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notes on setting up and using Vault TLS authentication, policies, and tokens with named roles

Our goal is to save sensitive data in a MySQL database in a responsible way, and be able to read/write it programmatically in a PHP web application. Asymmetric encryption would be best, but is not practical here. Symmetric encryption with a strong algorithm and hard-to-guess cipher is acceptable, but not if we store the cipher in plain text on the same server where the database credentials also live in plain text!

This work-in-progress is subject to change if/when I come up with a better scheme, but for now, the plan is to:

  • store the cipher as a vault secret;
  • configure TLS authentication so that our PHP application can log in, and then
  • create a token that allows its bearer to read the secret (our cipher);
  • use a PHP component and our cipher to encrypt/decrypt our sensitive data.

With judicious use of the audit log (e.g., watch its every change with something like inotify-tools) it should be possible to make sure Vault is only divulging things as we intend.

Note: this is most certainly no substitute for reading the docs. It's intended, among other things, as a memory aide for my aging brain.


Install, intialize, unseal vault, have your root token in hand. My recommendation is to get your TLS enabled now, even in development, because if you're not already proficient with all that (I'm not very), it's time to start learning to deal with TLS certificates and all the accompanying acronym soup.

Again, we want to store in Vault a cipher (i.e., a string) that we can pull out and use in our application for symmetrical encryption/decryption. Assume this cipher is saved to the path secret/data/cipher.

write policies

create read-secret.hcl

path "secret/data/cipher" {
  policy = "read"

create create-token.hcl

path "auth/token/create/read-secret" {
	policy = "write"


store policies in vault

logged in as root (or close enough), write the policies

vault policy write read-secret read-secret.hcl

vault policy write create-token create-token.hcl

create a named token role... thingy

vault write auth/token/roles/read-secret allowed_policies=read-secret

Note to self: find out how to enforce better security on the token/roles thing, i.e., require response-wrapping, a short TTL and modest number of uses (e.g., 2 or 3).

The cert authentication backend has to be enabled (thanks to saurabhweb for reminding us):

vault auth enable cert

Prerequisites include obtaining or creating the certificates. If you're unfamiliar with this, it will keep you busy for a while, so clear your schedule.

With your certificates ready to go,

vault write auth/cert/certs/web display_name=web policies=create-token \

Now we have a user (in a manner of speaking) who can log in and create authentication tokens with which the bearer can read the secret.

authenticate via TLS

Let's see if it works.

vault login -method=cert -client-cert=/path/to/your/cert.pem \
Key                            Value
---                            -----
token                          ca07764d-cc63-fdb1-5429-b65597f61277
token_accessor                 94c12ef3-b58e-c79a-a35c-8d734950dfcc
token_duration                 768h
token_renewable                true
token_policies                 [create-token default]

Yay! Try reading the secret:

vault read secret/data

Error reading secret/data: Error making API request.

Code: 403. Errors:

* permission denied

As expected, very good. Now get a token that can read the secret.

get a token for reading the secret

vault token create -role=read-secret

Key            	Value
---            	-----
token          	ef2fb0d1-1644-937f-5326-3c6270abc3ba
token_accessor 	522c0a9d-7897-a670-e511-650d37ea6d20
token_duration 	768h0m0s
token_renewable	true
token_policies 	[default read-cipher]

update/note-to-self: with earlier versions of Vault, the above command used to work in this situation, but not any more. Now you get access denied. I have no clue as to why (feature? bug?), but what does work is to use curl and make sure you POST:

curl -s -H X-Vault-Token:ef2fb0d1-1644-937f-5326-3c6270abc3ba -X POST \ 
	$VAULT_ADDR/v1/auth/token/create/read-cipher|jq .auth.client_token

Authenticate with the token we just obtained:

vault login ef2fb0d1-1644-937f-5326-3c6270abc3ba

Key            	Value
---            	-----
token          	ef2fb0d1-1644-937f-5326-3c6270abc3ba
token_accessor 	522c0a9d-7897-a670-e511-650d37ea6d20
token_duration 	768h0m0s
token_renewable	true
token_policies 	[default read-cipher]

and try reading the cipher, so we can encrypt/decrypt things our database:

vault read secret/data/cipher

Key             	Value
---             	-----
refresh_interval	768h0m0s
cipher          	b862600aaeba7c4ccd74006d2e616083ffb7031a3b088e743080bcf32e90f3b4

Here is the latest draft of an implementation of this idea as part of a Zend Framework application.

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Thank you for putting this together. It helped me a lot.
Though I haven't completed all of the steps yet, I reached the step "vault login -method ..." (though not very easily).

One thing that you might have missed (or not) is the command
vault auth enable cert

I struggled a bit to get this working with self signed certs, but I think I got past the issues.
Will be trying the rest of the steps in this guide tomorrow.

Thanks again. This is very helpful.

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@saurabhweb you're very welcome, and thanks for the comment. I've updated accordingly. Yeah, this can make your brain hurt. Probably gets easier if you do it often enough for long enough. :-)

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@davidmintz I cannot thanked you enough for this. This is exactly what I'm looking for in past fews days.

I'll be very glad if you can also include the same steps above using REST API :)

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@gauravkedia00 delighted to hear that you found it helpful. I guess the API calls are still an exercise for the reader :-) And some of those are steps you really won't be doing very often, so it seems to me that the manual/CLI interface is sufficient.

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Hi @davidmintz! I'm very new to this, so this is probably a very dumb question, but why don't you just assign the read-secret policy to the cert auth? what do you gain by requiring an additional token to access the secrets?

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@voiprodrigo perfectly reasonable question! it's been a while, but if I remember my reasoning correctly, I thought it would be a bit stronger security if the responsibilities were split up and the process required an additional step. You could, for example, set up log auditing and raise a security alert if anything funny should happen along the way. The response-wrapping thing implies a single-use token, and if you detect that this token is unexpectedly invalid, it means it fell into the wrong hands and you have the possibility of reacting before it's too late.

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@davidmintz got it, thanks for the quick reply! cheers.

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auberji commented Feb 22, 2022

No corrections, I just wanted to thank you for writing this up. I was getting incredibly confused by the docs and this was nice and simple, thanks!

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@auberji I am truly delighted that you found this helpful. People have been helping me non-stop for years (by writing fantastic tools, documenting them, and answering my occasional question) so it's a pleasure to give something back. And I'm pleasantly surprised this if old gist is not too out of date. I've updated it somewhat, but the last time was some time ago,

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