A public-key infrastructure (PKI) is a set of roles, policies, hardware, software and procedures needed to create, manage, distribute, use, store and revoke digital certificates and manage public-key encryption. The purpose of a PKI is to facilitate the secure electronic transfer of information for a range of network activities such as e-commerce, internet banking and confidential email. It is required for activities where simple passwords are an inadequate authentication method and more rigorous proof is required to confirm the identity of the parties involved in the communication and to validate the information being transferred.

In cryptography, a PKI is an arrangement that binds public keys with respective identities of entities (like people and organizations). The binding is established through a process of registration and issuance of certificates at and by a certificate authority (CA). Depending on the assurance level of the binding, this may be carried out by an automated process or under human supervision. When done over a network, this requires using a secure certificate enrollment or certificate management protocol such as CMP.

The PKI role that may be delegated by a CA to assure valid and correct registration is called a registration authority (RA). Basically, an RA is responsible for accepting requests for digital certificates and authenticating the entity making the request. The Internet Engineering Task Force’s RFC 3647 defines an RA as “An entity that is responsible for one or more of the following functions: the identification and authentication of certificate applicants, the approval or rejection of certificate applications, initiating certificate revocations or suspensions under certain circumstances, processing subscriber requests to revoke or suspend their certificates, and approving or rejecting requests by subscribers to renew or re-key their certificates. RAs, however, do not sign or issue certificates (i.e., an RA is delegated certain tasks on behalf of a CA).” While Microsoft may have referred to a subordinate CA as an RA, this is incorrect according to the X.509 PKI standards. RAs do not have the signing authority of a CA and only manage the vetting and provisioning of certificates. So in the Microsoft PKI case, the RA functionality is provided either by the Microsoft Certificate Services web site or through Active Directory Certificate Services which enforces Microsoft Enterprise CA and certificate policy through certificate templates and manages certificate enrollment (manual or auto-enrollment). In the case of Microsoft Standalone CAs, the function of RA does not exist since all of the procedures controlling the CA are based on the administration and access procedure associate with the system hosting the CA and the CA itself rather than Active Directory. Most non-Microsoft commercial PKI solutions offer a stand-alone RA component.

An entity must be uniquely identifiable within each CA domain on the basis of information about that entity. A third-party validation authority (VA) can provide this entity information on behalf of the CA.