Redirecting you to
Blog Post Apr 21, 2021

Machine Identities & Management Explained

Machine identity management is the systems and processes for managing credential authentication required for machines to access resources and other machines in a secure network environment or online. Every machine from computers and mobile devices to servers and network hardware in a modern enterprise digital ecosystem has a machine identity.

Without proper authentication management, an ever-increasing number of machine interactions inherent to digitalized processes pose a significant risk to business continuity. Unique identities enable these processes to determine if the interaction is trustworthy through the use of cryptographic keys and digital certificates. In essence, this machine identity is the digital credential or "fingerprint" used to establish trust, authenticate other machines, and encrypt communication.

It’s essential that the complete machine identity lifecycles are properly managed, assuring that access is only granted to legitimate users or machines no matter the number of machine identities involved or the complexity of the enterprise network.

The validation of machine identities is particularly important in supporting a Zero Trust security strategy, where trust is never granted implicitly and must continually be evaluated. This approach includes granting detailed access control, privileged access control, and permissions to each device and process in a network, as well as the human identities within the environment. Using Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) certificates and cryptographic key pairs can strengthen the verification, and can also serve to secure the connections between entities that lie beyond the firewalled network architecture.

In this age of digital transformation, the Zero Trust model enhances machine identity protection while simultaneously increasing the need for a consolidated, automated, and modern approach to PKI.

What Is a Machine Identity?

A machine identity is much more than a digital ID number or a simple identifier such as a serial number or part number. Instead, a machine identity is an amalgam of the authenticated credentials that certify that a machine or user is authorized to be granted access to online resources or to a network.

It’s important to note that it is not a universal construct, since any identity is valid only within the network or system for which it was created. Modern computer networks, in fact, utilize an entire class of software to manage both machine and human identities. Identity and Access Management software (IAM) is singularly tasked with the job of assuring that all digital identities are properly and safely managed.


Machine identities are a subset of a broader digital identity foundation that also includes all human and application identities in an enterprise environment. Each of the following, for example, would be assigned a unique machine identity:

  • Mobile devices and smartphones
  • Internet of Things (IoT) devices
  • Web servers and application servers
  • Network appliances and routers

As digital transformation initiatives expand, so too will the number of machines involved in enabling its benefits. Organizations need both strategy and tactics to implement an organized system of digital identities that reliably secures, governs, and verifies machine-to-machine communications.

Why Machine Identity Management is Important

As technology has evolved in recent years, the enterprise security landscape has grown increasingly complex. Applications and data running across cloud and multi-cloud environments, distributed workforces, and innovative connected devices are all intersecting in ways that demand a strong digital identity approach that protects against persistent and emerging threats.

It's important to understand that many of these intersections are characterized by automation; there is no human interaction during machine-to-machine communication. The security implications are enormous. Machine interactions must be secure and rapid in order to deliver the reliability and scalability required to achieve enterprise-wide protection on a global scale.

Enterprises now rely on PKI certificates as the gold standard for ensuring identity. PKI serves as a foundational component of a Zero Trust architecture that adheres to strong security parameters for all end-user, device, and application identities.

But as already-complex environments and critical systems expand to include mobile devices, cloud infrastructure, DevOps, Internet of Things, and other physical devices, the financial risks inherent in failing to effectively manage PKI certificates have increased dramatically. While improper certificate management makes enterprises more vulnerable to cybercriminals, malware, and fraud, it also exposes organizations to risks related to employee productivity, customer experience issues, compliance shortfalls, and other potential issues.

How Is Digital Identity Management More Secure than Passwords and Multi-Factor Authentication?

Today’s IT security teams must have the know-how to be able to recognize and authenticate identities throughout the enterprise — whether those identities belong to humans, devices, data, or applications. Passwords offered a certain measure of security in the past, but they are no longer as effective as they once were. That’s because bad actors have become increasingly adept at stealing them through a range of devious methodologies, including:

  • Tricking users into entering passwords at phishing websites.
  • Stealing users’ identities from transactions in transit across the Internet.
  • Lifting passwords from password repositories.
  • Discovering places where stolen passwords have been reused.
  • Obtaining passwords through brute force.

In terms of human identities, many organizations have turned to two-factor authentication (2FA), multi-factor authentication (MFA), and, in some cases, biometric-based authentication. Often touted as a secure alternative to passwords, phone, and one-time password OATH token, multi-factor authentication solutions are riddled with many documented cybersecurity vulnerabilities, and have been proven susceptible to high-profile attacks that are as easy and scalable as stealing passwords. Additionally, the effort an employee must expend in using an application with MFA — much more burdensome than simply remembering a password — makes life even more complex for both employees and IT administrators.

Passwords and MFA pose an additional set of problems when it comes to authenticating machines. As discussed earlier, machine-to-machine communication is characterized by automation. Machines can't answer a smartphone or IoT device to obtain a one-time password. Storing or transferring passwords within automated communication processes opens the door to vulnerabilities. Given the proliferation of digital business transformation, organizations need a fundamentally different and better approach to the authentication of machine identities.

In contrast to both methods, digital identity management with PKI eliminates the reliance upon secrets to be shared (or intercepted by cybercriminals). Authentication occurs when the user or machine proves possession of the private key. The transaction is then signed by the private key and verified by the public key. This public/private key pair is generated by one of several strong cryptographic algorithms.

