June 28, 2023
Welcome to the Essential Guide to Secrets Management, a comprehensive overview of all things secrets management.
Table of Contents
- What is Secrets Management and Why is it Important?
- What are Secrets and What are the Risks of Secret Management?
- How Secrets Managers Work and Storing Secrets Online
- How a Vault Works in Secrets Management
- Secrets Management in DevOps and DevSecOps
- Securely Managing Secrets: Best Practices and Beyond
- Advantages of Akeyless: Akeyless vs. HashiCorp Vault vs. Azure Key Vault vs. Google Secret Manager vs. AWS Secrets Manager
- Recap of Key Points
As the digital landscape becomes increasingly complex, the management of sensitive information, or “secrets,” has become a critical aspect of cybersecurity. In this guide to secrets management, we’ll explore the importance of secrets management, delve into how secrets managers work, and discuss the role of secrets management in DevOps and DevSecOps processes. We’ll also compare some popular secrets management tools and provide insights on best practices. First off, let’s start with the basics.
What is Secrets Management and Why is it Important?
Secrets management refers to the practices and tools used to secure, control access to, and manage the lifecycle of sensitive digital credentials and keys, commonly referred to as secrets. These secrets can include tokens, passwords, certificates, API keys, and other types of sensitive credentials that determine access to machines and processes.
Introducing Machines & Machine Identity
In order to truly understand the importance of secrets management, it’s essential to understand the concept of machines and machine identities. Machines, in the context of IT and cybersecurity, refer not just to physical hardware like servers or network devices, but also virtual machines, containers, service accounts, microservices, and APIs—essentially, any non-human actor in the digital ecosystem that processes, stores, or transmits data.
Each machine is assigned a unique identity, commonly known as a machine identity, which is used to authenticate and authorize its interactions within the system. These identities are typically validated through digital certificates and keys, which are the ‘secrets’ that secrets management aims to protect.
Just as human users have usernames and passwords to access system resources, machines utilize these secrets to securely communicate, execute actions, and access resources. A breach of these secrets can grant unauthorized users or malicious actors the same access privileges as the machines, leading to potentially catastrophic security incidents.
Elements of Secrets Management
Effective secrets management is crucial in the cybersecurity landscape. It’s vital to protect confidential data, prevent unauthorized access, and maintain regulatory compliance, ensuring the overall security of your digital assets.
- Protecting Confidential Data: Confidential data, such as customer information, intellectual property, and financial records, must be safeguarded against unauthorized access. Effective secrets management ensures that these sensitive pieces of information are stored securely and only accessible to authorized individuals or systems.
- Preventing Unauthorized Access: Unauthorized access to machines, which include scripts, applications, processes, databases and more, can lead to data breaches, financial loss, reputational damage, and legal consequences. By implementing robust secrets management practices, organizations can significantly reduce the risk of unauthorized access and mitigate potential security threats.
- Maintaining Regulatory Compliance & Standards: Effective secrets management is not only crucial for meeting data protection regulations like GDPR and HIPAA but also enables compliance with industry standards such as SOC 2 Type II by tracking and logging all access to secrets. By implementing secrets management practices that meet these requirements, organizations can demonstrate their commitment to data security, confidentiality, and compliance while protecting sensitive information.
- Ensuring Overall Security: Secrets management is an integral part of an organization’s overall security strategy. It complements other security measures, such as firewalls, intrusion detection systems, and encryption, by providing a crucial layer of protection for critical data assets. By effectively managing secrets, organizations can enhance their overall security posture and minimize the risk of data breaches.
In summary, secrets management is crucial in the cybersecurity landscape. It ensures the protection of confidential data, prevents unauthorized access, maintains regulatory compliance, and contributes to the overall security of an organization’s digital assets. By prioritizing secrets management, organizations can strengthen their security practices and reduce the likelihood of security incidents.
What are Secrets and What are the Risks of Secret Management?
Definition of Secrets
In the context of Information Technology, “secrets” refer to sensitive data that, if compromised, could lead to unauthorized system access. They serve as the keys to the kingdom, so to speak, granting access to valuable resources within an organization’s IT infrastructure. This data encompasses elements like:
- Passwords: Passwords are authentication credentials used to verify the identity of a user or system and grant access to specific resources or accounts. These could be for user accounts, admin interfaces, and databases, among other things.
- API Keys: API keys are used to authenticate and track API usage, often to grant access to external resources and services.
