Securing Data in SQL Server

Recently I have been having quite a few discussions around security of data inside of SQL Server and how to prevent the massive data breaches that we have been hearing about on the news.  Like most things some people want “THE ANSWER” or THE SOLUTION to securing the data inside of SQL Server. Unfortunately there isn’t a single solution that solves all of the problems that are potentially out there.  Security of data requires defense in depth, starting with a secure configuration and installation of SQL Server.  Often times, defense in depth also means changes to the database, the application, and how you do business.

Features for Securing Data

SQL Server offers multiple options and features that help with securing data and since SQL Server 2016 Service Pack 1, many of them are available in Standard Edition:

  • SSL/TLS Protocol Encryption

    • SQL Server 2005+
    • Uses a SSL certificate to encrypt the network connection between clients and SQL Server, securing data from watching over the wire
    • Can be forced by SQL Server during the handshake when certificate properly installed on SQL Server certificate store
    • Only requires a SSL certificate from a CA for Server Authentication to implement
    • Requires certificate rotation before expiration
    • Generally does not require application changes but may under specific conditions
  • Database Column Level Encryption

    • SQL Server 2005+
    • Uses a certificate or key to encrypt a column securing data from being queried without knowing how to decrypt the values
    • Data remains encrypted at the column level even while the database is online
    • Encryption keys are maintained inside of the SQL Server encryption hierarchy and must be opened properly to decrypt data
    • May require application changes to support encryption
      • Not required if handled by stored procedure access to data but opens risks of decrypted data in process memory
    • Performance impacts when comparing column data in WHERE clause
      • May be mitigated by encrypting value to compare first and performing binary filtering of encrypted values
  • Transparent Data Encryption

    • SQL Server 2012+
    • Encrypts data at rest using database encryption key stored in the boot record of the database and a certificate stored in master
    • Prevents someone copying files or stealing a database backup from restoring the data without the certificate
    • Does not require application changes for securing data at rest
    • Does not protect data from being queried through SQL Server once the database is open
    • If someone has access to the master database or a backup of master, they can get the certificate that encrypts other backups (
    • Without the certificate that encrypts the database you cannot recover from a disaster
    • Certificate expiration is not enforced or checked and does not require certificate rotation once used for encryption
  • Backup Encryption

    • SQL Server 2014+
    • Encrypts the backup file using a certificate or asymmetric key, securing data backups from being restored
    • Prevents someone stealing a database backup from restoring the data without the certificate or key
    • Same potential risks as TDE since certificate or key is stored in the master database
  • Always Encrypted

    • SQL Server 2016+
    • Data remains encrypted at the column level even while the database is online
    • Column encryption keys are stored in the database to encrypt data
    • Column master keys are used to encrypt the column encryption keys in the database and are maintained outside of SQL Server and are not available to the DB, securing data from DBAs
      • Requires installing column master keys for SSMS to query and decrypt data – Windows Certificate Store, Azure Key Vault, or HSM
    • Requires application changes to support the encryption
    • Protects data in use from memory dumps and maintains encryption

How do we apply this for Securing Data?

Generally speaking, the first thing that we need to define is what specifically we are trying to protect against?  If we need to prevent someone from monitoring  or intercepting network packets containing data in clear text then we need to implement protocol encryption for connections.  If we are concerned about someone opening the database on another system or stealing a copy of the database or backups using TDE might be a good solution, but only if we also maintain a defense in depth strategy that separates our backups of master and the certificates used by TDE from the database backup files.  If we don’t separate our backups then TDE is very easy to hack around and is simply checking the box without actually securing our data.  If we want to protect the data at rest and from prying eyes while open, then we need to implement some form of column level encryption of the data, whether that is key based inside of SQL Server or using Always Encrypted. The important thing is that there isn’t a single solution that is going to protect every situation, you have to consider the risks and what a specific feature is designed to protect against and then layer them together to meet the requirements. Even then you might not be protected.

Take as an example, the Microsoft Customer Support Database data exposure that happened December 2019 and Microsoft provided public information about after securing the data.  While we don’t know all the security measures that were in place specifically on the database level, none of the above features would have protected the data from being publicly viewable through an application level security misconfiguration. As a part of any data security discussion, auditing and regular reviews of business practices, and any changes, have to be implemented to ensure that the data remains secured.

Keyset Does Not Exist – Add-ClusterNode

While working on a video recording for Paul this week I ran into an interesting problem with one of my Windows Server 2016 clusters. While attempting to add a new node to the cluster I ran into an exception calling Add-ClusterNode:

The server ‘’ could not be added to the cluster.
An error occurred while adding node ‘’ to cluster ‘SQL2K16-WSFC’.

