Documentation is the backbone of business. Influencing internal processes, external communications, and agreements at every level—it’s an area of communication that impacts every aspect of an organisation. Yet, many firms have struggled to modernise the way they handle paperwork.
Digital signature software and modern processes have the potential to revolutionise how efficient and secure a business can be. A digital signature is easier to trace, easier to audit, faster to use, and cheaper to store than traditional paperwork. Physical documentation, in contrast, is cumbersome, expensive, and time-consuming to maintain.
The additional challenges imposed by an increasingly distributed workforce and global network of partners escalate these issues even further.
The financial costs and environmental impact of shipping, storing, and producing paper documentation are something businesses should be targeting today as unnecessary overhead.
Digital signature software is a solution that tackles the problems of authenticating and approving vital documentation. In addition, it provides a more manageable workflow than paper-based models and creates a robust and reliable way of distributing, securing, managing, and auditing business-critical documents.
At its core, a digital signature provides an authentication and security layer on top of a digital document. Whether PDF, word document, vector graphic, or something else—a digital signature ensures the integrity, authenticity, and authorship of any.
In short: yes. More than 60 countries have enacted legislation that equates electronic signatures and digital verification to a “wet signature” written with pen and paper.
A much larger and continually growing list of countries has adopted legislation of their own to enact laws that specifically protect digitally signed documentation.
To understand how a digital signature works and what makes it more secure than paper-based versions, you first have to know a little about public-key encryption.
Often referred to as asymmetric encryption, public-key encryption assigns every user with two keys to their personal key-chain. One of these keys is kept private, and despite never being publicly revealed, provides a vital means of proving your identity to another party. The second key is public, shared with the world; it may be included in your email footer or your personal web page. The public key is used to verify the identity of your private key without ever needing to disclose it at all.
When a client digitally signs a document, it’s first put through a one-way hashing function—a mathematical operation that produces data that auditors or users can verify against the file later. The resulting hash is then encrypted, using the client’s private key, and digitally signed with a certificate from a known and trusted certificate authority (CA).
The output of this process should be a digitally signed document that verifies the document’s contents, metadata, and signer.
It’s important to note here that the document itself is not encrypted at this stage—only the verified hash. A digital signature alone does not provide confidentiality, though this can be added at a later stage by most digital signature software.
To verify a signed document, the digital signature need only be decrypted with the client’s widely available public key and compared to the hash of the original data to prove that no modification or tampering has taken place.
Throughout the process, both parties have clear evidence that the document has been signed by an authenticated party and that its contents remain unchanged. At no stage has the signer had to reveal their private key, meaning the key pairing brought into the transaction can be reused indefinitely.
Many highly regulated fields and institutions in finance, medicine, and defence use digital signature software routinely to prove the authenticity, integrity, and authorship of their documents.
The role of digital signature software is to provide an accessible route to using public key infrastructure (PKI). Designed to take the burden out of managing public keys, high-quality digital signature software should provide a route to signing documents in a matter of seconds once fully set up.
The core features of a digital signature software package should include both the signing and verification of documents using public-key encryption. The primary result of the process should be an embedded audit trail associated with the document that is easy to access and verify.
Aside from the advantages in security, integrity, and verification outlined here—a digital signature can deliver a great deal more to businesses in the way they manage their workflows and practices.
Combined with the additional layer of security added by public-key encryption and the ease at which a digital signature can be audited and verified—it’s becoming increasingly difficult for modern businesses to justify the maintenance of paper-based resources.
There are a wide array of digital signature software packages available. Current solutions range from small stand-alone programs focused on the core essentials—to large document management systems that provide a comprehensive management package. These suites often enable users to annotate and edit documents, add branding, and track their electronic documentation.
From a business perspective, some of the core features to look out for in digital signature software should include:
In addition to these core requirements, digital signature software solutions may include features and functionality that make managing your documentation easier. These can often come with some more advanced or more complete packages that create an entire documentation workflow.
Designed to make your documentation processes more streamlined and efficient, they can take some time to learn but also provide a much-needed boost inefficiency.
