AWS Security Blog

AWS Encryption SDK: How to Decide if Data Key Caching Is Right for Your Application

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Today, the AWS Crypto Tools team introduced a new feature in the AWS Encryption SDK: data key caching. Data key caching lets you reuse the data keys that protect your data, instead of generating a new data key for each encryption operation.

Data key caching can reduce latency, improve throughput, reduce cost, and help you stay within service limits as your application scales. In particular, caching might help if your application is hitting the AWS Key Management Service (KMS) requests-per-second limit and raising the limit does not solve the problem.

However, these benefits come with some security tradeoffs. Encryption best practices generally discourage extensive reuse of data keys.

In this blog post, I explore those tradeoffs and provide information that can help you decide whether data key caching is a good strategy for your application. I also explain how data key caching is implemented in the AWS Encryption SDK and describe the security thresholds that you can set to limit the reuse of data keys. Finally, I provide some practical examples of using the security thresholds to meet cost, performance, and security goals.

Introducing data key caching

The AWS Encryption SDK is a client-side encryption library that makes it easier for you to implement cryptography best practices in your application. It includes secure default behavior for developers who are not encryption experts, while being flexible enough to work for the most experienced users.

In the AWS Encryption SDK, by default, you generate a new data key for each encryption operation. This is the most secure practice. However, in some applications, the overhead of generating a new data key for each operation is not acceptable.

Data key caching saves the plaintext and ciphertext of the data keys you use in a configurable cache. When you need a key to encrypt or decrypt data, you can reuse a data key from the cache instead of creating a new data key. You can create multiple data key caches and configure each one independently. Most importantly, the AWS Encryption SDK provides security thresholds that you can set to determine how much data key reuse you will allow.

To make data key caching easier to implement, the AWS Encryption SDK provides LocalCryptoMaterialsCache, an in-memory, least-recently-used cache with a configurable size. The SDK manages the cache for you, including adding store, search, and match logic to all encryption and decryption operations.

We recommend that you use LocalCryptoMaterialsCache as it is, but you can customize it, or substitute a compatible cache. However, you should never store plaintext data keys on disk.

The AWS Encryption SDK documentation includes sample code in Java and Python for an application that uses data key caching to encrypt data sent to and from Amazon Kinesis Streams.

Balance cost and security

Your decision to use data key caching should balance cost—in time, money, and resources—against security. In every consideration, though, the balance should favor your security requirements. As a rule, use the minimal caching required to achieve your cost and performance goals.

Before implementing data key caching, consider the details of your applications, your security requirements, and the cost and frequency of your encryption operations. In general, your application can benefit from data key caching if each operation is slow or expensive, or if you encrypt and decrypt data frequently. If the cost and speed of your encryption operations are already acceptable or can be improved by other means, do not use a data key cache.

Data key caching can be the right choice for your application if you have high encryption and decryption traffic. For example, if you are hitting your KMS requests-per-second limit, caching can help because you get some of your data keys from the cache instead of calling KMS for every request.

However, you can also create a case in the AWS Support Center to raise the KMS limit for your account. If raising the limit solves the problem, you do not need data key caching.

Configure caching thresholds for cost and security

In the AWS Encryption SDK, you can configure data key caching to allow just enough data key reuse to meet your cost and performance targets while conforming to the security requirements of your application. The SDK enforces the thresholds so that you can use them with any compatible cache.

The data key caching security thresholds apply to each cache entry. The AWS Encryption SDK will not use the data key from a cache entry that exceeds any of the thresholds that you set.

  • Maximum age (required): Set the lifetime of each cached key to be long enough to get cache hits, but short enough to limit exposure of a plaintext data key in memory to a specific time period.

You can use the maximum age threshold like a key rotation policy. Use it to limit the reuse of data keys and minimize exposure of cryptographic materials. You can also use it to evict data keys when the type or source of data that your application is processing changes.

  • Maximum messages encrypted (optional; default is 232 messages): Set the number of messages protected by each cached data key to be large enough to get value from reuse, but small enough to limit the number of messages that might potentially be exposed.

The AWS Encryption SDK only caches data keys that use an algorithm suite with a key derivation function. This technique avoids the cryptographic limits on the number of bytes encrypted with a single key. However, the more data that a key encrypts, the more data that is exposed if the data key is compromised.

Limiting the number of messages, rather than the number of bytes, is particularly useful if your application encrypts many messages of a similar size or when potential exposure must be limited to very few messages. This threshold is also useful when you want to reuse a data key for a particular type of message and know in advance how many messages of that type you have. You can also use an encryption context to select particular cached data keys for your encryption requests.

  • Maximum bytes encrypted (optional; default is 263 – 1): Set the bytes protected by each cached data key to be large enough to allow the reuse you need, but small enough to limit the amount of data encrypted under the same key.

Limiting the number of bytes, rather than the number of messages, is preferable when your application encrypts messages of widely varying size or when possibly exposing large amounts of data is much more of a concern than exposing smaller amounts of data.

In addition to these security thresholds, the LocalCryptoMaterialsCache in the AWS Encryption SDK lets you set its capacity, which is the maximum number of entries the cache can hold.

Use the capacity value to tune the performance of your LocalCryptoMaterialsCache. In general, use the smallest value that will achieve the performance improvements that your application requires. You might want to test with a very small cache of 5–10 entries and expand if necessary. You will need a slightly larger cache if you are using the cache for both encryption and decryption requests, or if you are using encryption contexts to select particular cache entries.

Consider these cache configuration examples

After you determine the security and performance requirements of your application, consider the cache security thresholds carefully and adjust them to meet your needs. There are no magic numbers for these thresholds: the ideal settings are specific to each application, its security and performance requirements, and budget. Use the minimal amount of caching necessary to get acceptable performance and cost.

The following examples show ways you can use the LocalCryptoMaterialsCache capacity setting and the security thresholds to help meet your security requirements:

  • Slow master key operations: If your master key processes only 100 transactions per second (TPS) but your application needs to process 1,000 TPS, you can meet your application requirements by allowing a maximum of 10 messages to be protected under each data key.
  • High frequency and volume: If your master key costs $0.01 per operation and you need to process a consistent 1,000 TPS while staying within a budget of $100,000 per month, allow a maximum of 275 messages for each cache entry.
  • Burst traffic: If your application’s processing bursts to 100 TPS for five seconds in each minute but is otherwise zero, and your master key costs $0.01 per operation, setting maximum messages to 3 can achieve significant savings. To prevent data keys from being reused across bursts (55 seconds), set the maximum age of each cached data key to 20 seconds.
  • Expensive master key operations: If your application uses a low-throughput encryption service that costs as much as $1.00 per operation, you might want to minimize the number of operations. To do so, create a cache that is large enough to contain the data keys you need. Then, set the byte and message limits high enough to allow reuse while conforming to your security requirements. For example, if your security requirements do not permit a data key to encrypt more than 10 GB of data, setting bytes processed to 10 GB still significantly minimizes operations and conforms to your security requirements.

Learn more about data key caching

To learn more about data key caching, including how to implement it, how to set the security thresholds, and details about the caching components, see Data Key Caching in the AWS Encryption SDK. Also, see the AWS Encryption SDKs for Java and Python as well as the Javadoc and Python documentation.

If you have comments about this blog post, submit them in the “Comments” section below. If you have questions, file an issue in the GitHub repos for the Encryption SDK in Java or Python, or start a new thread on the KMS forum.

– June