» Secret as a Service: Dynamic Secrets

Vault can generate secrets on-demand for some systems. For example, when an app needs to access an Amazon S3 bucket, it asks Vault for AWS credentials. Vault will generate an AWS credential granting permissions to access the S3 bucket. In addition, Vault will automatically revoke this credential after the TTL is expired.

The Getting Started guide walks you through the generation of dynamic AWS credentials.

» Reference Material

» Estimated Time to Complete

10 minutes

» Personas

The end-to-end scenario described in this guide involves two personas:

  • admin with privileged permissions to configure secret engines
  • apps read the secrets from Vault

» Challenge

Data protection is a top priority which means that the database credential rotation is a critical part of any data protection initiative. Each role has a different set of permissions granted to access the database. When a system is attacked by hackers, continuous credential rotation becomes necessary and needs to be automated.

» Solution

Applications ask Vault for database credential rather than setting them as environment variables. The administrator specifies the TTL of the database credentials to enforce its validity so that they are automatically revoked when they are no longer used.

Dynamic Secret Workflow

Each app instance can get unique credentials that they don't have to share. By making those credentials to be short-lived, you reduced the change of the secret to being compromised. If an app was compromised, the credentials used by the app can be revoked rather than changing more global set of credentials.

» Prerequisites

To perform the tasks described in this guide, you need to have a Vault environment. Refer to the Getting Started guide to install Vault. Make sure that your Vault server has been initialized and unsealed.

» PostgreSQL

This guide requires that you have PostgreSQL that you can connect to, and have a database named myapp. You can download and install PostgreSQL locally, or connect to a remote host.

Example on Ubuntu:

# Install PostgreSQL
$ sudo apt-get install -y postgresql postgresql-contrib

# Initialize PostgreSQL
$ sudo postgresql-setup initdb

# Switch to postgres user
$ su - postgres

# Create myapp database
$ psql -U postgres -c 'CREATE DATABASE myapp;'

PostgreSQL Wiki gives you a summary of basic commands to get started.

» Policy requirements

To perform all tasks demonstrated in this guide, your policy must include the following permissions:

# Mount secret engines
path "sys/mounts/*" {
  capabilities = [ "create", "read", "update", "delete", "list" ]

# Configure the database secret engine and create roles
path "database/*" {
  capabilities = [ "create", "read", "update", "delete", "list" ]

# Write ACL policies
path "sys/policy/*" {
  capabilities = [ "create", "read", "update", "delete", "list" ]

# Manage tokens for verification
path "auth/token/create" {
  capabilities = [ "create", "read", "update", "delete", "list", "sudo" ]

If you are not familiar with policies, complete the policies guide.

» Steps

In this guide, you are going to configure PostgreSQL secret engine, and create a read-only database role. The Vault generated PostgreSQL credentials will only have read permission.

  1. Mount the database secret engine
  2. Configure PostgreSQL secret engine
  3. Create a role
  4. Request PostgreSQL credentials
  5. Validation

Step 1 through 3 need to be performed by an admin user. Step 4 describes the commands that an app runs to get a database credentials from Vault.

» Step 1: Mount the database secret engine

(Persona: admin)

As most of the secret engines, the database secret engine must be mounted.

» CLI command

To mount a database secret engine:

$ vault secrets enable <PATH>


$ vault secrets enable database

NOTE: In this guide, the database secret engine is mounted at the /database path in Vault. However, it is possible to mount your secret engines at any location.

» API call using cURL

Mount database secret engine using /sys/mounts endpoint:

$ curl --header "X-Vault-Token: <TOKEN>" \
       --request POST \
       --data <PARAMETERS> \

Where <TOKEN> is your valid token, and <PARAMETERS> holds configuration parameters of the secret engine.


The following example mounts database secret engine at sys/mounts/database path, and passed the secret engine type ("database") in the request payload.

$ curl --header "X-Vault-Token: ..." \
       --request POST \
       --data '{"type":"database"}' \

NOTE: It is possible to mount your database secret engines at any location.

