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Using a Cloud HSM

How to create a cloud HSM in Azure and connect it to celocli.

Introduction to HSM

A cloud Hardware Security Module (HSM) provides a good balance between security and accessibility. A cloud HSM can manage a Celo private key and can be used seamlessly with celocli and contractkit. Similar to a ledger device, a key in an HSM avoids the key from ever being sent over the network or stored on disk since the key can never leave the hardware boundary and all signing is performed within the HSM. To authenticate to the HSM, it's recommended to create a service principal account that has been granted access to sign with the managed keys. A cloud HSM can be a great option for managing vote signer keys, since you may want these keys to be portable but also maintain good security practices.

Create an Azure subscription

If you don't have an Azure subscription already, you can create a free trial here that starts with $200 credit. You can view the pricing for Eliptic Curve Cryptography (ECC) HSM keys here.

Deploy your Azure Key Vault

The Key Vault can store keys, secrets, and certificates. Permission can be specified to perform certain actions across the entire Key Vault (ex. key signing).

  • Search the marketplace for "Key Vault"
  • Click Create and fill out the deployment information
  • Ensure you select the Premium pricing tier for HSM support
  • Enable soft-delete and purge protection to ensure your keys aren't accidentally deleted

Create your key

Next, we'll create the ECDSA key.

  • Navigate to your newly created Key Vault and click on the Keys section.
  • Click on "Generate/Import"
  • Select "EC-HSM"
  • Select "SECP256K1"

You'll see your newly generated key listed in the Keys section.

# On your local machine

Create a Service Principal

A Service Principal (SP) is preferred over your personal account so that permission can be heavily restricted. In general, Service Principal accounts should be used for any automation or services that need to access Azure resources.

Use the Cloud Shell to create the client credentials.

Create a service principal and configure its access to Azure resources:

# In the Cloud Shell
az ad sp create-for-rbac -n <your-application-name> --skip-assignment

The account will be created and will output the account's credentials.

"appId": "generated-app-ID",
"displayName": "dummy-app-name",
"name": "http://dummy-app-name",
"password": "random-password",
"tenant": "tenant-ID"

Set these as environment variables so that they can be used by celocli or contractkit.

# On your local machine

Grant your Service Principal access to the key

In the Cloud Shell or Access Policies pane of the Key Vault, set the [GET, LIST, SIGN] permission for the new account.

# In the Cloud Shell
az keyvault set-policy --name <your-key-vault-name> --spn $AZURE_CLIENT_ID --key-permissions get list sign

Connecting CeloCLI to KeyVault

Now that your environment variables are set, we just need to let celocli know that we want to use this Key Vault signer. We do this by passing in the flag --useAKV and --azureVaultName. Similar to --useLedger, all CLI commands will use the HSM signer when --useAKV is specified.

# On your local machine
celocli account:list --useAKV --azureVaultName $AZURE_VAULT_NAME

Your Key Vault address will show up under "Local Addresses". If you'd like to use this key as your vote signer key, you can follow this guide and replace --useLedger with --useAKV --azureVaultName $AZURE_VAULT_NAME.

Connecting ContractKit to KeyVault

To leverage your HSM keys in contractkit, first create an AzureHSMWallet object and use it to create a ContractKit object with newKitFromWeb3. Note that AzureHSMWallet expects AZURE_CLIENT_ID, AZURE_CLIENT_SECRET, and AZURE_TENANT_ID environment variables to be specified.

import { ContractKit, newKitFromWeb3 } from "@celo/contractkit";
import { AzureHSMWallet } from "@celo/wallet-hsm-azure";

const azureVaultName = "AZURE-VAULT-NAME";
const akvWallet = await new AzureHSMWallet(azureVaultName);
await akvWallet.init();
console.log(`Found addresses: ${await akvWallet.getAccounts()}`);
const contractKit = newKitFromWeb3(this.web3, akvWallet);


You can now leverage a cloud HSM key to perform signing as a user or application. This improves both security and availability of your Celo keys. We also recommend enabling two-factor authentication across your Azure subscription and to leverage Managed Service Identities where possible.