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Machine Identity Management Explained in Plain English

Summary: In this article, we'll cover machine identities and address the importance and challenges in machine identity management. You'll gain a complete understanding of how machine identity management works and see the concept in action through real-world examples. By the end of this article, you'll be able to answer in-depth: what is machine identity management?

What are Machine Identities?

Machine identities are unique descriptors of an organization's devices used to authenticate communication and system access. To put it another way, they are digital credentials that "identify" servers, computers, phones, and other Internet of Things (IoT) devices.

Similar to how a user would access a system or network resources using a unique username, password, or another authenticator such as a biometric facial scan or hardware token, a machine identity uses digital certificates and keys to verify itself. Network protocols must validate that a machine's identity matches the credentials stored in the network's database to secure communications between a client and server.

What is Machine Identity Management?

Machine identity management (MIM) encompasses the processes an organization uses to assign, monitor, remove, and organize digital credentials of their devices, such as computers and mobile phones. Once authenticated, the user of the machine will have access privileges to the web services and applications they need to do their job.

Machine identity management is critical to an organization's cybersecurity because it maintains data, application, and endpoint security by validating access privileges. While this is a standard function for IT management and DevOps teams, implementation has its limits in practice.

61% of enterprises are not sufficiently equipped to manage machine identities because they don't have the required knowledge of their certificates and keys. 55% of those businesses reported having a cyber breach.

Much of machine identity management involves tracking and overseeing the completion of a machine identity's lifecycle—all of the stages a device's certificates undergo from initial assignment to its end of life. The following steps make up the lifecycle of a machine identity:

  • Issuance: New machine requests and receives digital certificates—usually purchased by a certificate authority.
  • Documentation: Information on newly issued certificates such as the expiration period, certificate type, and location on the enterprise network is stored in an inventory-tracking system for reference.
  • Provisioning: Users are equipped with specific machines and given access to network devices and applications required to fulfill their roles and responsibilities.
  • Renewal/Update: Digital certificates are tracked for expiration dates to renew certificates or expand system privileges based on role changes.
  • Revocation: Removal of machine certificates from the network system after expiration and when there's no reason to renew, thereby removing its access privileges.

Importance of Machine Identity Management

Robust machine identity management is crucial to keeping IT systems organized and businesses productive—especially in cloud or hybrid environments. Machine identities give users quick access to online services, servers, and enterprise networks through its efficient authentication system. If identity life cycles go unmonitored and expire without anyone's knowledge, employees may find themselves out of luck when trying to access a critical resource.

Software and DevOps teams also rely on solid machine identity management systems. On a minor scale, digital certificates verify individual modules within a platform so they can securely communicate with each other, other applications, cloud servers, and the internet. These practices prevent and identify software vulnerabilities that need patching later.

By 2023, 75% of cloud-security failures will result from poor management of identities, access, and privileges.

MIM is gaining importance due to the exponential increase in total machines—a number which is growing faster than the entire human population. Between the rising quantity of machines and their growing interconnectedness through the internet, it's invaluable to have a system that manages and secures those devices.

Machine identity management and enterprise cybersecurity

For businesses, machine identities play a massive role in maintaining the confidentiality, integrity, and availability (CIA triad) of an organization's data and resources. Protecting them through an elaborate management system helps reduce machine identity theft, an incident where a hacker forges decryption keys or uses compromised digital certificates to break into a corporate network.

If a cybercriminal gained unauthorized access to a firm's resources, they've breached the confidentiality of that system. From there, they can compromise the system's integrity and availability by deleting, stealing, or manipulating sensitive data, injecting harmful malware, or shutting down the IT environment entirely. These incidents are expensive to recover from and can ruin a brand's reputation if customer data is involved.

Cyber attacks that targeted organizations through forged or misused machine identities have increased by over 1,600% in the last five years.

Challenges of Machine Identity Management

The obvious challenge in machine identity management is the number of new machines produced and added to a business's network daily. Without a solid documentation system to monitor new and existing inventory, IT management teams encounter visibility issues for devices inside and outside their network where certificates expire without renewal or revocation. Some other challenges in MIM include:

Certificate centralization

For larger enterprises, in particular, having numerous departments and business units using tons of devices and servers create problems in standardizing MIM processes company-wide. Teams have unique goals and resources and, in turn, utilize different practices for managing a machine identity's lifecycle—causing mistakes that could prohibit effective audits and lead to system outages.

Public and private key security

Decryption and encryption keys are the cornerstone of securing data and communication between machines. The issue, however, is that public-key infrastructure (PKI) teams and system administrators don't always have the best security mechanisms. They require secure key stores and personnel with PKI knowledge. Firms often also give too many privileged users access to key information—opening up vulnerabilities and potential inside threats.

Manually governing machine identities

Manually tracking, creating, or resetting machine life cycles is a daunting task that takes a lot of time and resources—a challenge that 33% of IT and cybersecurity leaders state is their most significant setback in MIM. Without workflow automation solutions, organizations are prone to errors such as forgetting to enroll a device, renew a certificate, or revoke privileges.

Compliance management

Aside from using machine identities to keep a firm's network productive and secure, adhering to regulatory and industry-standard requirements remains a common challenge. Risk-management leaders and system administrators must collaborate to ensure a robust system for managing transport layer security (TLS) certificates and secure shell protocol (SSH) keys that enforce the principle of least privilege and keep businesses in compliance.

How Machine Identity Management Works

In machine identity management, the process starts with a device such as a computer or mobile phone enrolled in a business and assigned a digital TLS or secure sockets layer (SSL) certificate. That device then becomes authenticated by the server during provisioning by approving the certificate—giving the user of the specific machine the access privileges to the resources needed to do their job.

