Simple public-key infrastructure
Simple public key infrastructure (SPKI, pronounced spoo-key) was born out of a joint effort to overcome the overcomplication and scalability problems of traditional X.509 public key infrastructure. It is specified in two Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) Request For Comments (RFC) specifications—RFC 2692 and RFC 2693—from the IETF SPKI working group. These two RFCs are at the EXPERIMENTAL maturity level of the IETF's RFC status. The SPKI specification defines an authorization certificate format, providing for the delineation of privileges, rights or other such attributes (called authorizations) and binding them to a public key. In 1996, SPKI was merged with Simple Distributed Security Infrastructure (SDSI, pronounced sudsy) by Ron Rivest and Butler Lampson.
History and Overview
The original SPKI had identified principals only as public keys but allowed binding authorizations to those keys and delegation of authorization from one key to another. The encoding used was attribute:value pairing, similar to RFC 822 headers.
The original SDSI bound local names (of individuals or groups) to public keys (or other names), but carried authorization only in Access Control Lists (ACLs) and did not allow for delegation of subsets of a principal's authorization. The encoding used was standard S-expression.
The combined SPKI/SDSI allows the naming of principals, creation of named groups of principals and the delegation of rights or other attributes from one principal to another. It includes a language for expression of authorization - a language that includes a definition of "intersection" of authorizations. It also includes the notion of threshold subject - a construct granting authorizations (or delegations) only when of of the listed subjects concur (in a request for access or a delegation of rights). SPKI/SDSI uses S-expression encoding, but specifies a binary form that is extremely easy to parse - an LR(0) grammar - called Canonical S-expressions.
SPKI/SDSI does not define a role for a commercial Certificate Authority (CA). In fact, one premise behind SPKI is that a commercial CA serves no useful purpose. As a result of that, SPKI/SDSI is deployed primarily in closed solutions and in demonstration projects of academic interest. Another side-effect of this design element is that it is difficult to monetize SPKI/SDSI by itself. It can be a component of some other product, but there is no business case for developing SPKI/SDSI tools and services except as part of some other product.
The most prominent general deployments of SPKI/SDSI are E-speak, a middleware product from HP that used SPKI/SDSI for access control of web methods, and UPnP Security, that uses an XML dialect of SPKI/SDSI for access control of web methods, delegation of rights among network participants, etc.