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What is Hardware Security Module (HSM)?

Hardware Security Module (HSM) Meaning

A hardware security module (HSM) is a hardware unit that stores cryptographic keys to keep them private while ensuring they are available to those authorized to use them. The primary objective of HSM security is to control which individuals have access to an organization's digital security keys.

With HSM encryption, you enable your employees to use your private keys without granting them direct access. Used this way, HSMs help reduce your attack surface.

How Do Hardware Security Modules (HSMs) Work?

Hardware security modules prevent an application from loading a copy of a private key into the memory of a web server. This is useful because while on a web server, your security keys are vulnerable to hackers. If an attacker gains access to the web server, they can locate your key and then use it to access sensitive data. 

But by deploying either your own HSM system or an HSM-as-a-Service model, you close the door on hackers attempting to get their hands on your organization's data.

The cryptographic functions involved in securing data during transmission all occur within the HSM environment, where data is shielded from attackers. The way an HSM is designed makes it impossible for an attacker to impact the processes happening inside the hardware unit. In other words, although an HSM is able to accept inputs from users, users have no access to its inner workings. This makes HSMs a secure solution for both storing your cryptographic keys and performing encryption/decryption procedures.

Types of Hardware Security Modules (HSMs)

There are two primary types of HSMs: general purpose and payment hardware security modules.

General Purpose Hardware Security Modules

General purpose hardware security modules use common encryption algorithms and are mainly used with crypto wallets, public key infrastructure (PKI), and in the security of basic sensitive data. Some of the common algorithms general purpose HSMs use include CAPI, PKCS#11, CNG, and others.

Payment Hardware Security Modules

Payment—or payment and transaction—HSMs are designed to protect credit and payment card information, as well as other sensitive information involved in financial transactions. These types of HSM play a significant role in the protection of payment information, helping organizations comply with Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards (PCI DSS).

How HSMs Improve Enterprise IT and Data Security

HSMs boost your enterprise data security by giving you the ability to generate strong, random encryption keys. In addition to being random, the keys can be automatically rotated by the HSM, making it even harder for a hacker to bypass them.

HSMs also prevent even an extremely qualified hacker to steal your keys because of the safeguards in place for handling attack attempts. If someone tries to hack an HSM, the unit automatically registers the activity and sends an alarm to your IT team.

An HSM also makes it easier for your organization to stay in compliance with both internally and externally imposed regulations, such as PCI DSS or those policies your company adopts to limit access to sensitive data.

Hardware Security Module Options

You have two basic options with HSM: physical devices and cloud-based HSMs.

Physical Devices

While all HSMs are physical devices, the term “physical HSM” refers to a unit you purchase and keep somewhere you choose, such as in an on-premises data center. In this case, you purchase the HSM outright and handle its deployment and management throughout its life cycle.

Cloud-based HSMs

A cloud-based HSM is still a physical device but is kept in a cloud data center, which houses the components that make up a cloud environment. With a cloud-based HSM, you either rent an HSM from the cloud provider or you pay to access its functionalities as needed.

Difference Between HSM vs. TPM Modules for Encryption

HSMs are different from trusted platform modules (TPMs) even though both are physical devices and involve data encryption. An HSM is a removable unit that runs on its own, while a TPM is a chip on your motherboard that can encrypt an entire laptop or desktop disk.

Use Cases of HSMs

There are many different use cases for HSMs, all of which involve encrypting and decrypting sensitive or private information. Some of the more popular examples include:

  1. Protection of privileged access and company secrets: You can limit the effectiveness of insider threats with an HSM. That is because no one can tangle with what is happening inside an HSM—not even a capable internal hacker. Also, if your DevOps team needs to access private information, you can manage that access using an HSM to prevent exfiltration.
  2. Keys management: HSMs are very effective at managing cryptography keys. Whether deployed on-premises or in a cloud environment, HSMs give you the ability to manage multiple keys.
  3. Authentication and identity management: An HSM authenticates each user against required credentials and facilitates the creation of trustworthy identity credentials for securing your organization's infrastructure.

How Fortinet Can Help

At the heart of HSMs is the encryption of data as it goes from point A to point B and back again. With the FortiGate Next-Generation Firewall (NGFW), you can securely manage data access through a virtual private network (VPN) tunnel —all data transmitted from one user or machine to another is encrypted as it is sent. When it arrives at its destination, the data is decrypted for the end user to understand. 

In this way, you avoid internet snoopers looking to intercept and abuse your data. Even if they get hold of a transmission, the data would not be legible, making it useless to them or their team of attackers.


What is the meaning of HSM?

A hardware security module (HSM) is a hardware unit that stores your organization's cryptographic keys to keep them private while still ensuring they are available to those who need them and are authorized to use them.

What is HSM used for?

An HSM keeps data encryption keys private. They also perform the encryption processes needed to ensure outsiders cannot read or use your organization's sensitive information.

What are the best reasons to use an HSM?

Some of the best reasons to use an HSM include conforming to PCI DSS standards, managing your organization's encryption keys, and creating safe authentication and identity credentials.