A hardware security module (HSM) is a physical computing device that safeguards and manages digital keys for strong authentication and provides cryptoprocessing. These modules traditionally come in the form of a plug-in card or an external device that attaches directly to a computer or network server.
HSMs may have features that provide tamper evidence such as visible signs of tampering or logging and alerting, or tamper resistance which makes tampering difficult without making the HSM inoperable, or tamper responsiveness such as deleting keys upon tamper detection. Each module contains one or more secure cryptoprocessor chips to prevent tampering and bus probing, or a combination of chips in a module that is protected by the tamper evident, tamper resistant, or tamper responsive packaging.
A vast majority of existing HSMs are designed mainly to manage secret keys. Many HSM systems have means to securely back up the keys they handle outside of the HSM. Keys may be backed up in wrapped form and stored on a computer disk or other media, or externally using a secure portable device like a smartcard or some other security token.
Because HSMs are often part of a mission-critical infrastructure such as a public key infrastructure or online banking application, HSMs can typically be clustered for high availability and performance. Some HSMs feature dual power supplies and field replaceable components such as cooling fans to conform to the high-availability requirements of data center environments and to enable business continuity.
A few of the HSMs available in the market have the ability to execute specially developed modules within the HSM’s secure enclosure. Such an ability is useful, for example, in cases where special algorithms or business logic has to be executed in a secured and controlled environment. The modules can be developed in native C language, in .NET, Java, or other programming languages. Further, upcoming next-generation HSMs can handle more complex tasks such as loading and running full operating systems and COTS software without requiring customization and reprogramming. Such unconventional designs overcome existing design and performance limitations of traditional HSMs.
While providing the benefit of securing application-specific code, these execution engines protect the status of an HSM’s FIPS or Common Criteria validation.
Due to the critical role they play in securing applications and infrastructure, HSMs and/or the cryptographic modules are typically certified to internationally recognized standards such as Common Criteria or FIPS 140 to provide users with independent assurance that the design and implementation of the product and cryptographic algorithms are sound. The highest level of FIPS 140 security certification attainable is Security Level 4 (Overall), to which only one HSM has been successfully validated as of August 2018. When used in financial payments applications, the security of an HSM is often validated against the HSM requirements defined by the Payment Card Industry Security Standards Council.