- SSH Keys: SSH keys are cryptographic keys used for secure remote access and authentication. They work by generating a unique pair of keys—a public key and a private key—where the public key is shared with remote servers and the private key is securely stored on the user’s device. This key pair enables encrypted communication and secure logins between the client and server.
- Tokens: Tokens, such as OAuth tokens, are temporary access credentials used for secure authentication and authorization. They facilitate trust and secure communication between entities, commonly employed in identity and access management systems, APIs, and web applications.
- Certificates: Certificates, particularly SSL/TLS certificates, are digital documents that verify the identity of individuals, systems, or websites and enable secure and encrypted communication between them.
- Encryption Keys: Encryption keys are cryptographic keys used to protect sensitive data by encrypting and decrypting it, ensuring confidentiality and data security.
These secrets, if exposed, can allow attackers to gain access to sensitive systems and data.
Difference Between a Credential and a Secret
While both credentials and secrets provide access to systems, there is a clear difference between the two.
Credentials typically encompass both employee access and machine access, serving as proof of identity or authorization. Examples of credentials include usernames, passwords, and personal identification numbers (PINs). On the other hand, secrets primarily refer to system-level machine access, often required by scripts, processes, and applications. These secrets can include API keys, tokens, certificates, and encryption keys.
In simple terms, credentials are typically used for human-to-machine access but can also be used for machine-to-machine access, whereas secrets primarily refer to machine-to-machine access.
The Importance of Securing Secrets
Securing secrets is not just a good practice: it’s a vital part of a robust cybersecurity strategy.
Secrets represent critical access points to sensitive systems and data, and any compromise of these secrets can result in unauthorized access and potential data breaches. According to the 2022 Cost of a Data Breach Report by IBM, the average cost of a data breach is $9.44 million. Stolen or compromised credentials were not only the most common cause of a data breach, but at 327 days, took the longest time to identify, and cost $150,000 more than the average cost of a data breach.
Risks of Not Properly Managing Secrets
Failure to properly employ secrets management can lead to data breaches, system outages due to unmanaged or expired secrets, and unauthorized system access—all of which can have devastating impacts on a business.
- Data breaches: In its 2023 Data Breach Investigations Report, Verizon found that use of stolen credentials are in the top five most common causes of breach. Unsecured secrets provide an easy avenue for attackers to infiltrate systems and extract sensitive data.
- System outages: Expired or unmanaged secrets, such as certificates, can cause unexpected system failures. The average cost of IT downtime is approximately $5,600 per minute according to Gartner, but a more recent report by Ponemon Institute raises Gartner’s average from $5,600 per minute to nearly $9,000 per minute.
- Unauthorized system access: Unsecured secrets can provide an open door to malicious actors, allowing them to manipulate systems or data, disrupt operations, or even launch attacks against other organizations.
Given these risks, robust secrets management should be a priority for every organization, regardless of size or industry.
How Secrets Managers Work and Storing Secrets Online
How Secrets Managers Function
Secrets managers are an essential tool in maintaining secure and efficient handling of sensitive data or “secrets”. Here’s a high-level overview of how they function:
- Centralizing Secrets: Secrets managers usually consolidate all secrets within an organization into one secure location. This enhances the uniformity of security measures across all secrets and simplifies their management.
- Securing Secrets: Security is the core function of secrets managers. They encrypt secrets to protect them from unauthorized access, ensuring that only those with necessary decryption keys can access the information.
- Enforcing Access Policies: Strict access policies are enforced by secrets managers. They use mechanisms like Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) as well as role-based access controls (RBAC) to ensure that only authorized individuals can access the secrets.
- Automating Secrets Rotation: To enhance security, secrets managers support automated secrets rotation, generating and updating new secrets at regular intervals. This automation maintains high security without adding significant administrative burdens.
- Temporary, Just-in-Time Dynamic Secrets: Some secrets managers can create auto-expiring temporary secrets, which eliminate the danger of standing privileges and ensure that access is unavailable as soon as it is not needed.
- Tracking and Visibility for Governance and Auditing: Secrets managers provide robust tracking and visibility capabilities, allowing organizations to maintain governance and meet auditing requirements. They enable organizations to track, monitor and log activities related to secret creation, access, and modification, providing an audit trail for compliance purposes. This visibility ensures transparency and accountability, helping organizations demonstrate adherence to security policies and regulatory standards.
Different Types of Secrets Managers
There are several types of secrets managers, including open-source, self-deployed, or cloud-based secrets managers.
