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What is a Hardware Key?

A hardware key, also known as a security token, is a physical device that provides an additional layer of authentication for accessing sensitive data or systems. It's like a digital doorkeeper, ensuring only authorized users can enter. These keys often come in USB form, offering a tangible level of security in an increasingly virtual world. Wondering how it secures your digital life? Let's unlock the details together.
A. Leverkuhn
A. Leverkuhn

A hardware key is a small piece of hardware that generally connects to a laptop or desktop computer through a USB (Universal Serial Bus) connection. The hardware key is a general term for several kinds of items. Traditionally, the hardware key was used to authenticate a client for a piece of software. These kinds of software protection devices are also often referred to as a dongle or simply as a security device.

Although a hardware key has often been utilized as hardware protection for a piece of software, network adapters can also be called hardware keys. Network adapters generally work with data encryption, so in this sense they would be similar to a hardware key that would provide software authentication. Some kinds of audio attachments can also be called hardware keys when they connect through a USB port.

A USB hardware key.
A USB hardware key.

The hardware key is one option for a software licensing system, where vendors need to be sure to prevent unauthorized access. Other types of software simply include key codes for specific users and clients. A hardware key helps get around the problem of an unauthorized software copy situation, since the corresponding software will work only in a limited way without the key, or not at all.

Yet another option for software protection is called Software as a Service. Software as a Service or SaaS replaces either a hardware keyboard dongle, or software codes. With software as a service, software programs are offered directly over the web, often run from the vendor's server. Vendors can offer these programs for a specific licensing period, customize them for clients, and make upgrades and changes from the comfort of their own information technology setup.

Customers of software as a service options don't have to open boxes and install drivers. They don't have to spend time setting up software programs off of a disk. They also don't need to clutter up their own processors and drives with the bulky executables and other parts of the software program. Software as a service is taking over in many parts of the software industry, and hardware keys do not often seem to be a normal way of authenticating software. However, with the proliferation of small electronic devices such as flash drives, hardware keys may still be popular for some specific types of software authentication.

Those tasked with creating a hardware key or dongle look at certain criteria for best design. Considerations include ease of deployment and user-friendly functionality. Attention to detail ensures the hardware keys will be an effective way to authenticate a piece of software for the end user.

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Discussion Comments


@SZapper - I think you misunderstood the article. A hardware key isn't just anything that connects to a computer via the USB port. It's a specific piece of hardware you plug into your USB port, normally to unlock a piece of software.

Most hardware keys look a lot like a USB data stick, but it's not. Its only function is to unlock something, which is why it is called a key.


@JaneAir - Software as a service is definitely an interesting concept. It's great for software companies, because they get paid over and over, every month for their services. And they don't have to worry about generating a hardware key!

Anyway, I had no idea the term hardware key could refer to so many different things. I thought a hardware key was something used to protect software, but it sounds like it could really be any device that connects to a computer via the USB port. Does this mean my mouse would count as a hardware key?


I have used software programs on the web before. I never thought of them as software as a service though, but I guess that's what they are. As the article said, to run those, you don't need a hardware key. Usually all you need is your username and password so you can sign into your account and access the software.

I have to say that as a consumer, I find software as a service to be kind of ripoff. Usually you pay a monthly fee to use it, and you never really own a copy. I've been using my same copy of Microsoft Office for about four years now. I'm sure if I were paying a monthly fee to use it, I would have paid about 10 times what I paid for the program.

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    • A USB hardware key.
      By: Andrea Biraghi
      A USB hardware key.