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Everything you needed to know about HSM

Business organizations these days are required to implement extensive data security systems and must work with keys that can be used for data protection. The cryptographic keys have a definite lifecycle and require sufficient management. Hence, it is essential to work with appropriate key lifecycle management automation techniques beneficial for business organizations. It can be implemented with HSMs or Hardware Security Modules. The Hardware Security Modules offer a secure and dedicated environment for protecting cryptographic data and the keys. HSMs are not easy to tamper with. They automate the lifecycle of these keys. 

What is a Hardware Security Module or HSM?

The HSM or Hardware Security Module functions as a specialized and reliable physical device. It handles all major cryptographic operations, such as encryption, authentication, decryption, key exchange, key management, and others. The HSMs, therefore, are important as specialized security devices. The main objective of using them is to hide and protect cryptographic materials. HSMs have a robust and efficient OS, and a firewall ensures restricted network access. They are tamper-resistant and come with tamper-resistant features. HSMs are secure and have strictly controlled access. Hence, they are practically impossible to penetrate or compromise.

Factors such as these make HSMs or Hardware Security Modules the Root of Trust for numerous organizations. The root of Trust functions as a source within the cryptographic system always reliable. It works with different strict security measures and has made it the most suitable Root of Trust for the security infrastructure of any organization. Thus, the Hardware Security Modules or HSMs can help protect, generate and rotate the keys. The keys generated or produced by Hardware Security Modules are random. The inherent hardware used with the HSMs allows the computer to generate random keys. It is in contrast with the regular computers that cannot produce such random keys. The HSMs are kept off the primary computer network of a business organization so that it stays protected against possible breaches. Therefore, an attacker must have physical access to Hardware Security Modules just to view all the protected data stored inside them.

Different types of Hardware Security Modules

There are primarily two types of HSMs that you should know about: 

General Purpose Hardware Security Modules

The General Purpose HSMs work with the most common encryption algorithms like CNG, PKCS#11, CAPI, and others. They are used with crypto-wallets, Public Key Infrastructures, and other types of basic sensitive data. 

Payment and Transaction Hardware Security Modules

The Payment and Transaction Hardware Security Module or Payment and Transaction HSM is the other HSM type used extensively in the business sector. These HSMs cater to safeguarding payment card information and sensitive transactional information. Such HSMs are the best choice to comply with the policies and regulations associated with PCI DSS or Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards.   


Since the HSMs are used to ensure the security and protection of valuable data. Many regulations and standards have been implemented to ensure that the Hardware Security Modules can protect sensitive data carefully and efficiently. One of these regulations associated with the HSMs is the FIPS or Federal Information Processing Standard 140-2. It is a standard validating the efficiency of the hardware that handles the cryptographic operations. Federal Information Processing Standard 140-2 is a federal standard in Canada and USA. It is recognized worldwide when it comes to the private and public sectors. It also has 4 distinct levels of compliance.  

Level 1

Level 1 is the lowest, ensuring the device has basic level security methods like cryptographic algorithm. It also features a general-purpose model that can function well with any operating system. Requirements associated with the Federal Information Processing Standard 140-2 level 1 are limited. They are just enough for ensuring that the system has a basic level of security for sensitive data.

Level 2 

In Level 2, the basic security features with level 1 are included. However, there is also a need for a tamper-evident device, a role-based authentication system, and an operating system approved by Common Criteria EAL2.

Level 3 

Level 3 must have everything associated with level 2. It should include tamper-response, tamper-resistance, and identity-based authentication. Importing and exporting the private keys can be done in encrypted forms. There should be a logical separation of the interfaces at the points where the critical security parameters enter and leave the system. The Federal Information Processing Standard 140-2 level 3 has the highest security parameters. Hence, it is the most sought-after compliance level. Level 3 can ensure the device's strength without being as limiting as to the FIPS 140-2 level 4.

Level 4 

Level 4 is the most restrictive and limiting FIPS level. It involves the use of advanced-level intrusion protection hardware. It is for products that function in environments that are physically unprotected.

Common Criteria

The Common Criteria (ISO/IEC 15408) is another type of standard used to measure the security features of the HSMs. The Common Criteria works as a certification standard applied to system security and IT products. Common Criteria is recognized all across the globe and has got seven levels.   

Payment Card Industry PTS HSM Security Requirements

The Payment Card Industry PTS HSM Security Requirements is an in-depth standard that mainly handles the shipment, management, usage, creation, and destruction of the HSMs applied for transactions and sensitive financial data.

The advantages of using HSMs

Hardware Security Modules offer the following benefits:

  • Meeting high levels of security regulations and standards 
  • High levels of authentication and trust 
  • Ensuring best security levels for cryptographic keys and sensitive data on the market
  • Tamper-resistant and tamper-proof systems for creating highly secure physical systems
  • Efficient and fast automated lifecycle tasks to suit the cryptographic keys
  • Storage of the crypto keys in a single place instead of several different locations

The above factors clearly show why HSMs are vital for implementing security parameters. You can also learn more about them by clicking here.

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