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11/1/2017
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Will New Ownership Open New Opportunities for Digital Cert Vendors?

Francisco Partners acquires majority stake in Comodo CA; DigiCert completes purchase of Symantec's SSL cert business.

Two leading certificate authorities this week had changes in ownership of their business.

Private equity firm Francisco Partners acquired a majority stake in Comodo's digital certificate business for an undisclosed sum while rival DigiCert announced the completion of its previously announced $950 million purchase of Symantec's troubled CA operations.

Neither development is likely to have much of a direct impact on customers of these businesses in the short term. But for both the companies themselves, the changes present new opportunities at a time when cloud, mobile computing, and the IoT are driving massive demand for digital certificates and related management services.

Comodo currently is the leader in the market for high-assurance SSL certificates. Data published by market research firm w3techs.com shows the company currently holding a 38.7% share of the market for digital certificates that are used to authenticate website identities and to encrypt information on the Web.

The number is marginally lower than the 40% share that Comodo held last year at the same time and about 7% higher than its closest rival, IdenTrust, a CA managed by a banking consortium. Comodo says it has issued over 91 million SSL certificates—over 55 million of them this year alone—to some 200,000 organizations in 150 countries.

For Comodo, the acquisition by Francisco Partners will allow the parent company to focus more on new opportunities in the security industry, while the certificate business gets a sharper focus, says Garrett Bekker, an analyst at 451 Research. "I think it makes sense for both sides of Comodo—Comodo CA and the parent company," he says.

"Comodo CA gets to focus on digital certs and gets financial backing to tackle IoT opportunities, while Comodo parent gets to focus on newer stuff they have around endpoint protection," Bekker says.

Industry veteran and former Entrust COO, Bill Holtz, who has been hired as the new CEO of Comodo CA says his immediate focus is on turbocharging the digital certificate business with the involvement of Francisco Partners. Melih Abdulhayoglu, founder and CEO of the Comodo Group will remain a board member of Comodo CA and hold a minority stake in the business, Holtz says.

"Moving forward, Comodo CA will be laser-focused on the certificates business, including leveraging our certificate management capabilities to drive innovation in IoT," Holt says.

For DigiCert meanwhile, the Symantec CA business will give it a chance to acquire a much larger share of the market. W3tech's numbers show the company currently holding a 2.2% share compared to Symantec's 13.1% presence.

But the company faces a massive challenge overcoming issues of trust with the digital certificate business that it acquired from Symantec.

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Organizations such as Google and Mozilla have very publicly expressed their misgivings over the manner in which Symantec has handled the digital certificate issuance processes. Google has claimed that an investigation it conducted showed Symantec had issued as many as 30,000 digital certificates over the past few years, without the kind of vetting expected of a certificate authority.

Both Google and Mozilla have said their browsers will soon stop trusting all Symantec-issued certificates and they have insisted that things will remain that way until Symantec moves to a more trusted and verifiable certificate issuing infrastructure.

Symantec's decision to sell its CA business to DigiCert is designed to address those concerns. But the company still holds a 30% stake in the business. In a statement, DigiCert said it has worked to address the concerns that have been raised by browser makers. The company said it would replace all affected Symantec certificates at no cost and without any disruption for customers as part of a bid to regain trust.

Not everybody is convinced that the moves are enough. "Mozilla’s Root Store Program has taken the position that trust is not automatically transferable between organizations," Mozilla engineer Gervase Markham said in a blog this week, referring to the DigiCert and Symantec deal.

"It would not be appropriate for a CA to escape root program sanction by restructuring, or by purchasing another CA through M&A and continuing operations under that CA’s name, essentially unchanged," Gervase said.

Gervase said Mozilla would be concerned if the combined entity continued to operate significant portions of Symantec's old infrastructure, or if Symantec personnel continued to be involved in certificate issuing without proper retraining. Mozilla would also be concerned if Symantec management were to control the CA business in the merger, he said.

Bekker echoes some of the concerns. "I think there is a lot of concern in the industry about how successful DigiCert will be in addressing Symantec’s issues, and legitimate questions about how quickly and effectively a smaller company like DigiCert can fix Symantec’s problems," he says. "DigiCert will have to do more, since there is so much concern about how customers will be supported in the transition and uncertainty about potential disruptions to business."

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Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year ... View Full Bio

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