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What makes the YubiHSM an HSM?

Most HSMs I have seen have more memory and are faster, perhaps due to crypto-accelerators. They're generally big and inserted in data center racks, or plugged as PCIe cards.

But the YubiHSM is tiny, I was wondering what makes it an HSM?

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  • From wiki: "These modules traditionally come in the form of a plug-in card or ..." and at the bottom, YubiKeyHSM is listed as an HSM vendor.
    – schroeder
    Jul 15 '20 at 8:41
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Size and performance don't matter, as a hardware security module (HSM) is defined by its functions to perform cryptographic operations and protection. From Peter Smirnoff on Cryptomathic: Understanding Hardware Security Modules (HSMs):

The hardware security module (HSM) is a special “trusted” network computer performing a variety of cryptographic operations: key management, key exchange, encryption etc.

It seems to be obvious that cryptographic operations must be performed in a trusted environment. When I say trusted, I mean “no viruses, no malware, no exploit, no unauthorized access.” An HSM is trusted because it:

  1. Is built on top of specialized hardware. The hardware is well-tested and certified in special laboratories.

  2. Has a security-focused OS.

  3. Has limited access via a network interface that is strictly controlled by internal rules.

  4. Actively hides and protects cryptographic material.

You can find the same list of the key properties of a HSM e.g. from Doron Gez: What Is a Hardware Security Module. Although YubiHSM is nano form factor, it meets these requirements (YubiHSM 2 Product Overview). While bigger appliances could do these operations faster and store more keys, that only affects their possible use cases.

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