Request Level Authentication and Authorization with Istio and Keycloak

Request Level Authentication and Authorization with Istio and Keycloak

Shehbaz Khan
Shehbaz Khan

Kubernetes has made it easier to manage containerized microservices at scale. However, you get a limited set of security features with Kubernetes. A key component of application security is the prevention of unauthorized access. Standards-based identity and access management (IAM) for user authentication, such as SAML, WS-Fed, or the OpenID Connect/OAuth2 standards have to be used to ensure secure access to the application. Multi-factor authentication (MFA) can also be implemented as an additional security measure.

Yet there is no native way to implement these security features in Kubernetes. Even crucial security aspects like request-level authentication and authorization are not supported out of the box.

This is where tools like service mesh help us. From routing, traffic shaping, observability, and security, a service mesh comes with many useful features that your developers can add to your application without building them from scratch. You can read our blog post to learn about service mesh and its features in detail.

In this blog post, we will talk about two security features of service mesh – request level authentication and authorization. Later in the article, we will implement request level authentication and authorization using Istio service mesh and Keycloak. If you prefer videos, you can watch our webinar with CNCF on securing requests with Keycloak and Istio through request-level authentication.

What is request level authentication and authorization?

Most applications use a modern web framework and offer one or more API endpoints to allow users, programs, and other applications to access your application. These API endpoints provide the below functionalities:

  • Allow your application users to access data on your server through a browser or a mobile app.
  • End users and other programs can get programmatic access to data managed by your application.
  • Enable & manage communication among different services of your application.

These API endpoints can be abused or misused if accessed by unauthorized users. Your application should have a mechanism in place to authenticate and authorize end users and allow access to authenticated requests only.

This process of validating the credentials each request carries is called request level authentication. Request level authorization is the process of allowing access to resources based on the legitimacy of credentials in the request.

One of the most popular methods for request level authentication and authorization is JWT (JSON Web Token) authentication.

JWT(JSON Web Token) authentication

JSON Web Token (JWT) is a popular open source authentication standard, that defines a comprehensive way for transmitting data between parties securely in the form of a JSON object. This information shared between parties can be verified and trusted because it is signed digitally using a strong encryption mechanism.

JSON Web Tokens (JWT) are made up of three components:

  • Header: It specifies the algorithm used for encrypting the token’s content.
  • Payload: It contains information the token securely transmits, also known as claims.
  • Signature: It is used to verify the authenticity of the payload.

You can read more about JWT tokens.

Istio and JWT

Istio is one of the most popular and widely used service mesh. It comes with many features that help you to efficiently monitor and secure your services. From a security point of view, one feature that plays a critical role is the ability to validate the JWT attached to the end-user requests.

Before end-user requests hit your application, Istio will:

  • Validate and verify JWT attach to the end-user request.
  • Forward only authenticated requests to the application.
  • Deny access to unauthenticated requests.

This security feature of Istio is very useful in offloading authentication and authorization logic from your application code. You don’t have to worry about writing the authentication code yourself. Istio will manage the authentication part by validating the JWT token present in the request header.

There are many authentication providers available, and you can select any one of them depending on your project’s requirements. Here are the few popular authentication providers which support JWT.

  • Auth0: Auth0 is the most popular and well-established authentication provider for integrating your application for authentication and authorization. Auth0 comes with a free tier as well which covers most of the things required for authentication and authorization for your application.

  • Firebase Auth: Firebase Auth is another popular authentication service provider that allows you to add authentication and authorization to your application. Firebase allows you to add sign-in methods such as identity providers including Google, Facebook, email and password, and phone number.

  • Google Auth: Google OIDC is one of the well-known authentication providers which you can use for both authentication and authorization.

  • KeyCloak: Keycloak is a popular open source authentication service provider. Keycloak provides all the features that a typical authentication provider does. Setting up and using Keycloak is fairly straightforward, as we will see it in this blog post.