Open-Source Secrets Managers: Open-source secrets managers are built on freely accessible source code. They are typically flexible and customizable, allowing you to tailor them to your specific needs. Although open-source tools are popular in the development community, they can often require more resources in terms of setup and management compared to other options. Often, this can be a headache to deploy and maintain for large organizations, and are frequently difficult to scale to more than one team or environment.
Self-Deployed Enterprise Secrets Managers: Self-deployed secrets managers are deployed within an organization’s own infrastructure. This can provide more control over the data and system compared to cloud-based options and might be required for organizations with stringent data sovereignty or regulatory requirements. The drawback is that these systems require significantly more management overhead and hardware resources, and may not scale as easily or cost-effectively as cloud-based alternatives.
Cloud-Based Secrets Managers: While convenient and scalable, the use of cloud-based secrets managers like AWS Secrets Manager, Azure Key Vault, and Google Secret Manager can raise security concerns because these providers have full ownership of the keys used for encrypting and decrypting data, limiting the organization’s control of their own data. Organizations can explore technologies like Akeyless Distributed Fragmentation Cryptography (DFC)™ to regain control over encryption keys and enhance data privacy and security.
How a Vault Works in Secrets Management
In secrets management, a vault is a secure and centralized storage system designed to protect important information. It acts as a safe place where organizations can store their secrets, keeping them private and inaccessible to those who shouldn’t have access. By using a vault for secrets management, organizations can have better control over their sensitive data, reducing the risk of unauthorized access and ensuring the safety of their information.
While the vault has traditionally been a cornerstone of secrets management, the landscape of cybersecurity is ever-evolving, as are the methodologies used to safeguard sensitive information. As organizations grow and their systems become more complex, the demand for a more dynamic and flexible approach to managing secrets also increases.
Why Use a Vault for Secrets Management?
The use of a vault has been a traditional method in secrets management, offering various benefits including:
- Centralized, Secure Storage: Vaults provide a single, secure location to store secrets, mitigating the need for disparate and potentially less secure storage alternatives.
- Access Control: They allow organizations to regulate who can access specific secrets and when, thus improving data security.
- Usage Tracking: Vaults have the capability to monitor and document the usage of secrets, providing a comprehensive history of access and helping maintain compliance.
However, as the digital landscape grows in complexity, the capabilities of traditional vault systems might be challenged.
With the rapid development of technology and escalating intricacies of IT environments, organizations are starting to consider innovative methodologies. These new strategies retain the advantages of traditional vaults, while also incorporating enhanced adaptability and scalability. They’re designed to keep pace with complex, ever-evolving digital ecosystems, ensuring robust security and compliance without hindering operational efficiency.
Essentially, these emerging strategies are revolutionizing secrets management, meeting the needs of securing sensitive data in today’s fast-paced technological environment.
Secrets Management in DevOps and DevSecOps Processes
Importance of Secrets Management in DevOps and DevSecOps Processes
In the dynamic environments of DevOps and DevSecOps, secrets management plays a pivotal role. It ensures the security and efficiency of automated deployments while reducing potential risks.
The integration and continuous delivery models characteristic of DevOps and DevSecOps necessitate frequent communication between various tools and systems, often involving numerous secrets. Improper management of these secrets can pose significant security risks.
Moreover, secrets are often shared across multiple teams in a DevOps environment. Without effective secrets management, there’s a risk that sensitive information could be exposed, leading to unauthorized access or even data breaches. This can have severe consequences, including loss of customer trust, financial penalties, and regulatory non-compliance.
Best Practices for Secrets Management in DevOps and DevSecOps Processes
Effective secrets management is crucial in the DevOps and DevSecOps context. Here are some best practices that can enhance security:
- Automate Secrets Rotation: Manual rotation of secrets can be a tedious and error-prone process. Automating this process can help to reduce human error and the risk of outdated secrets being exploited. Secrets should be rotated regularly to minimize the potential damage if a secret is compromised.
- Integrate Secrets Management within CI/CD Pipelines: Secrets are vital for the secure operation of DevOps tools in CI/CD pipelines. By leveraging automated secrets injection in Kubernetes and other built-in integrations, organizations can seamlessly incorporate secrets management solutions into their existing pipeline infrastructure. This ensures the secure injection of secrets into containers at runtime, providing readily available credentials and sensitive data without compromising their exposure during deployment. This streamlined integration simplifies secrets management, enhances security, and promotes a more efficient development and deployment workflow.
