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Blog Post Jul 07, 2023

An Overview of Enterprise Certificate Life Cycle Management

Enterprises must ensure the secure exchange of information and establish the trustworthiness of their online identities in today's digital environment. Digital certificates offer a universally recognized method for establishing digital trust, supporting user authentication, and securing communications. But managing them throughout their lifecycle can be challenging — oversights can lead to unauthorized access, tampered data, security breaches, and service outages.

As such, organizations must accompany the use of digital certificates with a robust Certificate Lifecycle Management (CLM) process. Let's look at what CLM is, the various stages in the process, the tools and systems for effective CLM, and how to choose the right platform to optimize your ROI.

Certificate Life Cycle Management: The What and Why

CLM refers to the management of digital certificates throughout their lifecycle. CLM tools and technologies help enterprises issue, renew, revoke, and manage their certificates securely and cost-efficiency.

CLM involves various activities and processes, including certificate generation and enrollment, issuance, distribution, renewal, and revocation. It also requires key pair management to oversee the generation, storage, backup, rotation, and destruction of the cryptographic key pairs associated with the digital certificates.

CLM is critical in any security strategy because it helps safeguard digital communications and maintain data integrity, confidentiality, and authenticity during transmission. It can prevent certificate-related vulnerabilities like unauthorized access, man-in-the-middle attacks, and impersonation. 

Since many industry regulations (e.g., HIPAA, PCI DSS) and security standards require digital certificates, a robust CLM process can help organizations ensure compliance and avoid hefty penalties. Moreover, digital certificates and CLM can be the foundation of a zero-trust architecture. It allows companies to verify the authenticity of individuals, devices, systems, or services before granting access to sensitive data and resources.

However, CLM in an enterprise environment is complex, time-consuming, and labor-intensive. Certificate management systems are crucial for simplifying the process and ensuring that nothing falls through the cracks. These tools support certificate discovery, enrollment, renewal, revocation, and monitoring while offering centralized management, reporting, and integration with other security systems to streamline CLM. 

Certificate Lifecycle Management Stages

A certificate management lifecycle process should address the following stages to ensure a digital certificate's integrity, authenticity, and validity of digital certificates throughout its lifespan:

Certificate Enrollment

This stage involves initiating the process of obtaining a digital certificate through the generation of a public-private key pair and the creation of a Certificate Signing Request (CSR). The CSR contains information about the certificate requester, including its public key, and is submitted to a certificate authority (CA) for verification and certificate issuance.

Certificate Distribution

Once the CA approves the CSR and signs the certificate to establish its authenticity, it will securely distribute it to the intended recipient or system via email, secure file transfer, or an automated distribution method. This step typically involves an onboarding solution to streamline device configuration and ensure secure communications.

Certificate Validation

At this step of the certificate management lifecycle, the recipient or relying party verifies the authenticity and validity of the received certificate by checking the certificate's digital signature, verifying the CA's trustworthiness, validating the certificate's expiration date and other attributes, and confirming that it isn't on the Certificate Revocation List (CRL) or hasn't been tampered with.

Certificate Revocation

If you need to revoke a digital certificate before its expiration date,  you may request the CA to put it on its CRL or use the Online Certificate Status Protocol (OCSP). Reasons for revocation include lost or compromised certificates, stolen private keys, changes in the certificate holder's status (e.g., leaving the company), and other security reasons that render the certificate no longer trustworthy.

Certificate Renewal or Destruction

When a certificate expires, and the certificate policy allows, it's renewed automatically or by user intervention. You can choose to generate new public and private keys during the renewal process. If a certificate is no longer in use, you should destroy it along with any backup or archived copy and any associated private key. 

Certificate Auditing

Tracking all the activities in a certificate's entire lifecycle, including its creation, expiration, revocation, and successful use, is critical for effective CLM. You may need to present documentation and audit logs to comply with industry regulations and data privacy laws.

Tools and Systems For Effective Certificate Lifecycle Management

Certificate management involves many moving parts. Using the right tools and systems can help you streamline the process and automate the workflows to maximize cost-efficiency and minimize the risks of data breaches or outages caused by compromised or expired certificates. Here's what you need to cover all CLM stages:

Certificate Inventory and Tracking Tools

These tools can help you scan and maintain an inventory of all your digital certificates and provide centralized visibility into your entire certificate landscape. You can track certificate details, expiration dates, and associated metadata to manage certificate assets effectively, facilitate inventory management, and ensure regulatory compliance.

Certificate Issuance and Provisioning Systems

These systems can help you streamline and automate the enrollment process of requesting and obtaining digital certificates. They integrate with various CAs and internal certificate services to ensure secure and efficient certificate issuance, automate enrollment, and simplify interactions with CAs.

Renewal and Expiration Management Software

These tools help you automate the certificate renewal process to prevent interruptions and outages caused by expired certificates. They offer features for certificate expiration tracking, renewal request generation, and coordination with CAs or internal systems.

Integrated CLM Platforms

For enterprises that need to manage thousands (or tens of thousands) of digital certificates, an integrated CLM platform helps consolidate end-to-end certificate lifecycle management into one centralized and comprehensive solution. For example, the Sectigo Certification Manager supports certificate discovery, enrollment, provisioning, renewal, revocation, and reporting to streamline the management process, improve efficiency, and comply with industry regulations.

Choosing the Right Integrated CLM Platform For Your Enterprise

The digital certificate management lifecycle in an enterprise environment involves multiple stages and components. You must orchestrate them carefully to cover all the bases. An integrated CLM platform offers a unified and holistic approach to certificate management to reduce administrative burden, mitigate the risk of certificate-related vulnerabilities, and minimize costly downtime or outages. 

Your integrated CLM platform should cover all aspects of CLM and align with your organization's security and compliance needs. It should be flexible and scalable to address your current and future CLM requirements while providing seamless integration with your existing infrastructure and tech stack, such as IT service management (ITSM) systems, security information and event management (SIEM) tools, etc.

Use a CA-agnostic CLM platform to achieve crypto-agility while reducing the complexity of your security stack. Additionally, ensure the vendor follows industry and cybersecurity best practices for robust encryption, access controls, and secure certificate and private key storage. The software should offer an intuitive and streamlined user experience, self-service functionalities, and advanced automation capabilities to help you maximize efficiency and ROI.

Additionally, your platform should work for a broad range of use cases to allow you to consolidate all CLM activities into a single dashboard. For example, it should support certificate deployment and automated CLM for secure web servers, enterprise email, secure networked and mobile devices, digital identity management, secure DevOps containers, and key management in the public cloud.

The Sectigo Certificate Manager is a universal platform for enterprise-level CLM. You can effectively manage certificates from Sectigo, other publicly trusted CAs, and private CAs (e.g., Microsoft ADCS, Google Cloud Platform, and AWS Cloud services) to improve efficiency and strengthen security posture.

Learn more about the Sectigo Certificate Manager and start your free trial today.