Some secondary features of digital signature software can include:
SignServer is a lightweight digital signature solution that is more than capable of handling the needs of small to mid-sized businesses. The focused yet flexible approach to document signing SignServer enables the software to be integrated into most workflows and suit a wide range of use cases.
Featuring a strong and robust set of core document signing features, SignServer additionally supports code signing for Microsoft Authenticode, Android APKs, and generic Java packages.
OpenKM is a fully-featured open sourced document management suite. Often referred to as a Document Management System (DMS), OpenKM can be used to store, manage, and track both electronic documents and digital copies of paper-based files.
The philosophy behind the OpenKM DMS is in building a repository of commercial data, assets, and knowledge capable of improving decision making and productivity. As a robust DMS, OpenKM includes extensive features and support for signing documentation, tracking digital signatures, and managing public key infrastructure as part of its extensive functionality.
iSafePDF is a stand-alone application designed to allow you to digitally sign PDF documents. Exceptionally lightweight and focused, iSafePDF is built to integrate with almost any workflow by creating minimal intrusion or interruption.
Despite being so singularly focused, iSafePDF has a rich set of features that make it a critical addition to the toolbox.
Alto Sign PDF is a web-based application for digitally signing documents. Exceptionally simple to use, the drag & drop interface allows users to upload documents to the service or import them from cloud storage for digital signing.
Somewhat unique amongst the free solutions on our list, Alto Sign offers unlimited signatures and storage to users and enough conversion tools and resources to support almost any type of required documentation.
Similarly focused to the stand-alone applications included in our list, JSignPDF is an open-source application for adding digital signatures to PDF documents. Executing the core functionality of digital signature software exceptionally well, JSignPDF offers a rich range of options, including batch processing and PDF protections.
JSignPDF provides both its Java-based application and an extension that integrates with OpenOffice.
Xolido Sign provides a highly dependable document signing application for a wide variety of documents and file types. Xolido’s software exists as a stand-alone application for signing and verifying documents with extensive and flexible reporting options available.
The application boasts a great deal of documentation, learning resources, and free technical support. With various versions of the package available, it’s a suite available to grow and evolve alongside your business.
DottedSign is a cloud-based digital signature software solution designed to allow users to sign and verify documents from any device or location. The package includes simple document management tools and organising features that help you to track signed and unsigned documents and assist with following up on progressing documentation.
With a philosophy centred around creating a smooth and efficient way to integrate digital signatures and document management into your existing workflow—few solutions can be adopted so easily or seamlessly into your organisation.
Offering a streamlined document signing and distribution solution, DocHub provides integration with popular cloud hosting platforms in addition to its core digital signature software functionality. The platform’s unique software package comes with a powerful suite of annotation and form editing tools to allow document markup and editing on the go.
Included amongst DocHub’s strongest features is the ability to edit PDFs online and the capability to sign and verify documents through the web interface or mobile device.
E-signly provides a web-based digital signature software platform for signing, sending, and authenticating digitally signed documents. Built using Amazon cloud, it’s ideally suited to signing and sharing documentation with trusted partners and colleagues.
Amongst the strongest features of E-signly are its ability to integrate with cloud-based storage platforms such as Dropbox, Evernote, Google Drive, and OneDrive. Additionally, E-signly comes with one of the most extensive suites of tools available for facilitating team management, branding, notifications, and workflow management.
HelloSign provides a complete web-based document management system. Designed to facilitate not just signing but also sharing, editing, and collaboration over documentation. The free tier of HelloSign includes enough templates, signatures, and sign requests for small to mid-sized business use.
Notably, HelloSign includes a comprehensive audit trail for documentation, exceptional cloud storage integration, and a technical support team to troubleshoot any arising issues.
Documentation is a vital requirement of modern business. There’s little today that can be done without it. More importantly, it’s a valuable resource to draw on in legal disputes, agreements, and things as small as aligning the goals and objectives of team members.
A digital signature provides an added layer of trust, security, and authentication to your documentation. It provides assurances and evidence that even a traditional ‘wet signature’ simply can’t provide.
Digital signature software today is doing more than merely providing cost savings, convenience, or accessibility—it’s creating a robust and reliable framework to bring paperwork into the 21st century.
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