»Vault Enterprise HSM Behavioral Changes

This page contains information about the behavioral differences that take effect when using Vault with an HSM.

»Key Split Between Unseal Keys and Recovery Keys

Normally, Vault uses a single set of unseal keys to perform both decryption of the cryptographic barrier and to authorize recovery operations, such as the generate-root functionality.

When using an HSM, because the HSM automatically unseals the barrier but recovery operations should still have human oversight, Vault instead uses two sets of keys: unseal keys and recovery keys.

»Unseal (Master) Key

Vault usually generates a master key and splits it using Shamir's Secret Sharing to prevent a single operator from being able to modify and unseal Vault (see more information about Vault's security model here).

When using an HSM, Vault instead stores the master key, encrypted by the HSM, into its internal storage. As a result, during an init command, the number of key shares, threshold, and stored shares are required to be set to 1, meaning to not split the master key, so that the single key share is itself the master key. (Vault does not do this automatically as it generally prefers to error rather than change parameters set by an operator.)

Both rekeying the master key and rotation of the underlying data encryption key are supported when using an HSM.

»Recovery Key

When Vault is initialized while using an HSM, rather than unseal keys being returned to the operator, recovery keys are returned. These are generated from an internal recovery key that is split via Shamir's Secret Sharing, similar to Vault's treatment of unseal keys when running without an HSM.

Details about initialization and rekeying follow. When performing an operation that uses recovery keys, such as generate-root, selection of the recovery keys for this purpose, rather than the barrier unseal keys, is automatic.


When initializing, the split is performed according to the following CLI flags and their API equivalents in the /sys/init endpoint:

  • recovery-shares: The number of shares into which to split the recovery key. This value is equivalent to the recovery_shares value in the API endpoint.
  • recovery-threshold: The threshold of shares required to reconstruct the recovery key. This value is equivalent to the recovery_threshold value in the API endpoint.
  • recovery-pgp-keys: The PGP keys to use to encrypt the returned recovery key shares. This value is equivalent to the recovery_pgp_keys value in the API endpoint, although as with pgp_keys the object in the API endpoint is an array, not a string.

Additionally, Vault will refuse to initialize if the option has not been set to generate a key but no key is found. See Configuration for more details.


»Unseal Key

Vault's unseal key can be rekeyed using a normal vault operator rekey operation from the CLI or the matching API calls. The rekey operation is authorized by meeting the threshold of recovery keys. After rekeying, the new barrier key is wrapped by the HSM and stored like the previous key; it is not returned to the users that submitted their recovery keys.

»Recovery Key

The recovery key can be rekeyed to change the number of shares/threshold or to target different key holders via different PGP keys. When using the Vault CLI, this is performed by using the -target=recovery flag to vault operator rekey.

Via the API, the rekey operation is performed with the same parameters as the normal /sys/rekey endpoint; however, the API prefix for this operation is at /sys/rekey-recovery-key rather than /sys/rekey.

»Performance and Availability

When an HSM is used for generating various CSPs or for entropy augmentation, interaction with the HSM becomes part of the request processing for functionality using it. This means the HSM must be online and available for those requests to succeed. Additionally, some operations are performed much more frequently than key generation where interaction with the HSM may impact performance. A mount with seal wrapping enabled will interact with the HSM on every write for example. Vault tokens (non-batch) generated with entropy augmentation enabled will interact with the HSM when created.