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Using Vault with MySQL

 | November 14, 2016 |  Posted In: Insight for DBAs, Insight for Developers, MySQL, Security

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Encrypt your secrets and use Vault with MySQL
Using Vault with MySQL

In my previous post I discussed using GPG to secure your database credentials. This relies on a local copy of your MySQL client config, but what if you want to keep the credentials stored safely along with other super secret information? Sure, GPG could still be used, but there must be an easier way to do this.

This post will look at a way to use Vault to store your credentials in a central location and use them to access your database. For those of you that have not yet come across Vault, it is a great way to manage your secrets – securing, storing and tightly controlling access. It has the added benefits of being able to handle leasing, key revocation, key rolling and auditing.

During this blog post we’ll accomplish the following tasks:

  1. Download the necessary software
  2. Get a free SAN certificate to use for Vault’s API and automate certificate renewal
  3. Configure Vault to run under a restricted user and secure access to its files and the API
  4. Create a policy for Vault to provide access control
  5. Enable TLS authentication for Vault and create a self-signed client certificate using OpenSSL to use with our client
  6. Add a new secret to Vault and gain access from a client using TLS authentication
  7. Enable automated, expiring MySQL grants

Before continuing onwards, I should drop in a quick note to say that the following is a quick example to show you how you can get Vault up and running and use it with MySQL, it is not a guide to production setup and does not cover High Availability (HA) implementations, etc.


Download time

We will be using some tools in addition to Vault, Let’s Encrypt, OpenSSL and json_pp (a command line utility using JSON::PP). For this post we’ll be using Ubuntu 16.04 LTS and we’ll presume that these aren’t yet installed.

If you haven’t already heard of Let’s Encrypt then it is a free, automated, and open Certificate Authority (CA) enabling you to secure your website or other services without paying for an SSL certificate; you can even create Subject Alternative Name (SAN) certificates to make your life even easier, allowing one certificate to be used a number of different domains. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) provide Certbot, the recommended tool to manage your certificates, which is the new name for the letsencrypt software. If you don’t have letsencrypt/certbot in your package manager then you should be able to use the quick install method. We’ll be using json_pp to prettify the JSON output from the Vault API and openssl to create a client certificate.

We also need to download Vault, choosing the binary relevant for your Operating System and architecture. At the time of writing this, the latest version of Vault is 0.6.2, so the following steps may need adjusting if you use a different version.


Let’s Encrypt… why not?

We want to be able to access Vault from wherever we are, we can put additional security in place to prevent unauthorised access, so we need to get ourselves encrypted. The following example shows the setup on a public server, allowing the CA to authenticate your request. More information on different methods can be found in the Certbot documentation.

That’s all it takes to get a SAN SSL certificate! The server that this was executed has a public webserver serving the domains that the certificates were requested for. During the request process a file is place in the specified webroot and is used to authenticate the domain(s) for the request. Essentially, the command said:

myfirstdomain.com and myseconddomain.com use /home/www/vhosts/default/public for the document root, so place your files there

Let’s Encrypt CA issues short-lived certificates (90 days), so you need to keep renewing them, but don’t worry as that is as easy as it was to create them in the first place! You can test that renewal works OK as follows (which will renew all certificates that you have without --dry-run):

Automating renewal

The test run for renewal worked fine, so we can now go and schedule this to take place automatically. I’m using systemd so the following example uses timers, but cron or similar could be used too. Here’s how to make systemd run the scheduled renew for you, running at 0600 – the rewew process will automatically proceed for any previously-obtained certificates that expire in less than 30 days.


Getting started with Vault

Firstly, a quick reminder that this is not an in-depth review, how-to or necessarily best-practice Vault installation as that is beyond the scope of this post. It is just to get you going to test things out, so please read up on the Vault documentation if you want to use it more seriously.

