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.
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.