» Step 2: Configure PostgreSQL secret engine

(Persona: admin)

The PostgreSQL secret engine needs to be configured with valid credentials. It is very common to give Vault the root credentials and let Vault manage the auditing and lifecycle credentials; it's much better than having one person manage the credentials.

The following command configures the database secret engine using postgresql-database-plugin where the database connection URL is postgresql://root:rootpassword@localhost:5432/myapp. The allowed role is readonly which you will create in Step 3.

NOTE: If your database connection URL is different from this example, be sure to replace the command with correct URL to match your environment.

» CLI command


$ vault write database/config/postgresql plugin_name=postgresql-database-plugin \
  allowed_roles=readonly connection_url=postgresql://root:rootpassword@localhost:5432/myapp

» API call using cURL


$ curl --header "X-Vault-Token: ..." --request POST --data @payload.json \

$ cat payload.json
    "plugin_name": "postgresql-database-plugin",
    "allowed_roles": "readonly",
    "connection_url": "postgresql://root:rootpassword@localhost:5432/myapp"

» Step 3: Create a role

(Persona: admin)

In Step 2, you configured the PostgreSQL secret engine by passing readonly role as an allowed member. The next step is to define the readonly role. A role is a logical name that maps to a policy used to generate credentials.

Example: readonly.sql

CREATE ROLE "{{name}}" WITH LOGIN PASSWORD '{{password}}' VALID UNTIL '{{expiration}}';

The values within the {{<value>}} will be filled in by Vault. Notice that VALID_UNTIL clause. This tells PostgreSQL to revoke the credentials even if Vault is offline or unable to communicate with it.

» CLI command


$ vault write database/roles/readonly db_name=postgresql creation_statements=@readonly.sql \
    default_ttl=1h max_ttl=24h

The above command creates a role named, readonly with default TTL of 1 hour, and max TTL of the credential is set to 24 hours. The readonly.sql statement is passed as the role creation statement.

» API call using cURL


$ curl --header "X-Vault-Token: ..." --request POST --data @payload.json \

$ cat payload.json
    "db_name": "postgres",
    "creation_statements": "CREATE ROLE '{{name}}' WITH LOGIN PASSWORD '{{password}}' VALID UNTIL '{{expiration}}';
    "default_ttl": "1h",
    "max_ttl": "24h"

The db_name, creation_statements, default_ttl, and max_ttl are set in the role-payload.json.

» Step 4: Request PostgreSQL credentials

(Persona: apps)

Now, you are switching to apps persona. To get a new set of PostgreSQL credentials, the client app needs to be able to read from the readonly role endpoint. Therefore, the app's token must have a policy granting the read permission.


# Get credentials from the database secret engine
path "database/creds/readonly" {
  capabilities = [ "read" ]

» CLI command

First create an apps policy, and generate a token so that you can authenticate as an apps persona.


# Create "apps" policy
$ vault policy write apps apps-policy.hcl
Policy 'apps' written.

# Create a new token with app policy
$ vault token create -policy="apps"
Key             Value
---             -----
token           e4bdf7dc-cbbf-1bb1-c06c-6a4f9a826cf2
token_accessor  54700b7e-d828-a6c4-6141-96e71e002bd7
token_duration  768h0m0s
token_renewable true
token_policies  [apps default]

Use the returned token to perform the remaining.

NOTE: AppRole Pull Authentication guide demonstrates more sophisticated way of generating a token for your apps.

# Authenticate with Vault using the generated token first
$ vault login e4bdf7dc-cbbf-1bb1-c06c-6a4f9a826cf2
Successfully authenticated! You are now logged in.
token: e4bdf7dc-cbbf-1bb1-c06c-6a4f9a826cf2
token_duration: 2764277
token_policies: [apps default]

# Invoke the vault command
$ vault read database/creds/readonly

Key             Value
---             -----
lease_id        database/creds/readonly/4b5c6e82-df88-0dec-c0cb-f07eee8f0329
lease_duration  1h0m0s
lease_renewable true
password        A1a-4urzp0wu92r5s1q0
username        v-token-readonly-9x3qrw452wwz4w6421xt-1515625519

NOTE: Re-run the command and notice that Vault returns a different set of credentials each time. This means that each app instance can acquire a unique set of credentials.