Whilst there is a development server that you can fire up with the command vault server -dev to get yourself testing a little quicker, we’re going to take a little extra time and configure it ourselves and make the data persistent. Vault supports a number of backends for data storage, including Zookeeper, Amazon S3 and MySQL, however the 3 maintained by HashiCorp are consul, file and inmem. The memory storage backend does not provide persistent data, so whilst there could possibly be uses for this it is really only useful for development and testing – it is the storage backend used with the -dev option to the server command. Rather than tackle the installation and configuration of Consul during this post, we’ll use file storage instead.

Before starting the server we’ll create a config, which can be written in one of 2 formats – HCL (HashiCorp Configuration Language) or JSON (JavaScript Object Notation). We’ll use HCL as it is a little cleaner and saves us a little extra typing!

So, we’ve now set up a user and some directories to store the config, SSL certificate and key, and also the data, restricting access to the vault user. The config that we wrote specifies that we will use the file backend, storing data in /usr/local/vault/data, and the listener that will be providing TLS encryption using our certificate from Let’s Encrypt. The final setting, disable_mlock is not recommended for production and is being used to avoid some extra configuration during this post. More details about the other options available for configuration can be found in the Server Configuration section of the online documentation.

Please note that the Vault datadir should be kept secured as it contains all of the keys and secrets. In the example, we have done this by placing it in the vault user’s home directory and only allowing the vault user access. You can take this further by restricting local access (via logins) and access control lists

Starting Vault

Time to start the server and see if everything is looking good!

Whilst it looks like something is wrong (we need to initialize the server), it does mean that everything is otherwise working as expected. So, we’ll initialize Vault, which is a pretty simple task, but you do need to make note/store some of the information that you will be given by the server during initialization – the unseal tokens and initial root key. You should distribute these to somewhere safe, but for now we’ll store them with the config.

There we go, the vault is initialized and the status command now returns details and confirmation that it is up and running. It is worth noting here that each time you start Vault it will be sealed, which means that it cannot be accessed until 3 unseal keys have been used with vault unseal – for additional security here you would ensure that a single person cannot know any 3 keys, so that it always requires more than one person to (re)start the service.


Setting up a policy

Policies allow you to set access control restrictions to determine the data that authenticated users have access to. Once again the documents used to write policies are in either the HCL or JSON format. They are easy to write and apply, the only catch being that the policies associated with a token cannot be changed (added/removed) once the token has been issued; you need to revoke the token and apply the new policies. However, If you want to change the policy rules then this can be done on-the-fly as modifications apply on the next call to Vault.

When we initialized the server we were given the initial root key and we now need to use that in order to start configuring the server.

We will create a simple policy that allows us to read the MySQL secrets, but prevent access to the system information and commands

We have only added one policy here, but you should really create as many policies as you need to suitably control access amongst the variety of humans and applications that may be using the service. As with any kind of data storage planning how to store your data is important, as it will help you write more compact policies with the level of granularity that you require. Writing everything in /secrets at the top level will most likely bring you headaches, or long policy definitions!


TLS authentication for MySQL secrets

We’re getting close to adding our first secret to Vault, but first of all we need a way to authenticate our access. Vault provides an API for access to your stored secrets, along with wealth of commands with direct use of the vault binary as we are doing at the moment. We will now enable the cert authentication backend, which allows authentication using SSL/TLS client certificates

Generate a client certificate using OpenSSL

The TLS authentication backend accepts certificates that are either signed by a CA or self-signed, so let’s quickly create ourselves a self-signed SSL certificate using openssl to use for authentication.

OK, there was quite a lot of information there. You can edit openssl.cnf to set reasonable defaults for yourself and save time. In brief, we have created our own CA, created a self-signed certificate and then created a single PEM certificate with a decrypted key (this avoids specifying the password to use it – you may wish to leave the password in place to add more security, assuming that your client application can request the password.

Adding an authorisation certificate to Vault

Now that we have created a certificate and a policy we now need to allow authentication to occur using the certificate. We will give the token a 1-hour expiration and allow access to the MySQL secrets via the demo policy that we created in the previous step.

