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In this article, we look at securing the private cloud using IAM. For IAM, OpenStack uses the Keystone project. Keystone provides the identity, token, catalog, and policy services, which are used specifically by OpenStack services. It is organized as a group of internal services exposed on one or many endpoints. For example, an authentication call validates the user and project credentials with the identity service.

[box type=”shadow” align=”” class=”” width=””]This article is an excerpt from the book,’Cloud Security Automation‘. In this book, you’ll learn how to work with OpenStack security modules and learn how private cloud security functions can be automated for better time and cost-effectiveness.[/box]


Authentication is an integral part of an OpenStack deployment and so we must be careful about the system design.

Authentication is the process of confirming a user’s identity, which means that a user is actually who they claim to be. For example, providing a username and a password when logging into a system.

Keystone supports authentication using the username and password, LDAP, and external authentication methods. After successful authentication, the identity service provides the user with an authorization token, which is further used for subsequent service requests. Transport Layer Security (TLS) provides authentication between services and users using X.509 certificates. The default mode for TLS is server-side only authentication, but we can also use certificates for client authentication.

However, in authentication, there can also be the case where a hacker is trying to access the console by guessing your username and password. If we have not enabled the policy to handle this, it can be disastrous. For this, we can use the Failed Login Policy, which states that a maximum number of attempts are allowed for a failed login; after that, the account is blocked for a certain number of hours and the user will also get a notification about it.

However, the identity service provided in Keystone does not provide a method to limit access to accounts after repeated unsuccessful login attempts. For this, we need to rely on an external authentication system that blocks out an account after a configured number of failed login attempts. Then, the account might only be unlocked with further side-channel intervention, or on request, or after a certain duration.

We can use detection techniques to the fullest only when we have a prevention method available to save them from damage.

In the detection process, we frequently review the access control logs to identify unauthorized attempts to access accounts.

During the review of access control logs, if we find any hints of a brute force attack (where the user tries to guess the username and password to log in to the system), we can define a strong username and password or block the source of the attack (IP) through firewall rules.

When we define firewall rules on Keystone node, it restricts the connection, which helps to reduce the attack surface.

Apart from this, reviewing access control logs also helps to examine the account activity for unusual logins and suspicious actions, so that we can take corrective actions such as disabling the account.

To increase the level of security, we can also utilize MFA for network access to the privileged user accounts.

Keystone supports external authentication services through the Apache web server that can provide this functionality. Servers can also enforce client-side authentication using certificates.

This will help to get rid of brute force and phishing attacks that may compromise administrator passwords.

Authentication methods – internal and external

Keystone stores user credentials in a database or may use an LDAP-compliant directory server. The Keystone identity database can be kept separate from databases used by other OpenStack services to reduce the risk of a compromise of the stored credentials.

When we use the username and password to authenticate, identity does not apply policies for password strength, expiration, or failed authentication attempts. For this, we need to implement external authentication services.

To integrate an external authentication system or organize an existing directory service to manage users account management, we can use LDAP. LDAP simplifies the integration process.

In OpenStack authentication and authorization, the policy may be delegated to another service. For example, an organization that is going to deploy a private cloud and already has a database of employees and users in an LDAP system.

Using this LDAP as an authentication authority, requests to the Identity service (Keystone) are transferred to the LDAP system, which allows or denies requests based on its policies. After successful authentication, the identity service generates a token for access to the authorized services.

Now, if the LDAP has already defined attributes for the user such as the admin, finance, and HR departments, these must be mapped into roles and groups within identity for use by the various OpenStack services.

We need to define this mapping into Keystone node configuration files stored at /etc/keystone/keystone.conf.

Keystone must not be allowed to write to the LDAP used for authentication outside of the OpenStack Scope, as there is a chance to allow a sufficiently privileged Keystone user to make changes to the LDAP directory, which is not desirable from a security point of view.

This can also lead to unauthorized access of other information and resources. So, if we have other authentication providers such as LDAP or Active Directory, then user provisioning always happens at other authentication provider systems.

For external authentication, we have the following methods:

  • MFA: The MFA service requires the user to provide additional layers of information for authentication such as a one-time password token or X.509 certificate (called MFA token). Once MFA is implemented, the user will have to enter the MFA token after putting the user ID and password in for a successful login.
  • Password policy enforcement: Once the external authentication service is in place, we can define the strength of the user passwords to conform to the minimum standards for length, diversity of characters, expiration, or failed login attempts.

Keystone also supports TLS-based client authentication. TLS client authentication provides an additional authentication factor, apart from the username and password, which provides greater reliability on user identification. It reduces the risk of unauthorized access when usernames and passwords are compromised. However, TLS-based authentication is not cost effective as we need to have a certificate for each of the clients.


Keystone also provides the option of groups and roles. Users belong to groups where a group has a list of roles. All of the OpenStack services, such as Cinder, Glance, nova, and Horizon, reference the roles of the user attempting to access the service. OpenStack policy enforcers always consider the policy rule associated with each resource and use the user’s group or role, and their association, to determine and allow or deny the service access.

