A brief overview of database encryption

Database encryption is critical to regulatory compliance and business relevance. But how does it work? Let's take a look.

Enterprises today collect and store more data than ever before. Whether it’s on-premise or in the cloud, security is now critical to ensure privacy, regulatory compliance, and business relevance. 

For many companies, this might just be a case of managing access controls. However, this isn’t enough to protect sensitive information. In the current threat landscape, businesses across industries require a comprehensive plan to protect customer data from internal and external threats.

For the most part, this means leveraging database encryption technologies. But unfortunately, many companies still fail to encrypt their databases. 

It’s the result of believing that it’s an unnecessary “extra” step with potential performance degradation and design complexity. But this is just not true. With the different types of encryption protocols available today, it’s reasonably easy to find the right balance between robust security and added complexity.

What is encryption?

Encryption is an algorithm that protects sensitive data by changing it into incomprehensible characters through a mathematical process. While other security protocols secure enterprise infrastructure from an attack or intrusion, encryption is the last line of defense that secures the data itself.

In this scenario, even if hackers steal the data, the compromised information will be rendered useless without the right (d)encryption keys.

What about database encryption?

When it comes to databases, the encryption algorithm converts information stored within the database into the ciphertext of unreadable characters. Authorized users with encryption keys then decrypt the data as needed. 

These keys come in different lengths, but the longer ones tend to be more secure. This is because it’s harder to crack the code through computation by virtue of its length. That said, long keys can reduce the number of sessions per second, so you have to take that into consideration. 

Although encryption can add a layer of complexity, it's possible to ensure a high-performance level by following best practices. File-level encryption, for example, will have a significantly lower impact on performance than application-level encryption methods.

Different types of encryption protocols suit different types of databases. So you have to know what security technology to use before encrypting the data.

What are some popular databases?

  • Microsoft SQL
  • MySQL
  • MongoDB
  • PostgreSQL
  • Redis

What are the most secure types of database encryption?

Database encryption technologies offer different levels of protection and must be weighed against the related impact on performance. This approach helps ensure that the security protocol you go with is both practical and useful. 

Encryption methods can also be differentiated based on encryption targets. For example, if we take file-level encryption, you encrypt individual database files to restrict unauthorized access.

At the same time, partial encryption of the database can also be achieved with more specific targets:

Cell-level encryption: individual cells of the database are encrypted separately. These come with their own unique encryption keys.

Column-level encryption: in this scenario, individual columns of data are encrypted separately. Each column has an encryption key to access, read, and write data within the column.

Row-level encryption: individual rows of information within the database are encrypted separately, unique keys for each of them.

Tablespace-level encryption: this method allows individual tablespaces to be encrypted as a whole. So you’ll need a unique key for each tablespace to access all of its contents.

What are some of the leading forms of encryption?

Advanced Encryption Standard (AES)

AES is a standard symmetric algorithm that provides enhanced security. Everyone from software companies to government agencies leverages this algorithm to boost security. 

AES utilizes block cipher with lengths of either 128, 192, or 256 bits rather than a bit-by-bit stream cipher. Authorized users must share appropriate decryption keys to access the data. This means that they also have to secure the keys to prevent unauthorized access.

256-bit encryption doubles the number of possible encryption keys, creating an infinite number of variations. In this scenario, the computing power and time needed to try all the different key variations are staggering, so even a billion years won’t be enough to break even a 128-bit key.

The next level is XTS block cipher encryption that guarantees full disk encryption. The scrambling process involved in XTS encryption offers 14 different rounds of encryption to make data truly unrecognizable.

Rivest-Shamir-Adleman (RSA)

RSA is an asymmetric algorithm that utilizes a public key for encryption, but a unique private key for decryption. It’s a popular approach to share data over insecure networks that include database encryption key sizes between 1024 and 2048 bits. This means that it provides higher security but at a significantly slower pace.


Twofish is a symmetric block cipher with encryption keys ranging from 128 bits to 256 bits. It’s a license-free option that is relatively flexible and comes with encryption rounds that’s always 16. However, the user gets to choose between a setup or encryption to be a faster process.

What are the leading encryption technologies?

The encryption market is thriving at present. As a result, we’re spoilt for choice when it comes to encryption protocols. Some of the leading encryption technologies available today are as follows: 

The right choice for your company will depend on several factors. So what should you consider before committing to encryption software? Let’s take a look.

What factors should you consider before committing to an encryption technology?

Successful deployments begin with strong collaboration between all stakeholders. This means that you have to involve all executives, database administrators, and IT team members.

This approach will help formulate a robust data security strategy and minimize the impact on performance during the implementation stage. Once your business goals, priorities, and encryption strategies align perfectly, you’ll have to consider the following during your decision process:

How much high-value data do you have to secure?

It’s critical to develop a 360-view of the data you collect and store. You need to separate sensitive data from low-value data and figure out where it should reside. 

This process is complex and time-intensive, but you'll be better placed to make these crucial decisions through data identification and mapping. In the same vein, it’s essential to have a thorough understanding of your access controls and policies to establish routines and adjacent technologies. 

If there’s a data discovery and classification solution in place, for example, you can automate the process of proper categorization for encryption prioritization. In this scenario, first focus on high-value digital assets and build a case for your return on investment.

Explore how encryption technologies align with your business goals

Based on your encryption strategy, think about the encryption technologies needed to secure your data at rest. These are categorized based on where they are employed in the technology stack.

If encryption is utilized higher up the technology stack, implementation is more complicated. So explore its potential impact on performance. The goal here is to strike a balance between performance and security.

It’s also a good time to consider how encryption keys are secured and managed. Companies that follow cloud security best practices always have total control of all encryption keys (even the keys used to encrypt cloud data).

Does the encryption provider offer support and integrated solutions?

It’s always best to go with an encryption solutions provider that can advise, support, and help integrate solutions as your business scales. 

It’s also essential to choose a company that provides policy and centralized key management. This approach helps simplify the processes involved in data encryption and key lifecycle management.

Once your encryption solution is deployed, engage in real-time monitoring for any outliers or violations. At the same time, continue to monitor how your security strategies align with changing business goals and adapt accordingly.

As a rule, robust encryption strategies make it easy for organizations to adapt their security posture based on current business needs.

Why is encryption necessary even though it doesn’t solve all security issues?

Unlike standard security software, encryption works like an insurance policy if the unthinkable happens. Threat actors are continually evolving and are relentless. In the event of a data breach, database encryption will be your last line of defense to ensure that stolen information is rendered meaningless. 

To learn more about leveraging the encryption, request a commitment-free call back now.

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