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Major Vendors Propose Interoperability Standard For Key Management

IBM, HP, RSA head up list of vendors supporting guidelines designed to ease deployment and management of encryption
A group of vendors have proposed a new industry standard designed to simplify the implementation and management of encryption technology across large enterprises.

Brocade, HP, IBM, LSI, RSA, Seagate, and Thales (formerly nCipher) today announced the creation of the Key Management Interoperability Protocol (KMIP), a jointly developed specification for enterprise key management. KMIP is designed to provide a single protocol for communication between enterprise key management services and encryption systems, the companies say.

The seven vendors plan to submit the specification to the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) as an industry standard.

The problem with encryption, particularly in large enterprises, is that there are so many products and methods of doing it, observers say. Companies often deploy separate encryption systems for different business uses, such as laptops, storage, databases, and applications. And each encryption product typically has a different method of generating, distributing, storing, expiring, and rotating encryption "keys" -- the technologies that code and decode the data.

The concept of "key management" -- the practices associated with generating and storing encryption keys across an enterprise -- has been debated for decades. But vendors and cryptographers have never been able to agree on the best way to do it, leaving enterprise security managers stuck with the largely manual process of managing keys separately for each vendor or product. This administrative issue has made enterprises slow to roll out encryption on a broad scale.

"In general, enterprises have a lack of confidence that, once encrypted, IT managers will be able to actually recover the encrypted data when they'll need to," the standards developers say.

KMIP is designed to help resolve this problem in large enterprises that have multiple encryption tools, the vendors say. "The problem addressed by KMIP is primarily that of standardizing communication between encryption systems that need to consume keys and the key management systems that create and manage those keys," the specification says.

"By defining a low-level protocol that can be used to request and deliver keys between any key manager and any encryption system, KMIP enables the industry to have any encryption system communicate with any key management system," the specification says. "Through this interoperability, enterprises will be able to deploy a single enterprise key management infrastructure to manage keys for all encryption systems in the enterprise."

If it becomes widely adopted, the new standard could make encryption easier to deploy and manage, no matter which products or vendors the organization chooses, observers say. This ease of deployment is becoming increasingly important given that more regulatory and industry compliance guidelines require some form of encryption. Forty-four percent of enterprises plan to encrypt more than 75 percent of their data by 2009, according to IDC Research.

Although many encryption and key management technologies have been held up as potential "industry standards" during the years, KMIP is the "first specification for enterprise key management that is ready for adoption," the vendors say. It is designed to be "complementary" to application-specific standards projects, such as IEEE 1619.3 (for storage) and OASIS EKMI (for XML), the group says.

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