Welcome back folks! I recently had a few customers ask me about using certificates with Azure Key Vault and switching from using a client secret to a client certificate for their Azure AD (Active Directory) service principals. The questions put me on a path of diving deeper around the topics which results in some great learning and opportunity to create some Python code samples.
Azure Key Vault is Microsoft’s solution for secure secret, key, and credential management. If you’re coming from the AWS (Amazon Web Services) realm, you can think of it as AWS KMS (Key Management Services) with a little bit of AWS Secrets Manager and AWS Certificate Manager thrown in there. The use cases for secrets and keys are fairly well known and straightforward, so I’m going instead focus time on the certificates use case.
In a world where passwordless is the newest buzzword, there is an increasing usage of secrets (or passwords) in the non-human world. These secrets are often used to programmatically interact with APIs. In the Microsoft world you have your service principals and client secrets, in the AWS world you have your IAM Users with secret access keys, and many more third-parties out there require similar patterns that require the use of an access key. Vendors like Microsoft and AWS have worked to mitigate this growing problem in the scope of their APIs by introducing features such as Azure Managed Identities and AWS IAM Roles which use short lived dynamic secrets. However, both of these solutions work only if your workload is running within the relevant public cloud and the service it’s running within supports the feature. What about third-party APIs, multi-cloud workloads, or on-premises workloads? In those instances you’re many of times forced to fall back to the secret keys.
There is a better option to secret keys, and that is client certificates. While a secret falls into the “something you know” category, client certificates fall into the “something you have” category. They provide an higher assurance of identity (assuming you exercise good key management practices) and can have more flexibility in their secure storage and usage. Azure Service Principals support certificate-based authentication in addition to client secrets and Azure Key Vault supports the secure storage certificates. Used in combination, it can yield some pretty cool patterns.
Before I get into those patterns, I want to cover some of the basics in how Azure Key Vault stores certificates. There are some nuances to how it’s designed that is incredibly useful to understand. I’m not going to provide a deep dive on the inner workings of Key Vault, the public documentation does a decent enough job of that, but I am going to cover some of the basics which will help get you up and running.
Certificates can be both imported into and generated within Azure Key Vault. These certificates generated can be self-signed, generated from a selection of public CAs (certificate authorities) it is integrated with, or can be used to generate a CSR (certificate signing request) you can full-fill with your own CA. These processes are well detailed in the documentation, so I won’t be touching further on them.
Once you’ve imported or generated a certificate and private key into Key Vault, we get into the interesting stuff. The components of the certificate and private key are exposed in different ways through different interfaces as seen below.
Metadata about the certificate and the certificate itself are accessible via the certificates interface. This information includes the certificate itself provided in DER (distinguished encoded rules) format, properties of the certificate such as the expiration date, and metadata about the private key. You’ll use this interface to get a copy of the certificate (minus private key) or pull specific properties of the certificate such as the thumbprint.
Operations using the private key such as sign, verify, encrypt, and decrypt, are made available through the key interface. Say you want to sign a JWT (JSON Web Token) to authenticate to an API, you would use this interface.
Lastly, the private key is available through the secret interface. This is where you could retrieve the private key in PEM (privacy enhanced mail) or PKCS#12 (public key cryptography standards) format if you’ve set the private key to be exportable. Maybe you’re using a library like MSAL (Microsoft Authentication Library) which requires the private key as an input when obtaining an OAuth access token using a confidential client.
Now that you understand those basics, let’s look at some patterns that you could leverage.
In the first pattern consider that you have a CI/CD (continuous integration / continuous delivery) running on-premises that you wish to use to provision resources in Azure. You have a strict requirement from your security team that the infrastructure remain on-premises. In this scenario you could provision a service principal that is configured for certificate authentication and use the MSAL libraries to authenticate to Azure AD to obtain the access tokens needed to access the ARM API (Azure Resource Manager). Here is Python sample code demonstrating this pattern.
In the next pattern let’s consider you have a workload running in the Azure AD tenant you dedicate to internal enterprise workloads. You have a separate Azure AD tenant used for customer workloads. Within an Azure subscription associated with the customer tenant, there is an instance of Azure Event Hub you need to access from a workload running in the enterprise tenant. For this scenario you could use a pattern where the workload running in the enterprise tenant uses an Azure Managed Identity to retrieve a client certificate and private key from Key Vault to use with the MSAL library to obtain an access token for a service principal in the customer tenant which it will use to access the Event Hub.
Here is some sample Python code that could be used to demonstrate this pattern.
For the last pattern, let’s consider you have the same use case as above, but you are using the Premium SKU of Azure Key Vault because you have a regulatory requirement that the private key never leaves the HSM (hardware security module) and all cryptographic operations are performed on the HSM. This takes MSAL out of the picture because MSAL requires the private key be provided as a variable when using a client certificate for authentication of the OAuth client. In this scenario you can use the key interface of Key Vault to sign the JWT used to obtain the access token from Azure AD. This same pattern could be leveraged for other third-party APIs that support certificate-based authentication.
Here is a Python code sample of this pattern.
Well folks I’m going to keep it short and sweet. Hopefully this brief blog post has helped to show you the value of Key Vault and provide some options to you for moving away from secret-based credentials for your non-human access to APIs. Additionally, I really hope you get some value out of the Python code samples. I know there is a fairly significant gap in Python sample code for these types of operations, so hopefully this begins filling it.