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Data Encryption


HSM Integration - Seal Wrap

Vault Enterprise integrates with Hardware Security Module (HSM) platforms to opt-in automatic unsealing. HSM integration provides three pieces of special functionality:

  • Master Key Wrapping: Vault protects its master key by transiting it through the HSM for encryption rather than splitting into key shares
  • Automatic Unsealing: Vault stores its encrypted master key in storage, allowing for automatic unsealing
  • Seal Wrapping to provide FIPS KeyStorage-conforming functionality for Critical Security Parameters

Unseal with HSM

In some large organizations, there is a fair amount of complexity in designating key officers, who might be available to unseal Vault installations as the most common pattern is to deploy Vault immutably. As such automating unseal using an HSM provides a simplified yet secure way of unsealing Vault nodes as they get deployed.

Vault pulls its encrypted master key from storage and transit it through the HSM for decryption via PKCS #11 API. Once the master key is decrypted, Vault uses the master key to decrypt the encryption key to resume with Vault operations.


The Federal Information Processing Standard (FIPS) 140-2 is a U.S. Government computer security standard used to accredit cryptography modules. If your product or service does not follow FIPS' security requirements, it may complicate your ability to operate with U.S. Government data.

Aside from doing business with U.S. government, your organization may care about FIPS which approves various cryptographic ciphers for hashing, signature, key exchange, and encryption for security.


Integrate Vault with FIPS 140-2 certified HSM and enable the Seal Wrap feature to protect your data.

Vault encrypts secrets using 256-bit AES in GCM mode with a randomly generated nonce prior to writing them to its persistent storage. By enabling seal wrap, Vault wraps your secrets with an extra layer of encryption leveraging the HSM encryption and decryption.

Seal Wrap

»Benefits of the Seal Wrap:

  • Conformance with FIPS 140-2 directives on Key Storage and Key Transport as certified by Leidos
  • Supports FIPS level of security equal to HSM
    • For example, if you use Level 3 hardware encryption on an HSM, Vault will be using FIPS 140-2 Level 3 cryptography
  • Allows Vault to be deployed in high security GRC environments (e.g. PCI-DSS, HIPAA) where FIPS guidelines important for external audits
  • Pathway for Vault's use in managing Department of Defense's (DOD) or North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) military secrets


This intermediate operations guide assumes that you have:

  • A supported HSM cluster to integrate with Vault
  • Vault Enterprise version 0.9.0 or later

»Step 1: Configure HSM Auto-unseal

When a Vault server is started, it normally starts in a sealed state where a quorum of existing unseal keys is required to unseal it. By integrating Vault with HSM, your Vault server can be automatically unsealed by the trusted HSM key provider.

  1. To integrate your Vault Enterprise server with an HSM cluster, the configuration file must define the PKCS11 seal stanza providing necessary connection information.

    Example: config-hsm.hcl

    # Provide your AWS CloudHSM cluster connection information
    seal "pkcs11" {
      lib = "/opt/cloudhsm/lib/"
      slot = "1"
      pin = "vault:Password1"
      key_label = "hsm_demo"
      hmac_key_label = "hsm_hmac_demo"
      generate_key = "true"
    # Configure the storage backend for Vault
    storage "file" {
      path = "/tmp/vault"
    # Addresses and ports on which Vault will respond to requests
    listener "tcp" {
      address          = ""
      tls_disable      = "true"
    ui = true
    disable_mlock = true

    NOTE: For the purpose of this guide, the storage backend is set to the local file system (/tmp/vault) to make the verification step easy.

    The example configuration defines the following in its seal stanza:

    libPath to the PKCS #11 library on the virtual machine where Vault Enterprise is installed.
    slotThe slot number to use.
    pinPKCS #11 PIN for login.
    key_labelDefines the label of the key you want to use.
    hmac_key_labelDefines the label of the key you want to use for HMACing.
    generate_keyIf no existing key with the label specified by key_label can be found at Vault initialization time, Vault generates a key.

    IMPORTANT: Having Vault generate its own key is the easiest way to get up and running, but for security, Vault marks the key as non-exportable. If your HSM key backup strategy requires the key to be exportable, you should generate the key yourself. Refer to the key generation attributes.

  2. If you are using systemd, the ExecStart parameter should point to the correct location of your configuration file. For example, if your configuration file is located at /etc/vault.d/config-hsm.hcl, the vault.service file may look as follow.

    Example: /etc/systemd/system/vault.service

    Description="HashiCorp Vault - A tool for managing secrets"
    CapabilityBoundingSet=CAP_SYSLOG CAP_IPC_LOCK
    ExecStart=/usr/local/bin/vault server -config=/etc/vault.d/config-hsm.hcl
    ExecReload=/bin/kill --signal HUP $MAINPID
  3. Start the Vault server.


    If starting from the command:

    $ vault server -config=/etc/vault.d/config-hsm.hcl

    If starting as a service using systemd, first enable the vault service.

    $ sudo systemctl enable vault

    Start the Vault server as a service.