  Open Source SSO Support JWT Support
Auth0 No Yes Yes
Firebase Auth No Yes Yes
Google Auth No Yes Yes
Keycloak Yes Yes Yes

What is Keycloak?

Keycloak is an open source authentication service provider and identity and access management tool that lets you add authentication and authorization to applications. It provides all the native authentication features including user federation, SSO, OIDC, user management, and fine-grained authorization.

Istio request authentication and authorization

In Istio, RequestAuthentication is used for end-user authentication. It is a custom resource that defines methods for validating credentials attached to the requests. Istio performs request level authentication by validating JWT attached to the requests.

RequestAuthentication lets us create authentication policies for workloads running in your mesh and define rules for validating JWTs. Based on the configured authentication rules, Istio will reject and accept the end user request.

Istio Authorization Policy allows us to restrict access to application resources for authenticated requests only, so it is critical to use an authorization policy with request authentication.

Implementing request level authentication and authorization using Istio and Keycloak

In the last section, we learned about what is request level authentication and authorization and how Istio supports JWT validation. Now, we will implement it using Istio and Keycloak.

Pre-Requisites

Installing Istio

Installing Istio on a Kubernetes cluster is straightforward. For step-by-step instructions, you can follow the official documentation for installing Istio.

Please follow these steps to install Istio on your cluster.

  • Download the latest version of Istio. At the time of writing this blog latest version of Istio is 1.17.2

    curl -L https://istio.io/downloadIstio | sh -
    
    sudo cp istio-1.17.2/bin/istioctl /usr/local/bin/
    
  • Install the Istio on your Kubernetes cluster using istioctl with a demo configuration profile.

    istioctl install --set profile=demo -y
    ✔ Istio core installed
    ✔ Istiod installed
    ✔ Ingress gateways installed
    ✔ Egress gateways installed
    ✔ Installation complete                                                                                                                                                                                    Making this installation the default for injection and validation.
    
    Thank you for installing Istio 1.17.  Please take a few minutes to tell us about your install/upgrade experience!  https://forms.gle/hMHGiwZHPU7UQRWe9
    

    Verify Istio installation.

    istioctl verify-install
    

Once Istio is installed and running in your cluster, you can enable automatically injecting Istio sidecar to your pods in two ways.

  1. You can enable Istio sidecar injection for the namespace by adding the label istio-injection=enabled to the namespace, so all pods running in that namespace will have Istio side car injected.

  2. You can enable Istio sidecar injection for a particular pod by adding the label sidecar.istio.io/inject=true to the pod, that pod would automatically have Istio sidecar injected.

Install Demo App

Now install the demo book-info app. All Kubernetes manifests we are using in this blog post can be found on this Github repo.

Clone git repo.

git clone https://github.com/shehbaz-pathan/istio-keycloak.git

Move into the cloned git repo and install the app.

cd istio-keycloak

Install mysql database first and wait for db pod to go in running state.

kubectl apply -f app/database.yaml
kubectl get pods -w
NAME                           READY   STATUS              RESTARTS   AGE
book-info-db-598c7d9f5-m5l57   0/1     ContainerCreating   0          14s
book-info-db-598c7d9f5-m5l57   1/1     Running             0          25s

Once db pod is ready install the demo app.

kubectl apply -f app/app.yaml

List the pods from the default namespace. You will find 2 containers in the app pod. It is because we have enabled auto Istio sidecar injection for app pods by setting the pod label to “sidecar.istio.io/inject: “true”, which automatically injects Istio sidecars in each pod of our book-info app.

kubectl get pods
NAME                           READY   STATUS    RESTARTS     AGE
book-info-747f77b58-s9r88      2/2     Running   0		 59s
book-info-db-598c7d9f5-m5l57   1/1     Running   0            2m39s

Now, we will set up an Istio gateway and virtual service to access the app. Gateway allows us to configure ingress traffic to our application from external systems and users. Plus, the Istio gateway does not include any traffic routing configuration so we have to create a virtual service to route traffic coming in from the Istio gateway to the backend kubernetes service.

kubectl apply -f istio-manifests/ingressGateway.yaml
kubectl apply -f istio-manifests/virtualService.yaml

To access and verify the app, you have to first get the external IP of Istio ingress gateway.

