no longer find out at the last minute or after the fact when a certificate needs to be renewed, forcing them to drop other tasks and take action. This allows teams to focus on other critical organizational functions. 

Certificate automation improves the business

Certificate automation is not just about solving a technical problem; it is about improving business operations by eliminating the risk of outages caused by certificate issues. These outages can be incredibly costly in terms of direct financial loss and damage to a company’s reputation. 

Keyfactor research has shown that critical IT outages cost between $500,000 to $1 million. Part of this cost is the time required for resolution, which can take days or months, adding to the operational and financial burden. By automating certificate management, organizations reduce the likelihood of disruptive and expensive incidents, ensuring smooth, reliable, and secure operations.

Automating PKI also gives teams much-needed bandwidth to focus on their primary duties, a crucial benefit in the face of cybersecurity burnout and labor shortages. According to a study by ISC2, cybersecurity is experiencing a significant labor shortage, with a global shortfall of 3.4 million workers as of 2022 and over 700,000 vacant positions in the U.S. alone. The modernization and automation of PKI processes alleviate the operational burden on these understaffed teams and enhance overall security and efficiency. This shift is increasingly crucial as the demand for cybersecurity talent outpaces workforce availability.

Automating key management also future-proofs organizations against evolving cybersecurity threats. It allows for swift responses in critical situations, such as when certificates become compromised, it enables the bulk revocation and issuance of new certificates. Automation also facilitates the adoption of new cryptographic algorithms, including quantum-resistant ones, which is vital as computational capabilities and artificial intelligence advance beyond current day algorithmic complexities.

Moreover, as cryptographic standards evolve, trends are moving towards shorter certificate lifespans for enhanced security, ensuring that organizations can adapt quickly and efficiently without disrupting operations. This empowers organizations to scale and innovate in DevOps and the Internet of Things (IoT), which rely heavily on certificates for secure operations.

The crawl-walk-run approach

Adopting automated certificate management is not just about implementing a one-time solution; it’s an evolutionary journey toward increased maturity within an organization. This process progresses through various stages, from initial awareness and manual management to advanced, zero-touch automation. Adopting a “crawl, walk, run” approach allows organizations to gradually integrate automation that aligns with their needs and capabilities. This phased approach ensures that all organizational units can adapt without overwhelming staff, while progressively encompassing the vast array of certificates, keys, and machine identities. 

Learning to crawl

In the initial “crawl” phase of adopting certificate management automation, the key focus is visibility. This stage involves discovering and cataloging the organization’s existing certificates, keys, and machine identities. It’s about creating a comprehensive inventory and getting a clear picture of the current state of certificate management. Visibility is crucial as it lays the foundation for further steps in the automation journey, allowing organizations to identify gaps, understand the scope of their needs, and plan effectively for subsequent phases of automation implementation.

Starting to walk

In the “walk” phase of automating certificate management, the focus shifts to creating and enforcing processes and procedures. This includes setting up systems to notify end users about impending certificate expirations, thus ensuring proactive management and renewal. 

An effective strategy in this phase is establishing a Machine Identity Management Working Group. This cross-functional team should define best practices in certificate management, serve as a centralized point of contact for related issues, and guide strategic decision-making. This group plays a crucial role in aligning organizational efforts, ensuring compliance, and managing the complexities associated with machine identities.

Running with purpose

Reaching the “run” phase in the journey of certificate management automation means fully embracing and implementing automation across the organization. This stage is characterized by deploying advanced systems that automate the entire lifecycle of certificates — from discovery, issuance, and renewal to revocation. 

By this point, the organization will have developed a sophisticated understanding of its machine identity needs, established robust processes and procedures, and formed a dedicated working group. The result is a streamlined, efficient process that minimizes human intervention, significantly reduces the risk of errors and outages, and ensures security and compliance. Full-scale automation represents a mature, proactive approach to certificate management, aligning with the organization’s broader digital strategy and security posture.

Certificate automation solutions: tips for shopping

certificate automation

Selecting the right certificate automation tool is crucial for effective certificate management. A tool that achieves 90% of the necessary functionality can often add more complexity than benefit to the process. It is essential to find a vendor-agnostic solution, as tools from specific CAs typically only manage their certificates, limiting flexibility and coverage.

Additionally, avoiding middleware architectures that sit between CAs and end devices is advisable. The ideal solution should be adaptable to various environments, whether on-premises, cloud, multi-cloud, or hybrid, without requiring significant changes to existing infrastructure. Compliance with industry standards is also a key factor. Solutions like Keyfactor comply with standards such as Common Criteria, NIAP/CSfC, ISO 27001, SOC 2 Type II, and PCI DSS, ensuring adherence to critical security and operational benchmarks.

Time for a change

As the volume of certificates grows and their lifespans shrink, the likelihood of outages increases for organizations without an automated solution. Automation delivers the cryptographic agility organizations need to stay ahead of quantum computing, the ongoing cybersecurity labor shortage, and stringent compliance regulations. With the relentless rise of cybercrime, the importance of automation in certificate management is becoming more crucial than ever. Teams need to maximize their bandwidth to address real and emerging cybersecurity threats. 

At Keyfactor, we specialize in delivering certificate automation and streamlining PKI deployment. We help you do PKI your way – to suit specific organizational needs rather than a one-size-fits-all solution. Unlock the full potential of public key cryptography with our suite of PKI tools. 

  • Keyfactor EJBCA provides scalable and flexible open-source certificate authority and PKI management. ​
  • Keyfactor Command centralizes control of your PKI, offering unmatched visibility and orchestration capabilities across your entire PKI landscape.
  • Keyfactor Cloud PKI as a Service provides a streamlined, cloud-based PKI solution, perfectly blending expert management and agile automation. 

Contact Keyfactor today to start automating your certificate lifecycle.

To learn more and to stay current with all things post-quantum cryptography, check out Keyfactor’s post-quantum Lab.

Find out how the Keyfactor platform can modernize your PKI, prevent certificate outages, accelerate