This process offers far superior data protection and security against hackers than password-based authentication for a number of reasons:

  • The private key never leaves the client. In contrast to passwords, which are easy to share intentionally, or unintentionally, via phishing attacks.
  • The private key cannot be stolen in transit, because it is never transmitted. Unlike passwords, which can be stolen in transit through the Internet, private keys are never transmitted.
  • The private key cannot be stolen from the server repository. Passwords stored in central server repositories can be stolen; private keys are known only to the user's device and are not stored centrally.
  • There is no need for users to remember passwords or enter usernames. The user's device simply stores a private key to be presented when needed, providing a more seamless user experience.

Why Automate Machine Identity Management?

While there is no stronger, easier-to-use authentication and encryption solution than the digital identity provided by PKI, the challenge for busy IT teams is that manually deploying and managing certificates is time-consuming, and can result in unnecessary risk. The bottom line? Manual key management is neither sustainable nor scalable.

Whether an enterprise deploys a single SSL certificate for a web server or manages millions of certificates across all its networked device identities, the end-to-end process of certificate issuance, configuration, and deployment can take hours. Manually managing certificates also puts enterprises at significant risk of neglected certificates expiring unexpectedly and of exposure to gaps in ownership — dropped balls that can result in certificate-related outages, critical business systems failures, and security breaches and attacks.

Customers and internal users rely on critical business systems to always be available. But in recent years, expired certificates have resulted in many high-profile website and service outages. The result has been billions of dollars in lost revenue, contract penalties, lawsuits, and the incalculable cost of tarnished brand reputations and lost customer goodwill.

Organizations Must Be in Compliance with Regulations — Or Face Staggering Penalties

Insufficient identity security can certainly leave organizations at risk of attacks and sensitive data breaches. But security vulnerabilities can also put enterprises in jeopardy of failing to comply with regulatory mandates. Privacy regulations such as HIPAA/HITECH, GDPR, and the U.S. federal government’s DFARS define instances and use cases that require encryption to mitigate or minimize the consequences of a breach — all designed to guard against information theft vulnerabilities.

Failure to meet compliance requirements can result in substantial fines. For example, the EU has charged GDPR-related fines to Google for €50 million, Marriott for £99 million, and British Airways for £183 million. And the GDPR has mandated that fines should be based on both the scale of an individual breach and the degree of negligence exhibited by an organization. So, applying a strong security solution to your digital certificates helps to reduce the risk of a breach. But doing so also indicates a good-faith effort or lack of negligence, which may help to reduce the amount of the fine should a breach occur.

Administration Costs Also Add Up Quickly

Though certificate management may sometimes be regarded as a simple, day-to-day task for an IT or web administrator, ensuring certificates are valid one at a time is costly. Using manual processes to discover, install, monitor, and renew all the PKI certificates in an organization is labor-intensive and technically demanding.

Consider, for example, that even a minimal manual SSL/TLS certificate installation with a single web server and domain instance involves multiple steps, and can easily add up to over $50 per web server. Now multiply that effort across the thousands or millions of PKI certificates in an organization, and it becomes readily apparent that the costs of manual certificate management add up quickly.

How To Automate Machine Identity Management

With the above-noted pitfalls and financial ramifications inherent in managing PKI certificates manually, the return on investment for automated machine identity management tools is clear for CIOs and CSOs to see.

IT professionals must rethink their certificate lifecycle management strategies. Particularly as enterprises increasingly go to market with services reliant upon rapidly changing DevOps environments, organizations need an automated solution that ensures certificates are correctly configured and implemented without human intervention. This type of solution helps reduce risk but also aids IT departments in controlling operational costs and streamlining time-to-market for products and services.

Recently, PKI has evolved to become even more versatile. Interoperability, high uptime, and governance are still key benefits. But today’s PKI solutions are also functionally capable of improving administration and certificate lifecycle management through:

  • Automation: Completing individual tasks while minimizing manual processes.
  • Coordination: Using automation to manage a broad portfolio of tasks.
  • Scalability: Managing certificates numbering in the hundreds, thousands, or even millions.
  • Crypto-agility: Updating cryptographic strength and revoking and replacing at-risk certificates with quantum-safe certificates rapidly in response to new or changing threats.
  • Visibility: Viewing certificate status with a single pane of glass across all use cases.

Given the disparate systems, applications, and devices that use digital certificates, IT teams often find themselves managing distinct automation services from many different vendors. Running multiple platforms typically results in efficiency reductions. A single certificate management dashboard that automates discovery, deployment, and lifecycle management across all use cases and vendor platforms delivers the efficiency that automation promises. And IT teams still maintain control of configuration definitions and rules so that all steps are performed correctly.

As a trusted certificate authority (CA), Sectigo provides digital identity management automation solutions that enable enterprises to be agile, efficient, and in full control of all the certificates in their environment, including machine identities. Sectigo supports automated installation, revocation, and renewal of SSL/TLS, and non-SSL certificates via industry-leading protocols, APIs, and third-party integrations. And Sectigo eliminates the problem of certificate volume caps that can occur with open-source alternatives.

In sum, Sectigo’s automation solutions enable your security team to easily:

  • Enforce cryptographic security policies.
  • Protect communications.
  • Prevent personal data loss via unauthorized access.
  • Future-proof systems, applications, and devices across the enterprise.

To learn more about how you can use PKI to replace passwords for identity and access, read The Passwordless Enterprise whitepaper.