Awesome! We requested out first client token using an SSL client certificate, we are logged it and we were given our access token (client_token) in the response that provides us with a 1 hour lease (lease_duration) to go ahead and make requests as a client without reauthentication, but there is nothing in the vault right now.


Ssshh!! It’s secret!

“The time has come,” the Vault master said, “to encrypt many things: our keys and passwords and top-secret notes, our MySQL DSNs and strings.”

Perhaps the easiest way to use Vault with your application is to store information there as you would do in a configuration file and read it when the application first requires it. An example of such information is the Data Source Name (DSN) for a MySQL connection, or perhaps the information needed to dynamically generate a .my.cnf. As this is about using Vault with MySQL we will do exactly that and store the user, password and connection method as our first secret, reading it back using the command line tool to check that it looks as expected.

A little while back (hopefully less than 1 hour ago!) we authenticated using cURL and gained a token, so now that we have something secret to read we can try it out. Fanfares and trumpets at the ready…

We did it! Now there is no longer the need to store passwords in your code or config files, you can just go and get them from Vault when you need them, such as when your application starts and holding them in memory, or on-demand if your application can tolerate any additional latency, etc. You would need to take further steps to make sure that your application is tolerant of Vault going down, as well as providing an HA setup of Vault to minimise the risk of the secrets being unavailable.

It doesn’t stop here though…


On-demand MySQL grants

Vault acts like a virtual filesystem and uses the generic storage backend by default, mounted as /secret, but due to powerful abstraction it is possible to use many other backends as mountpoints such as an SQL database, AWS IAM, HSMs and much more. We have kept things simple and been using the generic backend so far. You can view the available (mounted) backends using the mounts command:

We are now going to enable the MySQL backend, add the management connection (which will use the auth_socket plugin) and then request a new MySQL user that will auto-expire!

Here you can see that a template is created so that you can customise the grants per role. We created a readonly role, so it just has SELECT access. We have set an expiration on the account so that MySQL will automatically mark the password as expired and prevent access. This is not strictly necessary since Vault will remove the user accounts that it created as it expires the tokens, but by adding an extra level in MySQL it would allow you to set the lease, which seems to be global, in Vault to a little longer than required and vary it by role using MySQL password expiration. You could also use it as a way of tracking which Vault-generated MySQL accounts are going to expire soon. The important part is that you ensure that the application is tolerant of reauthentication, whether it would hand off work whilst doing so, accept added latency, or perhaps the process would terminate and respawn.

Now we will authenticate and request our user to connect to the database with.

Oh, what happened? Well, remember the policy that we created earlier? We hadn’t allowed access to the MySQL role generator, so we need to update and apply the policy.

Now that we have updated the policy to allow access to the readonly role (requests go via mysql/creds when requesting access) we can check that the policy has applied and whether we get a user account for MySQL.

Hurrah! Now we don’t even need to go and create a user, the application can get one when it needs one. We’ve made the account auto-expire so that the credentials are only valid for 1 day, regardless of Vault expiration, and also we’ve reduced the amount of time that the token is valid, so we’ve done a pretty good job of limiting the window of opportunity for any rogue activity


We’ve covered quite a lot in this post, some detail for which has been left out to keep us on track. The online documentation for OpenSSL, Let’s Encrypt and Vault are pretty good, so you should be able to take a deeper dive should you wish to. Hopefully, this post has given a good enough introduction to Vault to get you interested and looking to test it out, as well as bringing the great Let’s Encrypt service to your attention so that there’s very little reason to not provide a secure online experience for your readers, customers and services.

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Ceri Williams

Ceri has recently joined Percona, having previously worked in a variety of industries ranging from skin care to online travel, nearly always with a database by his side for the past 10 years. Living in the Welsh Marches area of the UK with his partner and children, Ceri enjoys the rural life and beautiful countryside whenever possible.

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