What is Certificate Management?

Blog March 04, 2022

What Is Certificate Management?

Certificate management is the act of monitoring, facilitating, and executing digital x.509 certificates (SSL certificates). It plays a critical role in keeping communications between a client and server operating, encrypted, and secure.

Certificate lifecycle management catches faulty, misconfigured, and expired certificates, then performs the following processes:

  • Creating
  • Purchasing
  • Storing
  • Disseminating
  • Deploying
  • Renewing
  • Suspending
  • Revoking
  • Replacing 

A good certificate lifecycle management system is capable of performing these actions for an entire certificate infrastructure, automatically and in real-time, to prevent downtime and outages


What Is a Certificate and How Do Certificates Work?

The digital certificate definition is basically the same as the definition of an SSL certificate. That is, SSL certificates are digital documents that verify ownership of a public key (signature) to ensure confidentiality and security when information is exchanged between a user’s browser and the web server. If the certificate is valid, then the HTTP changes to HTTPS and all connections will remain private.

Certificates work by performing the following processes when a browser requests to connect to a secure web server:

  1. The server sends back to the browser its SSL certificate and public key.
  2. The browser checks the legitimacy of the SSL certificate and then creates a session key, which is then sent back to the server.
  3. The server uses its private key to decrypt the message and sends back an encrypted acknowledgment. 
  4. The browser starts the session and exchanges encrypted information with the server.

This system works very well, unless there is a problem with a certificate. Certificates expire after a predefined duration (generally between 3 months and 2 years) and policies are continually being changed. This means there is a constant need for renewal and sometimes suspension, revocation, or replacement of certificates. Otherwise, browsers won’t trust the legitimacy of a website and will send error messages. Another problem is that illegitimate certificates can open the door to security breaches. Thus the need to really take to heart the management of certificates.


Certificate Lifecycle Management Systems

To ward off any problems, establishing SSL certificate management is a must. There are two ways to go about doing this: a manual system or an automated one.


Manual Certificate Management

Manually managing certificates involves using a calendar or spreadsheet to keep track of every detail of each SSL certificate, including policy changes, any required actions, and expiration dates. This may be manageable if you are a very small business with maybe a dozen certificates to oversee. But, as your business grows and becomes more complex, those dozen certificates can quickly turn into hundreds, each with its own issuer, policies, effectiveness, vulnerabilities, and expiration date. 

Keeping on top of such volume becomes time consuming, burdensome, error-prone, and risky. A simple missed deadline or typo can prove costly with a breakdown or breach that causes lost traffic, sales, data, and trust.


Automated Certificate Management System

By far, the safest, easiest way to manage certificates is by employing an automated certificate management system that will conquer all the critical tasks for you without any hiccups or hangups.

The 8 steps automatically covered by such a system are:

  1. Creating, configuring, signing, and issuing certificates
  2. Provisioning and configuring of servers, applications, and devices
  3. Scanning, locating, and validating certificates
  4. Inventorying and organizing group certificates and managing entities
  5. Dynamically monitoring, auditing, and reporting
  6. Encrypting private key storage for security
  7. Preemptively renewing certificates and preventing expiration
  8. Revoking and discarding certificates once invalid


The Benefits of Using an Automated Certificate Management System

As you can imagine, satisfactorily completing the above 8 steps of SSL management is really only possible with the right automated certificate management tool. Other benefits that come from the features of such a tool are many:

  • Operational costs and associated staff time is reduced.
  • Human errors are eliminated.
  • Outages are prevented.
  • Acquisition, deployment, and renewal are streamlined.
  • Certificates are consolidated and organized.
  • Data is aggregated. 
  • SSL environments are transparent and controlled.
  • Accountability is established in accordance with defined policies. 
  • Whole-system health and vulnerability are constantly being checked.
  • Availability, capability, and scalability are enhanced.
  • Risk is managed.
  • Brand reputation is protected.

Since security of SSL certificates is such a big deal and a huge benefit that comes with using a dedicated certificate lifecycle management tool, let’s go into this subject a bit more. The industry of stolen digital certificates has grown to become the next big underground market. With certificate misuse comes compromised protective capabilities of firewalls and authentication, resulting in data loss and damaged trust. 

Protecting SSL certificates (and the digital assets they provide) from cyber attacks are made significantly easier and stronger with the automation of certificate generation and authentication. A proper system features compliance enforcement and verification, rapid incident response, and automated remediation. It’s simply impossible to gain any of these benefits unless an automated certificate management system is employed. 

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