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Creation and Distribution of Secrets




This ADR seeks to clarify and prioritize the secret handling approach taken by EdgeX.

EdgeX microservices need a number of secrets to be created and distributed in order to create a functional, secure system. Among these secrets are:

  • Privileged administrator passwords (such as a database superuser password)
  • Service account passwords (e.g. non-privileged database accounts)
  • PKI private keys

There is a lack of consistency on how secrets are created and distributed to EdgeX microservices, and when developers need to add new components to the system, it is unclear on what the preferred approach should be.

This document assumes a threat model wherein the EdgeX services are sandboxed (such as in a snap or a container) and the host system is trusted, and all services running in a single snap share a trust boundary.


The following terms will be helpful for understading the subsequent discussion:

  • SECRETSLOC is a protected file system path where bootstrapping secrets are stored.

While EdgeX implements a sophisticated secret handling mechanism, that mechanism itself requires secrets. For example, every microservice that talks to Vault must have its own unique secret to authenticate: Vault itself cannot be used to distribute these secrets. SECRETSLOC fulfills the role that the non-routable instance data IP address,, fulfills in the public cloud: delivery of bootstrapping secrets. As EdgeX does not have a hypervisor nor virtual machines for this purpose, a protected file system path is used instead.

SECRETSLOC is implementation-dependent. A desirable feature of SECRETSLOC would be that data written here is kept in RAM and is not persisted to storage media. This property is not achieveable in all circumstances.

For Docker, a list of suggested paths--in preference order--is:

  • /run/edgex/secrets (a tmpfs volume on a Linux host)
  • /tmp/edgex/secrets (a temporary file area on Linux and MacOS hosts)
  • A persistent docker volume (use when host bind mounts are not available)

For snaps, a list of suggested paths-in preference order--is: * /run/snap.$SNAP_NAME/ (a tmpfs volume on a Linux host) * $SNAP_DATA/secrets (a snap-specific persistent data area) * TBD (a content interface that allows for sharing of secrets from the core snap)

Current practices survey

A survey on the existing EdgeX secrets reveals the following appoaches.

A designation of "compliant" means that the current implementation is aligned with the recommended practices documented in the next section. A designation of "non-compliant" means that the current implementation uses an implemention mechanism outside of the recommended practices documented in the next section. A "non-compliant" implementation is a candidate for refactoring to bring the implementation into conformance with the recommended practices.

System-managed secrets

  • PKI private keys
  • Docker: PKI generated by standalone utility every cold start of the framework. Distribution via SECRETSLOC. (Compliant.)
  • Snaps: PKI generated by standalone utility every cold start of the framework. Deployed to SECRETSLOC. (Compliant.)

  • Secret store master password

  • Docker: Distribution via persistent docker volume. (Non-compliant.)
  • Snaps: Stored in $SNAP_DATA/config/security-secrets-setup/res. (Non-compliant.)

  • Secret store per-service authentication tokens

  • Docker: Distribution via SECRETSLOC generated every cold start of the framework. (Compliant.)
  • Snaps: Distribution via SECRETSLOC, generated every cold start of the framework. (Compliant.)

  • Postgres superuser password

  • Docker: Hard-coded into docker-compose file, checked in to source control. (Non-compliant.)
  • Snaps: Generated at snap install time via "apg" ("automatic password generator") tool, installed into Postgres, cached to $SNAP_DATA/config/postgres/kongpw (non-compliant), and passed to Kong via $KONG_PG_PASSWORD.

  • MongoDB service account passwords

  • Docker: Direct consumption from secret store. (Compliant.)
  • Snaps: Direct consumption from secret store. (Compliant.)

  • Redis authentication password

  • Docker: Server--staged to secrets volume and injected via command line. (Non-compliant.). Clients--direct consumption from secret store. (Compliant.)
  • Snaps: Server--staged to $SNAP_DATA/secrets/edgex-redis/redis5-password and injected via command line. (Non-compliant.). Clients--direct consumption from secret store. (Compliant.)

