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Microsoft SQL Server Encryption Key Management

Posted by Patrick Townsend on Mar 20, 2017 2:01:48 PM

The hardest part of an encryption strategy is the proper management of encryption keys. Failing to protect encryption keys puts protected data at risk, and fails to meet security best practices and compliance regulations. For Microsoft SQL Server customers who have already implemented Transparent Data Encryption (TDE) or Cell Level Encryption (CLE) the biggest cause of an audit failure is the lack of good encryption key management.

Encryption-Key-Management-SQL-Server This is the fourth in a series on the topic of Microsoft SQL Server encryption. Let’s look at some of the characteristics of good encryption key management for SQL Server.

Extensible Key Management (EKM) Providers
As we’ve discussed previously it is the responsibility of key management vendors to provide the Extensible Key Management (EKM) Provider software that is installed and registered to the SQL Server database enabling either TDE or CLE encryption. The software from the key management vendor is installed on the SQL Server instance and provides both encryption and key management services. The SQL Server database administrator does not need to be involved in the actual retrieval of an encryption key - that is the job of the EKM Provider software.

EKM Provider software must handle the encryption and decryption of the database key for Transparent Data Encryption, and must handle the retrieval of a symmetric key for Cell Level Encryption. Key retrieval should be performed in a manner that protects the encryption key from loss on the network, protects the key while in memory, and should properly log the key retrieval event in a system log repository. Encryption key retrieval is normally protected through the use of a secure TLS network connection between the EKM Provider software on SQL Server and the key manager hardware or virtual machine. There are many other critical aspects of EKM Provider key management implementations, and these will be discussed in a future series.

Enterprise Key Management Solutions
The proper generation, storage, protection and management of encryption keys is the core purpose of professional encryption key management solutions. As security devices an encryption key manager is responsible for creating strong encryption keys that meet industry standards, and protecting those keys from loss during the lifecycle of the keys. Encryption key managers may be hardware security modules (HSMs), virtual servers (VMware, Hyper-V, etc.), or multi-tenant or dedicated cloud instances. In addition to implementing industry standards for encryption key management, key servers will provide a variety of authentication, systems management, and audit functions to meet security best practices and compliance regulations. Microsoft SQL Server customers who want to achieve compliance with common regulations should look to deploy a professional, certified and validated key management solution.

Key Management Industry Standards
Encryption key management systems are cryptographic modules that perform a variety of functions. As a cryptographic module they fall under the standards of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and key managers should provably meet NIST standards. The relevant NIST standard for encryption key management is the Federal Information Processing Standard 140-2 (FIPS 140-2), “Security Requirements for Cryptographic Modules”. Key management solutions which implement FIPS 140-2 standards will insure the generation of strong encryption keys, the protection of those keys from corruption or substitution, and the implementation of encryption that provably meets NIST cryptographic standards.

In addition to provide standards for encryption key management NIST also provides a method for vendors to validate that their solutions meet the standard. Encryption key management solutions are tested by chartered security testing laboratories and solutions are then approved directly by NIST. NIST publishes the solutions that have passed FIPS 140-2 testing and Microsoft SQL Server customers should look for FIPS 140-2 validation of any key management solution used to protect the database.

Migrating Locally Stored Keys to Key Management
Many Microsoft SQL Server users start their encryption projects by using the option to locally store the database encryption key on the local SQL Server instance. While this is not a security best practice, it is a common way to start an encryption project.

Fortunately, it is easy to migrate a locally stored encryption key to a proper key management solution. The migration involves the protection of the SQL Server database key to key management protection and does not require the decryption of the database. The database key which is currently protected by local keys and certificates is placed under the protection of the key manager. The EKM Provider software of your vendor then becomes responsible for unlocking the database key (TDE) or retrieving the symmetric key for Cell Level Encryption (CLE).

OASIS Key Management Interoperability Protocol (KMIP)
Many SQL Server customers ask about the KMIP standard for integrating with key managers. While KMIP is important for many reasons, it does not apply to the Microsoft EKM Provider interface. The EKM Provider interface leaves it to the key management vendor to perform the needed cryptographic functions on the key server. These functions do not map to KMIP operations and attributes. While it is advisable to deploy key management solutions that meet KMIP standards, it is not required for SQL Server encryption.

To this point we have defined the SQL Server encryption architecture, options for implementing SQL Server encryption (TDE and CLE), and basic requirements for encryption key management. In the next part of this series we will look at EKM Provider implementation topics as well as business continuity topics.

Encryption and Key Management for Microsoft SQL Server

Topics: SQL Server, SQL Server encryption

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