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Microsoft SQL Server Automatic Encryption - Cell Level Encryption

Posted by Patrick Townsend on Feb 21, 2017 9:11:00 AM

In this third part of the series on Microsoft SQL Server encryption we look at Cell Level Encryption, or CLE, which is Microsoft terminology for Column Level Encryption. With CLE the manner and timing of SQL Server’s call to the EKM Provider software is quite different than for Transparent Data Encryption. It is important to understand these differences in order to know when to use CLE or TDE. Let’s look at some aspects of the CLE implementation:

Encrypted Columns
Encryption-Key-Management-SQL-ServerCell Level Encryption is implemented at the column level in a SQL Server table. Only the column you specify for encryption is protected with strong encryption. You can specify more than one column for CLE in your tables, but care should be taken to avoid performance impacts of multiple column encryption (see below).

With Cell Level Encryption you may be able to minimize some of the encryption performance impacts on your SQL Server database. Because the EKM Provider is only called when the column must be encrypted or decrypted, you can reduce the encryption overhead with careful implementation of your database application code. If a SQL query does not reference an encrypted column, the EKM Provider will not be invoked to perform decryption. As an example, if you place the column Credit_Card under CLE encryption control, this query will not invoke the EKM Provider for decryption because the credit card number is not returned in the query result:

SELECT Customer_Number, Customer_Name, Customer_Address FROM Orders ORDERBY Customer_Name;

You can see that judicious use of SQL queries may reduce the need to encrypt and decrypt column data.

SQL Application Changes
Unlike Transparent Data Encryption you must make a change to the SQL statement in order to implement Cell Level Encryption. The SQL Server functions “encryptbykey” and “decryptbykey” are used on SQL statements. Here is an example of a SQL query that encrypts a CLE-encrypted column:

select encryptbykey(key_guid('my_key'), 'Hello World');

Implementing CLE encryption in your SQL Server database requires modifications to your applications, but may be well worth the additional work.

Encryption and Key Retrieval
The EKM Provider software is called for each column value to perform encryption and decryption. This means a larger number of calls to the EKM Provider compared to Transparent Data Encryption. Because the number of calls to the EKM Provider may be quite large it is important that the encryption and key management functions of the EKM Provider are highly optimized for performance (see the next section).

The EKM Provider software from your key management vendor is responsible for performing encryption of the data. From a compliance point of view it is important to understand the encryption algorithm used to protect data. Be sure that the EKM Provider software uses a standard like the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) or other industry recognized standard for encryption. It is common to use 128-bit or 256-bit AES for protecting data at rest. Avoid EKM Providers which implement non-standard encryption algorithms.

Encryption Key Caching
When deploying CLE it is important that the EKM Provider software optimize both encryption and key management. The number of calls to the EKM Provider software can be quite high. Good EKM Providers will securely cache the symmetric key in the SQL Server context rather than retrieve a key on each call. The retrieval of an encryption key from a key server takes precious time and multiple calls to retrieve a key can have severe performance impacts. Secure key caching is important for CLE performance. The use of the Microsoft Windows Data Protection Application Program Interface (DPAPI) is commonly used to protect cached keys.

Performance Considerations
When properly implemented Cell Level Encryption can reduce the performance impact of encryption on your SQL Server database. For very large tables with a small number of columns under encryption control, the performance savings can be substantial. This is especially true if the column is used less frequently in your applications.

CLE Vendor Note
Note that each vendor of EKM Provider software implements encryption and key management differently. Some EKM Providers only implement Transparent Data Encryption (TDE). If you suspect you will need Cell Level Encryption be sure that your key management support includes this capability.

In the next part of this series we will look at encryption key management in SQL Server.

Patrick

Encryption and Key Management for Microsoft SQL Server

Topics: SQL Server, Cell Level Encryption, SQL Server encryption


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