  • Kong client authentication tokens

  • Docker: System of reference is unencrypted Postgres database. (Non-compliant.)
  • Snaps: System of reference is unencrypted Postgres database. (Non-compliant.)

Note: in the current implementation, Consul is being operated as a public service. Consul will be a subject of a future "bootstrapping ADR" due to its role in serivce location.

User-managed secrets

User-managed secrets functionality is provided by app-functions-sdk-go.

If security is enabled, secrets are retrieved from Vault. If security is disabled, secrets are retreived from the configuration provider. If the configuration provider is not available, secrets are read from the underlying .toml. It is taken as granted in this ADR that secrets originating in the configuration provider or from .toml configuration files are not secret. The fallback mechanism is provided as a convienience to the developer, who would otherwise have to litter their code with "if (isSecurityEnabled())" logic leading to implementation inconsistencies.

The central database credential is supplied by GetDatabaseCredentials() and returns the database credential assigned to app-service-configurable. If security is enabled, database credentials are retreived using the standard flow. If security is disabled, secrets are retreived from the configuration provider from a special section called [Writable.InsecureSecrets]. If not found there, the configuration provider is searched for credentials stored in the legacy [Databases.Primary] section using the Username and Password keys.

Each user application has its own exclusive-use area of the secret store that is accessed via GetSecrets(). If security is enabled, secret requests are passed along to go-mod-secrets using an application-specific access token. If security is disabled, secret requets are made to the configuration provider from the [Writable.InsecureSecrets] section. There is no fallback configuration location.

As user-managed secrets have no framework support for initialization, a special StoreSecrets() method is made available to the application for the application to initialize its own secrets. This method is only available in security-enabled mode.

No changes to user-managed secrets are being proposed in this ADR.


Creation of secrets

Management of hardware-bound secrets is platform-specific and out-of-scope for the EdgeX framework. EdgeX open source will contain only the necessary hooks to integrate platform-specific functionality.

For software-managed secrets, the system of reference of secrets in EdgeX is the EdgeX secret store. The EdgeX secret store provides for encryption of secrets at rest. This term means that if a secret is replicated, the EdgeX secret store is the authoritative source of truth of the secret. Whenever possible, the EdgeX secret store should also be the record of origin of a secret as well. This means creating secrets inside of the EdgeX secret store is preferable to importing an externally-created secret into the secret store. This can often be done for framework-managed secrets, but not possible for user-managed secrets.

Choosing between alternative forms of secrets

When given a choice between plain-text secrets and cryptographic keys, cryptographic keys should be preferred.

An example situation would be the introduction of an MQTT message broker. A broker may support both TLS client authentication as well as username/password authentication. In such a situation, TLS client authentication would be preferred:

  • The cryptographic key is typically longer in bits than a plain-text secret.
  • A plain-text secret will require transport encryption in order to protect confidentiality of the secret, such as server-side TLS.
  • Use of TLS client authentication typically eliminates the need for additional assets on the server side (such as a password database) to authenticate the client, by relying on digital signature instead.

TLS client authentication should not be used unless there is a capability to revoke a compromised certificate, such as by replacing the certificate authority, or providing a certificate revokation list to the server. If certificate revokation is not supported, plain-text secrets (such as username/password) should be used instead, as they are typically easier to revoke.

Distribution and consumption of secrets

Prohibited practices

Use of hard-coded secrets is an instance of CWE-798: Use of hard-coded credentials and is not allowed. A hard-coded secret is a secret that is the same across multiple EdgeX instances. Hard-coded secrets make devices susceptible to BORE (break-once-run-everywhere) attacks, where collections of machines can compromised by a single replicated secret. Specific cases where this is likely to come up are:

  • Secrets embedded in source control

EdgeX is an open-source project. Any secret that is present in an EdgeX repository is public to the world, and therefore not a secret, by definition. Configuration files, such as .toml files, .json files, .yaml files (including docker-compose.yml) are specific instances of this practice.