# LB_IP=$(kubectl get svc istio-ingressgateway -o=jsonpath='{.status.loadBalancer.ingress[0].ip}' -n istio-system)

List book details, it will return an empty array as there is no book added into the DB yet.

curl -X GET -H “host: book-info.test.io” http://$LB_IP/getbooks
[ ]

Now, we will add a book by calling addbook endpoint.

curl -X POST -H "host: book-info.test.io" -d '{"isbn": 9781982156909, "title": "The Comedy of Errors", "synopsis": "The authoritative edition of The Comedy of Errors from The Folger Shakespeare Library, the trusted and widely used Shakespeare series for students and general readers", "authorname": "William Shakespeare", "price": 10.39}' "http://$LB_IP/addbook"
{
    "isbn": 9781982156909,
    "title": "The Comedy of Errors",
    "synopsis": "The authoritative edition of The Comedy of Errors from The Folger Shakespeare Library, the trusted and widely used Shakespeare series for students and general readers",
    "authorname": "William Shakespeare",
    "price": 10.39
}

Now again, we will list the books. This time you will find the book which we have added just now.

curl -XGET -H "host: book-info.test.io" “http://$LB_IP/getbooks”
[
    {
        "isbn": 9781982156909,
        "title": "The Comedy of Errors",
        "synopsis": "The authoritative edition of The Comedy of Errors from The Folger Shakespeare Library, the trusted and widely used Shakespeare series for students and general readers",
        "authorname": "William Shakespeare",
        "price": 10.39
    }
]

Setup Keycloak for JWT authentication

For now, we can simply view and add books just by hitting the right endpoint – which means anyone can access the application and do the same – making it insecure. Hence, we need an authentication mechanism in place that will only allow authenticated requests to access this application. For that, we will be using Keycloak.

We will implement Keycloak on the Kubernetes cluster and configure it for issuing JWT tokens for authentication.

Installing and configuring Keycloak is fairly easy. You can follow the official documentation on installing Keycloak on Kubernetes.

Install Keycloak:

kubectl create -f https://raw.githubusercontent.com/keycloak/keycloak-quickstarts/latest/kubernetes-examples/keycloak.yaml

List the pods:

kubectl get pods -l app=keycloak -w
NAME                       READY   STATUS              RESTARTS   AGE
keycloak-5bc5c7fbf-jjq29   0/1     ContainerCreating   0          19s
keycloak-5bc5c7fbf-jjq29   0/1     Running             0          29s

Configure Keycloak

Now, to configure the Keycloak to issue JWT tokens for authentication, we have to get the load balancer IP of the Keycloak service first.

# kubectl get svc -l app=keycloak -o=jsonpath='{.items[0].status.loadBalancer.ingress[0].ip}'

Open your preferred browser and hit the load balancer IP with port 8080. Once the welcome page is open, click on Administration Console to open the login page. From here, you can log in with default admin credentials (Username: admin, Password: admin).

Configure Keycloak

Create realm

By default, Keycloak comes with the master realm, but for our use, we will create a new realm. You can follow the below steps for creating a new realm.

  • Click the word master in the top-left corner, then click Create realm.
  • Enter Istio in the Realm name field.
  • Click Create.

    Create realm

Create Oauth client

  • From the top-left corner, select the realm ‘Istio’ which we just created.
  • Click on Clients and then Create a Client.
  • Select OpenID Connect as the client type and give Istio as the Client ID. Add Istio as the Name for the client and click next.

    Create Oath client

  • On the second page, let the default setting as it is and click on next.

