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Microsoft SQL Server Automatic Encryption - Transparent Data Encryption

Posted by Patrick Townsend on Feb 14, 2017 8:33:00 AM

In this second part of the series on Microsoft SQL Server encryption I want to focus on Transparent Database Encryption, or TDE. Most Microsoft customers who implement encryption in SQL Server use Transparent Data Encryption as it is the easiest to deploy. No code changes are required and enabling encryption requires just a few commands from the SQL Server console. Let’s look at some of the characteristics of TDE implementation.

Database Encryption
Encryption and key management for SQL Server TDE involves the encryption of the entire database space in SQL Server. There is no need or ability to select which tables or views are encrypted, all tables and views in a database are encrypted at rest (on disk). When data is read from disk (or any non-volatile storage) SQL Server decrypts the entire block making the data visible to the database engine. When data is inserted or updated the SQL Server database encrypts the entire block written to disk.

With TDE all of the data in your database is encrypted. This means that non-sensitive data is encrypted as well as sensitive data. There are advantages and disadvantages to this approach - you expend computing resources to encrypt data that may not be sensitive, but you also avoid mistakes in identifying sensitive data. By encrypting everything at rest you are also protected from expansion of regulatory rules about sensitive data protection.


Protection of the Symmetric Key
When you enable Transparent Data Encryption on your SQL Server database the database generates a symmetric encryption key and protects it using the EKM Provider software from your key management vendor. The EKM Provider software sends the symmetric key to the key server where it is encrypted with an asymmetric key. The encrypted database key is then stored locally on disk in the SQL Server context.

When you start a SQL Server instance the SQL Server database calls the EKM Provider software to decrypt the database symmetric key so that it can be used for encryption and decryption operations. The decrypted database key is stored in protected memory space and used by the database. The encrypted version of the database key remains on disk. In the event the system terminates abnormally, the only version of the database key is the encrypted version on disk.

Starting the SQL Server Instance
During normal operation of SQL Server there is no invocation of the EKM Provider software and therefore no communication with an external key manager. Every normal restart of the SQL Server database instance will cause the EKM Provider software to be called to unlock the database key on the key server.

It should be noted that it is the responsibility of the EKM Provider software to handle network or key server failure conditions. SQL Server itself has no visibility on the connection to an encryption key management solution. If the EKM Provider software is unable to retrieve an encryption key, the SQL Server start request will fail. We will discuss business continuity issues in more detail later in this series.

Protecting Database Logs
SQL Server logs may contain sensitive data and therefore must also be encrypted. Transparent Database Encryption addresses this by fully encrypting database logs along with the database itself. It is important to remember that encryption of the logs will only start after TDE is activated AND after you stop and restart the database log. If you neglect to restart logging sensitive data may be exposed in the SQL Server log files.

Table and Index Scanning
Certain SQL operations on indexes require that the SQL Server database have visibility on the entire index of a column. An example of a SELECT statement would be something like this:

SELECT Customer_Name, Customer_Address FROM Orders WHERE Credit_Card=’4111111111111111’;

To satisfy this SQL query the database must inspect every row in the table Orders. With TDE this means that the column Credit_Card must be decrypted in every row. Similar operations with the ORDERBY clause can cause table or index scans.

Performance Considerations
Transparent Data Encryption is very optimized for encryption and decryption tasks and will perform well for the majority of database implementations. Microsoft estimates the performance impact of TDE of 2% to 4% and we find this accurate for most of our customers. However, Microsoft SQL Server customers with very large SQL Server databases should use caution when implementing TDE. Be sure that you fully understand the impact of TDE on your application use of large tables. It is always recommended that you perform a proof-of-concept project on very large databases to fully assess the performance impact of encryption.

In the next part of this series we will look at the other option for SQL Server encryption - Cell Level Encryption, also called column level encryption.


Encryption and key management for SQL Server

Topics: SQL Server, Transparent Data Encryption (TDE)

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