- Segregate Secrets per Environment: Different environments (e.g., development, testing, production) should have separate secrets and secrets management access. This reduces the risk of a compromised secret in one environment affecting another. Additionally, segregating secrets allows for finer-grained access control. You can limit access based on the environment and the role of the user.
- Establish Role-Based Access Control: Enforcing role-based access control ensures that only authorized individuals or systems have access to specific secrets. By assigning permissions based on roles, organizations can implement a least privilege approach. Based on this approach, they can restrict access to secrets based on user responsibilities and requirements. This practice enhances security and reduces the risk of unauthorized access or accidental exposure of sensitive information.
Implementing these best practices can significantly enhance the security of your DevOps and DevSecOps processes, helping to protect your organization’s valuable digital assets.
Securely Managing Secrets: Best Practices and Beyond
Building Blocks of Secure Secrets Management:
Key components of secure secrets management include encryption, access control, secure storage, high availability, and a backup & disaster recovery plan.
Properly managing secrets is a multi-faceted task that requires a strategic approach. Let’s explore some of the critical elements in-depth:
Encrypting your secrets ensures they’re unreadable to anyone without the correct decryption key, making them useless to potential attackers. Consider employing strong, industry-approved encryption standards such as AES and RSA. Additionally, implement encryption both at rest (when data is stored) and in transit (when data is being transferred).
2. Access Control:
Implement strict access controls to ensure that only authorized individuals or systems can access your secrets. The principle of least privilege, where a user or process has only the permissions necessary to perform their function, should be applied. Regularly audit access logs to identify any anomalies or potential breaches, and enable notification of unusual behavior or access.
3. Secure Storage
Secrets should be securely stored and centrally managed. Consider using a secrets management tool that provides secure storage. This will help ensure your secrets are secure and accessible only to those with the necessary permissions.
4. High Availability:
In modern IT environments, downtime is costly. Ensure that your secrets management solution supports high availability to minimize potential disruption to services. This might involve redundancy, clustering, or distributed systems, depending on your specific requirements.
5. Backup & Disaster Recovery Plan:
Even with the best precautions, things can go wrong. Regular backups of your secrets, securely stored and separate from the operational system, can help you recover in case of system failures or data loss. A disaster recovery plan, which details how to restore normal operations in the event of a major incident, is also crucial.
Implementing these best practices in your secrets management strategy will strengthen your security posture, reduce risks, and ensure business continuity. It’s about going beyond just meeting requirements—you should strive for the gold standard in securing your digital assets.
Putting Best Practices in Action
Successfully managing secrets involves a combination of strategic practices. Here are a few key tactics you should consider implementing:
1. Regularly Rotate Secrets:
Just as you would regularly update your personal passwords, the same practice applies to the secrets used by your organization. Regular secret rotation makes it harder for malicious parties to use a secret they’ve managed to obtain. By the time they try to use it, it might already have been replaced. Automated secrets rotation, where possible, is recommended to reduce manual errors and overhead.
2. Utilize Short-Lived Temporary Secrets:
Employ dynamic or temporary secrets (often called just-in-time access) with a limited lifespan that automatically expire once used. These short-lived secrets enable zero standing privileges, enhancing security by minimizing the timeframe for potential malicious activity. It eliminates standing privileges, a window of opportunity for hackers.
3. Enforce Least Privilege Access:
The principle of least privilege means giving minimum permissions needed to perform the job. By minimizing access, you minimize potential damage if a user or process is compromised. Regular audits can help ensure that access rights are kept up-to-date and prevent privilege creep.
4. Use a Secure Vault for Secret Storage:
A secrets vault is a secure place to store your secrets. This can help centralize your secrets management and provide an added layer of security. Retrieval from the vault is on an as-needed basis, ensuring that secrets are never kept outside the vault. Moreover, access to the vault itself should be tightly controlled, with authentication required to access any secret.
By adhering to these best practices, you can greatly enhance the security of your secrets, reducing your organization’s risk exposure and helping ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of your data.