    Page 2

  • On the third page, similarly, don’t change the default setting and press the Save button.

    Page 3

Roles and user creation

We will be creating two roles: one for normal users who can only view book details and another one for admin users who can view and add books. Similarly, we will create two users, one normal user with a user role assigned and another one will be our admin user with an admin role assigned.

Create roles
  • From the left pane select the Realm roles and click on Create role. Enter the Role name as admin, and click on Create.

    Create roles

  • Similarly, create a role for a normal user as well with the Role name as the user.

Create users
  • From the left pane select the Users and click on Add User. Enter the username as book-admin. You can leave the rest of the value as it is and click on Create.

    Create user

  • Similarly, create another user with a username as book-user.

Set password for users

Once both users are created, we will set passwords for them.

  • From the left pane select Users and click on book-admin user. From the top menu click on Credentials and click on Set password. Enter a strong password and confirm it. Turn off the Temporary and finally, click on the Save button.

    Set password

  • Similarly, you can set the password for the book-user user.

Role assignments
  • From the left pane select Users and click on book-admin user. From the top menu, select Role Mapping and click on Assign role. Check the admin role from the list which we have created recently and click on assign.

    Assign roles

  • Similarly, you can assign a user role to a book-user user.

Get the required endpoints

We need endpoints to generate JWT tokens and JWT verification. These endpoints would look like the following.

Token Generation URL: http://:8080/realms/Istio/protocol/openid-connect/token

Token Verification URL: http://:8080/realms/Istio/protocol/openid-connect/certs

That’s it. We have successfully set up the Keycloak for implementing request level authentication and authorization for our demo app.

Istio request level authentication and authorization

We have a sample book-info app running and configured Keycloak for issuing JWT tokens. Now. we can use Istio’s RequestAuthentication and Authorization policies to validate the JWT tokens and authorize the access requests.

Enable request authentication

First, we get the load balancer IP of the Keycloak service.

Keycloak_IP=$(kubectl get svc -l app=keycloak -o=jsonpath='{.items[0].status.loadBalancer.ingress[0].ip}')

LB_IP=$(kubectl get svc istio-ingressgateway -o=jsonpath='{.status.loadBalancer.ingress[0].ip}' -n istio-system)

Then we will be creating a RequestAuthentication for validating JWT tokens from Keycloak. You can find all Kubernetes manifests that we are using in this repo.

Now create a RequestAuthentication for validating JWT tokens using Keycloak as the issuer.

kubectl apply -f - <<EOF
apiVersion: security.istio.io/v1beta1
kind: RequestAuthentication
metadata:
  name: book-info-request-authentication
spec:
  selector:
     matchLabels:
      app: book-info
  jwtRules:
   - issuer: "http://$Keycloak_IP:8080/realms/Istio"
     jwks_Uri: "http://$Keycloak_IP:8080/realms/Istio/protocol/openid-connect/certs"
EOF

Now we will try to access the book-info application’s getbooks endpoint.

curl -X GET -H "host: book-info.test.io" http://$LB_IP/getbooks
[
    {
        "isbn": 9781982156909,
        "title": "The Comedy of Errors",
        "synopsis": "The authoritative edition of The Comedy of Errors from The Folger Shakespeare Library, the trusted and widely used Shakespeare series for students and general readers",
        "authorname": "William Shakespeare",
        "price": 10.39
    }
]

We are still able to access the endpoint without JWT token despite enabling request authentication for the book-info app. This is happening because we have not yet created an authorization policy to restrict access to authenticated requests only.

So, next, we will create an authorization policy.

kubectl apply -f - <<EOF
apiVersion: security.istio.io/v1beta1
kind: AuthorizationPolicy
metadata:
  name: book-info-auth
spec:
  selector:
    matchLabels:
       app: book-info
  rules:
   - from:
     - source:
         requestPrincipals: ["*"]
EOF

We will try accessing getbooks endpoint.

curl -X GET -H "host: book-info.test.io" http://$LB_IP/getbooks
RBAC: access denied

This time requests get denied, now only requests with valid JWT will be allowed to access the endpoints.