Keyset does not exist

The windows account I was using was the domain administrator account and I had just recently made modifications that involved the certificate store on this specific VM, so I decided to take a backup of the VMDK and then revert to a snapshot to try again, and this time it worked.  So needless to say I was intrigued as to what I could have done that would be causing this error to happen.  It turns out that while installing a SSL certificate for SQL Server to use, I had negatively impacted the permissions for the C:\ProgramData\Microsoft\Crypto\RSA folder, and the keys that are protected inside of that folder, which happen to be the private keys for the certificates on the server.  The normal permissions for this folder can be seen on the screenshot from the working node in the cluster.

UPDATE: 1/24/2020 – A reader provided a link from Microsoft Support for the default permissions as well (


On the broken copy of the VM, the Owner was not set, and none of the other permissions were even close to matching and inheritance had been propagated (oops!!!).  The really crazy thing is, I don’t even know how exactly I caused this to happen at this point, but none of the keys were accessible to anything on that node. While I was able to go into the folder and manually set the Owner: and all the permissions on each of the Keys in the Machine folder to allow the node to be joined to the cluster, I ultimately went and evicted the node and rebuilt it instead of relying on manually applied permissions to make it work.   Here is why:

The owner of the folders is SYSTEM, which is easy to go back and set, but to set the permissions on the Keys inside the Machine Keys folder, you have to Take Ownership of the key:

Even as an Administrator, you don’t have Read access, so when you click the Advanced button, it can’t show any information and offers to try Administrative Permissions to do it, but again that fails when you click Continue to get the objects permissions you can only take ownership to view the properties, which then means you don’t know who the correct owner actually should have been.

However, in a real production down scenario where you made a mistake setting permissions and the cluster nodes can’t join into the cluster, start the cluster service correctly, or take ownership of the resources, manually taking ownership and setting permissions on the Keys as shown in this screenshot from another environment I intentionally destroyed the permissions on to try and complete this blog post, can get you out of a pinch.

Fixing A previous restore operation was interrupted and did not complete processing

I recently was working on a customer system where a myriad of bad things had occurred simultaneously that left them in a scenario where their primary database server had corruption of an important database and their DR Log Shipped Secondary server couldn’t be rolled forward due to the Restore job failing with the following type of error:

RESTORE LOG AdventureWorks2014
FROM DISK = ‘D:\SQLBackups\Logs\AdventureWorks2014_LOG_202001021250.trn’

14 percent processed.
31 percent processed.
49 percent processed.
66 percent processed.

Msg 3203, Level 16, State 1, Procedure s_res_translog_for_database, Line 70
Read on “D:\SQLBackups\Logs\AdventureWorks2014_LOG_202001021250.trn” failed: 38(Reached the end of the file.)
Msg 3013, Level 16, State 1, Procedure s_res_translog_for_database, Line 70
RESTORE LOG is terminating abnormally.

Further log restores on the log shipped secondary, even manually would also get this error:

Msg 4319, Level 16, State 3, Line 1
A previous restore operation was interrupted and did not complete processing on file ‘AdventureWorks2014log’. Either restore the backup set that was interrupted or restart the restore sequence.
Msg 3013, Level 16, State 1, Line 1
RESTORE LOG is terminating abnormally.

Since the log shipped database was multi-terabytes in size, reinitializing it from backup wasn’t an ideal situation, but what other options are there?  The key lies in the original error message from log shipping, the file restore of the log reached the end of the file and wasn’t expecting it to be the end of the file.  This means one of two things happened:

  1. Either the log backup file was in flight when the main server crashed and restarted and only a partial backup file was written and then copied over to the log shipped secondary and the restore job tried to restore this broken file (NOTE: This was a theory that I have proven to not be possible as the header would have prevented the restore)
  2. The backup had already completed and the copy file job was running when the server crashed and the file wasn’t fully copied over to the log shipped secondary and it tried to restore it when the restore job ran, generating the first exception

Comparing the file on the source server to the file on the log shipped secondary revealed that the sizes were in fact different, which means that scenario two from above is most likely what occurred.  The backup file on the log shipped secondary was deleted and then the full file was manually copied over to the secondary server. However, when the Restore Job would run, it would still fail with error 4319. Manually applying the file with restore log would also result in:

Msg 4319, Level 16, State 3, Line 1
A previous restore operation was interrupted and did not complete processing on file ‘AdventureWorks2014log’. Either restore the backup set that was interrupted or restart the restore sequence.
Msg 3013, Level 16, State 1, Line 1
RESTORE LOG is terminating abnormally.

It seems totally broken, and then I tried the same file but specifying CONTINUE_AFTER_ERROR since at this point there wasn’t really much risk of doing more harm.  I was maybe 50/50 that this might work, but if it didn’t we were going to have to reinitialize from a full backup either way, so it was worth trying as it stood.

RESTORE LOG AdventureWorks2014
FROM DISK = ‘D:\SQLBackups\Logs\AdventureWorks2014_LOG_202001021250.trn’

The file restored and then the Log Shipping Restore Job immediately resumed normal restore operations of the subsequent files without errors.  Since the file was not damaged, this worked and allowed the restore log operation to complete and clear the previous end of file encountered error bit successfully so further restore operations could be applied without errors.