Advantages of Akeyless: Akeyless vs. HashiCorp Vault vs. Azure Key Vault vs. Google Secret Manager vs. AWS Secrets Manager
Comparison of Secret Managers
Choosing the right secrets management tool for your organization depends on a range of factors, including the nature of your environment, your regulatory obligations, and your specific requirements. Let’s compare four popular options:
HashiCorp Vault Enterprise is a self-deployed solution. The industry knows it for its open-source vault and its access control for sensitive data. It includes security features such as end-to-end encryption and dynamic secrets, providing an enterprise-level solution. However, the HashiCorp self-deployed solution has considerable implementation and maintenance costs. complex architecture that can make scaling difficult for larger organizations, may require dedicated 24/7 support to ensure smooth operation and maximize its effectiveness.
Azure Key Vault
Azure Key Vault, a product of Microsoft, safeguards cryptographic keys and other secrets used by cloud apps and services. It integrates seamlessly with other Azure services, making it a good choice if you’re already using Azure extensively. Using Azure Key Vault ties you into the Azure ecosystem. Companies that are not primarily Azure-based, or if you are using other cloud providers, may find this solution less suitable.
Google Secret Manager
Google Secret Manager provides a secure and convenient solution for storing sensitive data such as API keys, passwords, and certificates. It seamlessly integrates with Google Cloud services, which is beneficial for organizations heavily reliant on Google’s cloud offerings. However, its suitability may be limited in diverse, multi-cloud, or non-cloud environments. Similar to Azure Key Vault, if your applications are not primarily Google-based or if you have secrets stored in other cloud service providers apart from Google Cloud Platform (GCP), this solution may not be the most optimal choice.
AWS Secrets Manager
Amazon Web Services (AWS) provides AWS Secrets Manager as a fully managed secrets management service. It simplifies the management and protection of secrets such as database credentials, API keys, and secure strings. AWS Secrets Manager seamlessly integrates with other AWS services and AWS Identity and Access Management (IAM). AWS Secrets Manager, while a powerful and fully managed secrets management service, may present drawbacks such as vendor lock-in, limited integration options, and potential cost implications. Like other cloud service provider secrets managers, AWS Secrets Manager does not support secrets located in other cloud service providers.
Akeyless stands out as a universal, scalable, and secure secrets management solution delivered through a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) platform. SaaS-based secrets management saves organizations significant costs in computing resources and engineering time. Powered by Distributed Fragments Cryptography™ (DFC™), a NIST FIPS 140-2 validated cryptography technology, Akeyless ensures the security of secrets. This is achieved by utilizing a unique approach called Zero-Knowledge Encryption. This enables organizations to protect their sensitive data while leveraging the flexibility and convenience of a SaaS environment. With DFC™ and Zero-Knowledge Encryption, Akeyless provides a highly secure secrets management solution. Empowering organizations, Akeyless helps companies to safeguard data within a user-friendly SaaS platform.
While HashiCorp Vault, Azure Key Vault, Google Secret Manager, and AWS Secrets Manager each have advantages, they also have limitations. Akeyless fills these gaps, providing a robust, flexible solution for managing your organization’s secrets. By choosing Akeyless, organizations can take control of their secrets management strategy. This includes enhancing security and ensuring the utmost protection for their digital assets. Akeyless emerges as the ideal choice for organizations seeking a reliable, efficient, and highly secure secrets management solution. Its comprehensive features and innovative use of Zero-Knowledge Encryption set it apart.
See a detailed comparison of Akeyless vs HashiCorp Vault.
Recap of Key Points
Throughout this guide to secrets management, we have taken a deep dive. We’ve explored the significance of secrets management, functionality, and best practices. Let’s take a moment to recap the major points we’ve covered:
- Secrets management is crucial for protecting sensitive data such as API keys, passwords, and tokens within your organization.
- Not managing secrets correctly can lead to serious consequences, including data breaches, system outages, and unauthorized access.
- Various types of secrets managers exist, including open-source, self-deployed, and cloud-based,, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.
- Organizations are evolving secrets management strategies beyond traditional vaults, combining traditional benefits with adaptability and scalability for robust security.
- DevOps and DevSecOps processes are incredibly important in secrets management. It plays a crucial role in mitigating risks from manual securing of secrets and ensures the success of automated deployments.
- Go beyond static secrets and enforce least privilege access. This can greatly enhance the security of your secrets.
- A comparison of four popular secrets management tools: HashiCorp Vault, Azure Key Vault, Google Secret Manager, and Akeyless revealed that each has its strengths and weaknesses. However, Akeyless provides a comprehensive and flexible solution for managing your organization’s secrets.
By understanding and implementing proper secrets management practices, you can significantly enhance your organization’s data security and operational efficiency.
Ready to take your secrets management to the next level? Discover how Akeyless can
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