Now, let’s try generating the JWT using the book-user user’s credentials by calling the token generation endpoint.

curl -X POST -d "client_id=Istio" -d "username=book-user" -d "password=user123" -d "grant_type=password" "http://$Keycloak_IP:8080/realms/Istio/protocol/openid-connect/token"
{"access_token":"*****","expires_in":300,"refresh_expires_in":1800,"refresh_token":"*****","token_type":"Bearer","not-before-policy":0,"session_state":"382dd7d6-a440-43fc-b9f8-13f4dc84fe3f","scope":"profile email"}

Copy access token and use it as authorization bearer while calling getbooks endpoint.

curl -X GET -H "host: book-info.test.io" -H "Authorization: Bearer *****” http://$LB_IP/getbooks
[
    {
        "isbn": 9781982156909,
        "title": "The Comedy of Errors",
        "synopsis": "The authoritative edition of The Comedy of Errors from The Folger Shakespeare Library, the trusted and widely used Shakespeare series for students and general readers",
        "authorname": "William Shakespeare",
        "price": 10.39
    }
]

This time we are able to access the getbooks endpoint. Similarly, you can try generating a token for book-admin user and try accessing the getbooks endpoint.

Now, let’s try adding a new book using addbook endpoint.

curl -X POST -d '{"isbn": 123456789123, "title": "Test Book 1", "synopsis": "This is test book 1", "authorname": "test-author1", "price": 10.39}' "http://$LB_IP/addbook"
RBAC: access denied

Adding a new book failed because access is denied. Now we will generate a token for book-user and try adding the book.

curl -X POST -d "client_id=Istio" -d "username=book-user" -d "password=user123" -d "grant_type=password" "http://$Keycloak_IP:8080/realms/Istio/protocol/openid-connect/token"
{"access_token":"*****","expires_in":300,"refresh_expires_in":1800,"refresh_token":"*****","token_type":"Bearer","not-before-policy":0,"session_state":"ccbf94e1-b3c1-4260-8ade-cb0d778b8235","scope":"profile email"}
curl -X POST -H "Authorization: Bearer *****" -d '{"isbn": 123456789123, "title": "Test Book 1", "synopsis": "This is test book 1", "authorname": "test-author1", "price": 10.39}' "http://$LB_IP/addbook"
{
    "isbn": 123456789123,
    "title": "Test Book 1",
    "synopsis": "This is test book 1",
    "authorname": "test-author1",
    "price": 10.39
}

As you can see, we are able to add books. Similarly, you can add books using a book-admin user.

Issue with current setup

In our current setup, both book-user and book-admin users are able to add books, but only book-admin should be allowed to add books. While book-user should only be allowed to view books and not be allowed to add books.

We can restrict access of a particular endpoint to a particular user/role by extracting the role from raw JWT claim data and using conditions in the authorization policy. Now let’s see how we can control the finer-grained access using Istio authorization policies.

We will modify the authorization policy to allow only book-admin users to access /addbook endpoint and allow all users to access /getbooks endpoint.

kubectl apply -f - <<EOF
apiVersion: security.istio.io/v1beta1
kind: AuthorizationPolicy
metadata:
  name: book-info-auth
spec:
  selector:
    matchLabels:
      app: book-info
  rules:
  - to:
    - operation:
       methods: ["GET"]
       paths: ["/bookdetails"]

  - from:
    - source:
        requestPrincipals: ["*"]
    to:
    - operation:
        methods: ["GET"]
        paths: ["/getbooks", "/getbookbytitle*"]

  - from:
    - source:
        requestPrincipals: ["*"]
    to:
    - operation:
        methods: ["POST"]
        paths: ["/addbook*"]
    when:
    - key: request.auth.claims[realm_access][roles]
      values: ["admin"]
EOF
authorizationpolicy.security.istio.io/book-info-auth configured