When the device, referred to as a "client" in this situation, is ready to start a session, it communicates with the server machine by sending a connection request. The server sends its digital certificate verified by the client to confirm the server's legitimate authenticity. The server then requests the client to share its certificate to prove it matches the access rights assigned during provisioning—allowing them to connect with the application or online service.

This process uses public-key cryptography to establish secure connections between each machine. Once the device and server authenticate one another, they exchange keys to get full data access.

Machine identity maintenance

Throughout the MIM lifecycle, system administrators use SSH keys, primarily for cloud environments and remote network access, to manage the privilege rights of users. They can renew, revoke, or expand rights on-command to adjust system access for when certificates expire or machines are no longer needed, such as when an employee leaves.

SSH is a highly secure protocol that gives admins access to all network machines to conduct maintenance and provisioning tasks. It also secures critical systems essential to a business's production environments.

Examples of Machine Identity Management

Machine identity management involves various tasks, projects, and maintenance routines. Some of the most common examples of machine identity management tasks for DevOps, IT management, and cybersecurity teams include:

  • Certificate Issuance: Initial enrollment or renewal of a device or workload with the acquisition of a digital certificate—adding the machine into an organizational network or application development project.
  • System Documentation: Storing and updating data on machine identity information for all infrastructures. This includes taking inventory of machine type, digital certificates, machine use, encryption keys, network location, users, and supplier.
  • Machine Identity Audit: Full-scale evaluation of machine inventory and machine identity management policies to find incomplete documentation, expired certificates, and potential security vulnerabilities.
  • MIM Automation Configuration: The process of developing and updating software tools that automate lifecycle management tasks like issuance, documentation, provisioning, renewal, and revocation.
  • Revocation and Disposal: Removal of digital certificates and keys from a machine after expiration or when no longer required, as well as decommissioning physical devices.
  • Certificate and Encryption Key Rotation: The periodic changing of SSL/TLS client and server certificates and SSH encryption keys to keep access secure from inside threats and prevent an easy getaway for hackers.

Machine Identity Management Best Practices

When going through the entire machine identity management lifecycle as well as the individual tasks needed to authenticate and secure your devices, there are a few industry best practices you can follow to enhance security, improve process efficiency, and remain organized and with up-to-date information:

Automate when possible

Invest in automation tools and identity & access management technology to keep your inventory data accurate with the up-to-date certificate and key information. Automation also ensures renewals and revocation tasks don't slip through the cracks. 50% of companies that use automation can track all their machines compared to just 28% who don't use automation.

Centralize systems

Use a dedicated team with integrated solutions and identity management platforms designed specifically for MIM to keep your entire system organized and consistent. It will improve visibility to have the same personnel and resources implementing, tracking, and managing machine identity policies.

Invest in the right expertise

Managing PKI security, auditing certificates, and documenting machine identities are complicated yet critical functions. Invest in personnel or service providers who specialize in these areas of expertise and are designed for the modern tech stack, as the costs of poor management lead to 16% to 25% of all cyber-related financial losses due to machine identity compromises.

Standardize operations

Design and implement operating procedures that include systematic processes and delegation for the machine identity lifecycle and maintenance tasks like rotating keys and certificates consistently.

The Future of Machine Identity Management

Machine identity management appears to be a top priority for organizations and DevOps teams in the future. The increased number of IoT devices circulating in and around IT environments and the dependence on cloud infrastructure emphasize the need for solid MIM strategies and systems. By 2023, over 29 billion devices will be connected to the internet—all of which need a mechanism for authentication and inventory tracking.

In terms of market size, technology for identity and access management is expected to hit $34.52 billion by 2028—the equivalent of 14.5% growth per year from 2021. A considerable contribution of that market share is the 96% of organizations that have already begun planning or implementing automated machine identity management solutions in their workflows.

Machine Identity Management and Zero Trust

Zero Trust Architecture uses various security principles to protect cloud and hybrid IT environments without the risks associated with perimeter-based models. Nearly 80% of businesses are considering, strongly evaluating, or actively embracing the Zero Trust model.

Strict enforcement of digital certificates and encryption key pairs provide strong, "always verify" mechanisms required in the Zero Trust model. The visibility provided by a robust machine identification system also embraces another critical principle of Zero Trust—continuous network monitoring through automated data collection and response.

How StrongDM simplifies Machine Identity Management

StrongDM’s People-First Access Platform automates user and machine provisioning, stores credentials, and manages authentication processes. This centralized solution gives you complete visibility and verification control for your machine identities—helping you implement Zero Trust and least privilege principles.

StrongDM also automates and logs access request data, allowing you to audit your machine identities and relevant processes quickly. At the end of the certificate lifecycle, administrators can offboard employees and associated machine access control privileges in just one click.

Streamline Machine Identity Management with StrongDM

Machine identity management governs an enterprise's servers, devices, and application workloads by utilizing digital certificates and encryption keys to verify machines. These systems and lifecycle stages authenticate secure connections between users and network resources while simultaneously helping prevent external and internal cyber-attacks. Automation technology and system centralization are vital ingredients to effective machine identity protection.

Sign up for our 14-day free trial to see how StrongDM's infrastructure access platform combines authentication, authorization, networking, and observability into a simple solution for securely managing machine identities.


About the Author

, Director, Global Customer Engineering, has worked in the information security industry for 20 years on tasks ranging from firewall administration to network security monitoring. His obsession with getting people access to answers led him to publish Practical Vulnerability Management with No Starch Press in 2020. He holds a B.A. in Philosophy from Clark University, an M.A. in Philosophy from the University of Connecticut, and an M.S. in Information Management from the University of Washington. To contact Andy, visit him on LinkedIn.

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