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A Hardware Security Module (HSM) can come in various shapes and forms; there are smart cards, PCI cards to plug into a PC, usb tokens, separate boxes that communicate over channels like TCP/IP, USB or rs-232, etc. Regardless of shape or package, the main purposes of these modules is usually either:

But of course, there could be other purposes.

Some modules may be able to offer both, but more often than not this is not the case.

Written by Jelte Jansen
© NLnet Labs, May 13, 2008