Now we will try adding a new book with a book-user user.

curl -X POST -d "client_id=Istio" -d "username=book-user" -d "password=user123" -d "grant_type=password" "http://$Keycloak_IP:8080/realms/Istio/protocol/openid-connect/token"
{"access_token":"*****","expires_in":300,"refresh_expires_in":1800,"refresh_token":"*****","token_type":"Bearer","not-before-policy":0,"session_state":"9fb6bcc9-57b9-4eda-8052-71daeb887b92","scope":"profile email"}
curl -X POST -H "Authorization: Bearer *****" -d '{"isbn": 123456789125, "title": "Test Book 3", "synopsis": "This is test book 3", "authorname": "test-author3", "price": 10.39}' "http://$LB_IP/addbook”
RBAC: access denied

This time we are not allowed to add books using book-user since we have allowed only users with admin roles to add books.

Now we will check adding a book with the admin-user user.

curl -X POST -d "client_id=Istio" -d "username=book-admin" -d "password=admin123" -d "grant_type=password" "http://$Keycloak_IP:8080/realms/Istio/protocol/openid-connect/token"
{"access_token":"*****","expires_in":300,"refresh_expires_in":1800,"refresh_token":"*****","token_type":"Bearer","not-before-policy":0,"session_state":"a9d5398a-1e7d-4cbb-a4bf-8b7bdd70f75e","scope":"profile email"}
curl -X POST -H "Authorization: Bearer *****" -d '{"isbn": 123456789125, "title": "Test Book 3", "synopsis": "This is test book 3", "authorname": "test-author3", "price": 10.39}' "http://$LB_IP/addbook”
{
    "isbn": 123456789125,
    "title": "Test Book 3",
    "synopsis": "This is test book 3",
    "authorname": "test-author3",
    "price": 10.39
}

We can add books with a book-admin user since we allow only users with admin role to add books and we have already assigned a book-admin user an admin role in Keycloak. Also, both users can view the books since we have allowed anyone with a valid JWT token to access the /getbooks endpoint.

This Istio feature of request authentication and authorization along with Keycloak offers a fantastic request level authentication and authorization mechanism for your application – which is missing in native Kubernetes.

Best practices for request level authentication and authorization

Securing your application from unauthorized access is an essential requirement, however, implementing it requires substantial effort. If you are planning to do it, these best practices and considerations for request level authentication and authorization would help you:

  • Always secure endpoints in your application using SSL or TLS certificates. TLS secures your application by encrypting the messages in transit, as only the receiver has the key to decrypt it.
  • Choose an authentication provider that suits your requirements and always use OAuth2 with OpenID Connect for request level authentication.
  • Make sure you are using different permissions/roles for different API endpoints. You can create a set of permissions and roles in your authentication provider, and use them for fine-grained access control of your application API endpoints.
  • Decide when to use request level authentication and authorization. You don’t need to authenticate and authorize each request. Your application may contain some API endpoints, which require public access like /healthz or /ping or /public, so carefully choose which endpoints you want to protect.

Summary

Securing your applications by using proper authentication and authorization is an important task. During the application development phase, developers invest a good amount of time to build a good authentication and authorization mechanism for their application. However, using tools like Istio and Keycloak takes that burden out from the developer’s shoulder and this authentication and authorization mechanism can be configured at the infrastructure level.

In this blog post, we learned how Istio simplifies request level authentication and authorization using Keycloak. However, things can be complex in the real world where your application might have hundreds of services running in different clusters and accessed by thousands or millions of users. That’s it, folks! I hope you found this blog informative. I’d be happy to connect and discuss more on this - please feel free to start a conversation on Linkedin.

Looking for help with onboarding service mesh the right way or need help with advanced configurations? We have been helping startups & enterprises around service mesh consulting & adoption as well Istio enterprise support and Linkerd enterprise support.

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