» API call using cURL

First create an apps policy, and generate a token so that you can authenticate as an app persona.

# Payload to pass in the API call
$ cat payload.json
  "policy": "path \"database/creds/readonly\" {capabilities = [ \"read\" ]}"

# Create "apps" policy
$ curl --header "X-Vault-Token: ..." --request PUT \
       --data @payload.json \

# Generate a new token with apps policy
$ curl --header "X-Vault-Token: ..." --request POST \
       --data '{"policies": ["apps"]}' \ | jq
 "request_id": "e1737bc8-7e51-3943-42a0-2dbd6cb40e3e",
 "lease_id": "",
 "renewable": false,
 "lease_duration": 0,
 "data": null,
 "wrap_info": null,
 "warnings": null,
 "auth": {
   "client_token": "1c97b03a-6098-31cf-9d8b-b404e52dcb4a",
   "accessor": "b10a3eb7-15fe-1924-600e-403cfda34c28",
   "policies": [
   "metadata": null,
   "lease_duration": 2764800,
   "renewable": true,
   "entity_id": ""

Be sure to use the returned token to perform the remaining.

NOTE: AppRole Pull Authentication guide demonstrates more sophisticated way of generating a token for your apps.

$ curl --header "X-Vault-Token: 1c97b03a-6098-31cf-9d8b-b404e52dcb4a" \
       --request GET \ | jq
  "request_id": "e0e5a6c1-5e69-5cf3-c9d2-020af192de36",
  "lease_id": "database/creds/readonly/7aa462ab-98cb-fdcb-b226-f0a0d37644cc",
  "renewable": true,
  "lease_duration": 3600,
  "data": {
    "password": "A1a-2680ut032xqt16tq",
    "username": "v-token-readonly-6s4su6z93472x0r2787t-1515625742"
  "wrap_info": null,
  "warnings": null,
  "auth": null

» Validation

(1) Generate a new set of credentials.

$ vault read database/creds/readonly

Key             Value
---             -----
lease_id        database/creds/readonly/3e8174da-6ca0-143b-aa8c-4c238aa02809
lease_duration  1h0m0s
lease_renewable true
password        A1a-w2xv2zsq4r5ru940
username        v-token-readonly-48rt0t36sxp4wy81x8x1-1515627434

The generated username is v-token-readonly-48rt0t36sxp4wy81x8x1-1515627434.

(2) Connect to the postgres as an admin user, and run the following psql commands.

$ psql -U postgres

postgres > \du
                                                       List of roles
                    Role name                     |                         Attributes                         | Member of
 postgres                                         | Superuser, Create role, Create DB, Replication, Bypass RLS | {}
 v-token-readonly-48rt0t36sxp4wy81x8x1-1515627434 | Password valid until 2018-01-11 00:37:14+00                | {}

postgres > \q

The \du command lists all users. You should be able to verify that the username generated by Vault exists.

(3) Renew the lease for this credential by passing its lease_id.

$ vault renew database/creds/readonly/3e8174da-6ca0-143b-aa8c-4c238aa02809

Key             Value
---             -----
lease_id        database/creds/readonly/3e8174da-6ca0-143b-aa8c-4c238aa02809
lease_duration  1h0m0s
lease_renewable true

(4) Revoke the generated credentials.

$ vault lease revoke database/creds/readonly/3e8174da-6ca0-143b-aa8c-4c238aa02809

NOTE: If you run the command with -prefix=true flag, it revokes all secrets under database/creds/readonly.

Now, when you check the list of users in PostgreSQL, none of the Vault generated user name exists.

» Next steps

This guide discussed how to generate credentials on-demand so that the access credentials no longer need to be written to disk. Next, learn about the Tokens and Leases so that you can control the lifecycle of those credentials.