Once issued, all kinds of SSL certificates (whether they are cheap SSL or costly SSL) have a predefined life span. Once the certificate has expired, it ceases to be recognized as a valid form of protection. SSL certificates may have different validity periods but are usually set to expire anytime between 1 to 2 years.

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At a minimum, SSL certificates must be renewed at the end of their life to avoid any disruptions in service. There may however be several scenarios that may force renewal/replacement of a certificate ahead of time (example: company mergers, changes in policy, SHA1 end of life migration, Heartbleed bug, etc.)

Given that the SSL certificates have a finite life span and are used widely throughout the organization, there are multiple reasons to adopt a holistic approach to its lifecycle management. It is extremely important to maintain accurate accounts of SSL certificates that do not rely on unreliable manual tools and processes.

This article aims to help security and IT professionals in outlining the key aspects of the lifecycle management process and establish its importance. It is important to establish good practices for managing your SSL certificates to attain better control and oversight, improve efficiency, lower costs and decrease security risks.

What are the consequences of poor SSL certificate management?

The “browser lock” icon that gets displayed on transaction-based sites for the protection of payment and user information appears the most recognized use of SSL certificates. Their usefulness, however, extends much beyond this in securing the mission-critical infrastructure components of the enterprise.

For instance, partners and employees alike make use of VPNs for accessing sensitive information. At the same time, backend systems depend on SSL certificates for securing remote access. Almost all cloud services based on browsers make use of SSL certificates for transmitting customer-related account information, transactions related to business partners, time tracking, inventory status and a myriad of other kinds of information.

Most of the internally installed applications and productivity tools for employees such as document and sales quoting repositories depend heavily on security provided by SSL protocol as well. It is important to note that the use of SSL certificates is not limited to security for browsers. SSL certificates also find heavy use in the area of secure communications between servers for the exchange of data and information.

Given that SSL certificates are used so heavily, the consequences of expired or improperly configured certificates can be catastrophic. Failure of an SSL certificate to work properly can lead to an organization not only losing sales but also jeopardizing customer confidence. It can also result in business partners and employees not being able to perform their regular jobs.

If you are not managing your SSL certificates properly, the risk of exposure to confidential information increases dramatically and can result in heavy financial losses or fines because of non-compliance. Accordingly, the management of SSL certificates throughout complex networks for ensuring protection and preventing unexpected failures becomes a requirement for the smooth functioning of all kinds of businesses.

It is time to realize the importance of SSL certificate lifecycle management

While it is critical to ensure that SSL certificates are implemented properly, it is extremely hard to manage individual SSL certificates throughout a large organization. This quickly gets out of hand when you are dealing with multiple divisions, locations and rapid growth in consumption of outside cloud-based services.

Not only does it get complicated, but it turns extremely complicated as well. As per an estimate provided by Cisco, before lifecycle management for SSL certificates was introduced, it used to take an average of 4 hours for managing one certificate, which equates to about $288 per certificate. If you apply the math and compare the cost of acquiring and managing an SSL certificate, you will realize that certificate management costs more than the initial purchase.

With a lot of organizations adopting multiple approaches for SSL certificate management, typically varying by function and department who adopt manual and ad hoc methods, guarding against disruptions becomes even more difficult. Adopting a holistic approach to SSL certificate lifecycle management ensures that a consistent approach is followed. It also opens the doors to make use of automation to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of the management of SSL certificates.

Significant management is a requirement for the smooth functioning of routine operations like deployment of new applications or maintenance of existing ones to prevent warnings and failures. These failures may happen due to certificate expiration and incorrect configuration. At the same time, major changes in business or unplanned events can lead to a significant increase in cost, time, and security risk.

Common operational changes like migrations spanning across data centers, integrations due to acquisitions and mergers or use of public and private clouds place greater strain on manual SSL certificate management processes that may be decentralized.

Along the same lines, unexpected events (example: Heartbleed bug, accelerated end of life SHA-1 hashing) that require a quick replacement/renewal of SSL certificates are near impossible to achieve when you are using a manual and decentralized management system.

What aspects of SSL lifecycle management need to be looked at?

As is clear, SSL certificates do not fit in the area of evergreen software that can be installed once and used for a long time. They have a given lifespan and do not provide facilities for upgrades as other software. SSL certificates have the following characteristics and thus need appropriate management:

  • Issuance

Always purchase your certificates from a trusted vendor. Make sure that internal approvals are done, and administrative oversights have been put in place.

  • Inventory

Keep a record of information such as type of certificate, expiration date, deployment, department, and the person responsible for managing the certificates.

  • Monitor 

Continuously monitor your certificate inventory to make sure that it meets all the current compliance regulations.

  • Refresh 

Keep track of expirations. Replace your certificates before expiration and verify that the certificates have been installed properly.

  • Retirement 

Expired certificates should be recorded as “renewed” or “no longer used”. You should also be able to revoke a certificate prematurely if needed.

It is important to get a handle on the management of your SSL certificates to gain more visibility in your installed certificates. It will also help you in understanding the risks and responsibilities related to SSL certificate management and procurement.  Most importantly, managing your SSL certificates properly will ensure a smooth certificate renewal process and keep verified records of adequate information regarding your SSL certificates.

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