Before configuring roles, groups, and users, we should document your required access control policies for the OpenStack installation. The policies must be as per the regulatory or legal requirements of the organization.

Additional changes to the access control configuration should be done as per the formal policies. These policies must include the conditions and processes for creating, deleting, disabling, and enabling accounts, and for assigning privileges to the accounts. One needs to review these policies from time to time and ensure that the configuration is in compliance with the approved policies.

For user creation and administration, there must be a user created with the admin role in Keystone for each OpenStack service. This account will provide the service with the authorization to authenticate users.

Nova (compute) and Swift (object storage) can be configured to use the Identity service to store authentication information. For the test environment, we can have tempAuth, which records user credentials in a text file, but it is not recommended for the production environment.

The OpenStack administrator must protect sensitive configuration files from unauthorized modification with mandatory access control frameworks such as SELinux or DAC. Also, we need to protect the Keystone configuration files, which are stored at /etc/keystone/keystone.conf, and also the X.509 certificates.

It is recommended that cloud admin users must authenticate using the identity service (Keystone) and an external authentication service that supports two-factor authentication. Getting authenticated with two-factor authentication reduces the risk of compromised passwords.

It is also recommended in the NIST guideline called NIST 800-53 IA-2(1). Which defines MFA for network access to privileged accounts, when one factor is provided by a separate device from the system being accessed.

Policy, tokens, and domains

In OpenStack, every service defines the access policies for its resources in a policy file, where a resource can be like an API access, it can create and attach Cinder volume, or it can create an instance. The policy rules are defined in JSON format in a file called policy.json.

Only administrators can modify the service-based policy.json file, to control the access to the various resources. However, one has to also ensure that any changes to the access control policies do not unintentionally breach or create an option to breach the security of any resource. Any changes made to policy.json are applied immediately and it does not need any service restart.

After a user is authenticated, a token is generated for authorization and access to an OpenStack environment. A token can have a variable lifespan, but the default value is 1 hour. It is also recommended to lower the lifespan of the token to a certain level so that within the specified timeframe the internal service can complete the task. If the token expires before task completion, the system can be unresponsive.

Keystone also supports token revocation. For this, it uses an API to revoke a token and to list the revoked tokens.

In OpenStack Newton release, there are four supported token types: UUID, PKI, PKIZ, and fernet. After the OpenStack Ocata release, there are two supported token types: UUID and fernet. We’ll see all of these token types in detail here:

  • UUID: These tokens are persistent tokens. UUID tokens are 32 bytes in length, which must be persisted in the backend. They are stored in the Keystone backend, along with the metadata for authentication. All of the clients must pass their UUID token to the Keystone (identity service) in order to validate it.
  • PKI and PKIZ: These are signed documents that contain the authentication content, as well as the service catalog. The difference between the PKI and PKIZ is that PKIZ tokens are compressed to help mitigate the size issues of PKI (sometimes PKI tokens becomes very long). Both of these tokens have become obsolete after the Ocata release. The length of PKI and PKIZ tokens typically exceeds 1,600 bytes. The Identity service uses public and private key pairs and certificates in order to create and validate these tokens.
  • Fernet: These tokens are the default supported token provider for OpenStack Pike Release. It is a secure messaging format explicitly designed for use in API tokens. They are nonpersistent, lightweight (fall in the range of 180 to 240 bytes), and reduce the operational overhead. Authentication and authorization metadata is neatly bundled into a message-packed payload, which is then encrypted and signed in as a fernet token.

In the OpenStack, the Keystone Service domain is a high-level container for projects, users, and groups. Domains are used to centrally manage all Keystone-based identity components. Compute, storage, and other resources can be logically grouped into multiple projects, which can further be grouped under a master account.

Users of different domains can be represented in different authentication backends and have different attributes that must be mapped to a single set of roles and privileges in the policy definitions to access the various service resources.

Domain-specific authentication drivers allow the identity service to be configured for multiple domains, using domain-specific configuration files stored at keystone.conf.

Federated identity

Federated identity enables you to establish trusts between identity providers and the cloud environment (OpenStack Cloud).

It gives you secure access to cloud resources using your existing identity. You do not need to remember multiple credentials to access your applications.

Now, the question is, what is the reason for using federated identity? This is answered as follows:

  • It enables your security team to manage all of the users (cloud or noncloud) from a single identity application
  • It enables you to set up different identity providers on the basis of the application that somewhere creates an additional workload for the security team and leads the security risk as well
  • It gives ease of life to users by proving them a single credential for all of the apps so that they can save the time they spend on the forgot password page

Federated identity enables you to have a single sign-on mechanism. We can implement it using SAML 2.0. To do this, you need to run the identity service provider under Apache.

We learned about securing your private cloud and the authentication process therein. If you’ve enjoyed this article, do check out ‘Cloud Security Automation‘ for a hands-on experience of automating your cloud security and governance.

Read Next:

Top 5 cloud security threats to look out for in 2018

Cloud Security Tips: Locking Your Account Down with AWS Identity Access Manager (IAM)

A Data science fanatic. Loves to be updated with the tech happenings around the globe. Loves singing and composing songs. Believes in putting the art in smart.


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