    $ sudo systemctl start vault
  4. Check the Vault status.

    $ vault status
    Key                      Value
    ---                      -----
    Recovery Seal Type       pkcs11
    Initialized              false
    Sealed                   true
  5. Initialize Vault.

    First, set the VAULT_ADDR environment variable.

    $ export VAULT_ADDR=""

    Initialize Vault.

    $ vault operator init -recovery-shares=1 -recovery-threshold=1
    Recovery Key 1: 2bU2wOfmyMqYcsEYo4Mo9q4s/KAODgHHjcmZmFOo+XY=
    Initial Root Token: s.20JnHBY66EKTj9zyR6SjTMNq
    Success! Vault is initialized
    Recovery key initialized with 1 key shares and a key threshold of 1. Please
    securely distribute the key shares printed above.

    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. Some Vault operations such as generation of a root token require these recovery keys.

  6. Check the Vault status again.

    $ vault status
    Key                      Value
    ---                      -----
    Recovery Seal Type       shamir
    Initialized              true
    Sealed                   false
    Total Recovery Shares    1
    Threshold                1
    Version                  1.2.3+ent.hsm
    Cluster Name             vault-cluster-dfcace02
    Cluster ID               0fe5ab51-ff92-fdb0-9c37-f739679554f8
    HA Enabled               false

    Vault is now unsealed (Sealed value is now false).

  7. To verify auto-unseal, stop and restart the Vault server and check its status.

    If starting the Vault server as a service using systemd:

    $ sudo systemctl restart vault

    Verify the Vault server status.

    $ vault status
    Key                      Value
    ---                      -----
    Recovery Seal Type       shamir
    Initialized              true
    Sealed                   false

»Step 2: Enable Seal Wrap

For some values, seal wrapping is always enabled including the recovery key, any stored key shares, the master key, the keyring, and more. When working with the key/value secrets engine, you can enable seal wrap to wrap all data.

  1. To compare seal wrapped data against unwrapped data, enable key/value v1 secrets engine at two different paths: kv-unwrapped and kv-seal-wrapped.

    Enable k/v v1 without seal wrap at kv-unwrapped.

    $ vault secrets enable -path=kv-unwrapped kv

    Enable k/v v1 with seal wrap. To do so, use the '-seal-wrap' flag when you enable the KV workflow.

    $ vault secrets enable -path=kv-seal-wrapped -seal-wrap kv

    To enable seal wrap, pass the -seal-wrap flag when you enable a secrets engine.

  2. List the enabled secrets engines with details.

    $ vault secrets list -detailed
    Path                Plugin       Accessor              ...    Seal Wrap    ...
    ----                ------       --------                     -----------  ...
    cubbyhole/          cubbyhole    cubbyhole_b36dd7e1    ...    false        ...
    identity/           identity     identity_b5650a96     ...    false        ...
    kv-seal-wrapped/    kv           kv_fe02767b           ...    true         ...
    kv-unwrapped/       kv           kv_36d321c6           ...    false        ...

    Notice that the Seal Wrap parameter value is true for kv-seal-wrapped.

»Step 3: Test the Seal Wrap Feature

In this step, you are going to:

  1. Write some test data
  2. View the encrypted secrets
  1. Write a secret at kv-unwrapped/unwrapped for testing.

    $ vault kv put kv-unwrapped/unwrapped password="my-long-password"
  2. Read the path to verify.

    $ vault kv get kv-unwrapped/unwrapped
    ====== Data ======
    Key         Value
    ---         -----
    password    my-long-password
  3. Write the same secret at kv-seal-wrapped/wrapped for testing.

    $ vault kv put kv-seal-wrapped/wrapped password="my-long-password"
  4. Read the path to verify.

    $ vault kv get kv-seal-wrapped/wrapped
    ====== Data ======
    Key         Value
    ---         -----
    password    my-long-password

Using a valid token, you can write and read secrets the same way regardless of the seal wrap.

»View the encrypted secrets

Remember that the Vault server was configured to use the local file system (/tmp/vault) as its storage backend in this example.

# Configure the storage backend for Vault
storage "file" {
  path = "/tmp/vault"

SSH into the machine where the Vault server is running, and check the stored values in the /tmp/vault directory.

$ cd /tmp/vault/logical

Under the /tmp/vault/logical directory, there are two sub-directories. One maps to kv-unwrapped/ and another maps to kv-seal-wrapped/ although you cannot tell by the folder names.

View the secret at rest. One of the directory maps to kv-unwrapped/unwrapped.


$ cd 2da357cd-55f2-7eed-c46e-c477b70bed18

View its content - password value is encrypted.

$ cat _unwrapped

Another directory maps to kv-seal-wrapped/wrapped.

$ cd ../5bcea44d-28a3-87af-393b-c6d398fe41d8

View its content. The password value is encrypted.

$ cat _wrapped

Secrets are encrypted regardless; however, the seal-wrapped value is significantly longer despite the fact that both values are the same, my-long-password.

»Help and Reference