  • Secrets embedded in binaries

Binaries are usually not protected against confidentiality threats, and binaries can be easily reverse-engineered to find any secrets therein. Binaries included compile executables as well as Docker images.

  1. Direct consumption from process-to-process interaction with secret store

This approach is only possible for components that have native support for Hashicorp Vault. This includes any EdgeX service that links to go-mod-secrets.

For example, if secretClient is an instance of the go-mod-secrets secret store client:

secrets, err := secretClient.GetSecrets("myservice", "username", "password")

The above code will retrieve the username and password properties of the myservice secret.

  1. Dynamic injection of secret into process environment space

Environment variables are part of a process' environment block and are mapped into a process' memory. In this scenario, an intermediary makes a connection to the secret store to fetch a secret, store it into an environment variable, and then launches a target executable, thereby passing the secret in-memory to the target process.

Existing examples of this functionality include vaultenv, envconsul, or env-aws-params. These tools authenticate to a remote network service, inject secrets into the process environment, and then exec's a replacment process that inherits the secret-enriched enviornment block.

There are a few potential risks with this approach:

  • Environment blocks are passed to child processes by default.
  • Environment-variable-sniffing malware (introduced by compromised 3rd party libaries) is a proven attack method.

  • Dynamic injection of secret into container-scoped tmpfs volume

An example of this approach is consul-template. This approach is useful when a secret is required to be in a configuration file and cannot be passed via an environment variable or directly consumed from a secret store.

  1. Distribution via SECRETSLOC

This option is the most widely supported secret distribution mechanism by container orchestrators.

EdgeX supports runtime environments such as standard Docker and snaps that have no built-in secret management features.

  • Generic Docker does not have a built-in secrets mechanism. Manual configuration of a SECRETSLOC should utilize either a host file file system path or a Docker volume.

  • Snaps also do not have a built-in secrets mechanism. The options for SECRETSLOC are limited to designated snap-writable directories.

For comparison:

  • Docker Swarm: Swarm swarm mode is not officially supported by the EdgeX project. Docker Swarm secrets are shared via the /run/secrets volume, which is a Linux tmpfs volume created on the host and shared with the container. For an example of Docker Swarm secrets, see the docker-compose secrets stanza. Secrets distributed in this manner become part of the RaftDB, and thus it becomes necessary to enable swarm autolock mode, which prevents the Raft database encryption key from being stored plaintext on disk. Swarm secrets have an additional limitation in that they are not mutable at runtime.

  • Kubernetes: Kubernetes is not officially supported by the EdgeX project. Kubernetes also supports the secrets volume approach, though the secrets volume can be mounted anywhere in the container namespace. For an example of Kubernetes secrets volumes, see the Kubernetes secrets documentation. Secrets distributed in this manner become part of the etcd database, and thus it becomes necessary to specify a KMS provider for data encryption to prevent etcd from storing plaintext versions of secrets.


As the existing implementation is not fully-compliant with this ADR, significant scope will be added to current and future EdgeX releases in order to bring the project into compliance.

List of needed improvements:

  • PKI private keys
  • All: Move to using Vault as system of origin for the PKI instead of the standalone security-secrets-setup utility.
  • All: Cache the PKI for Consul and Vault on persistent disk; rotate occasionally.
  • All: Investigate hardware protection of cached Consul and Vault PKI secret keys. (Vault cannot unseal its own TLS certificate.)

  • Special case: Bring-your-own external Kong certificate and key

  • The Kong external certificate and key is already stored in Vault, however, additional metadata is needed to signal whether these are auto-generated or manually-installed. A manually-installed certificate and key would not be overwritten by the framework bringup logic. Installing a custom certificate and key can then be implemented by overwriting the system-generated ones and setting a flag indicating that they were manually-installed.

  • Secret store master password

  • All: Enable hooks for hardware protection of secret store master password.

  • Secret store per-service authentication tokens

  • No changes required.

  • Postgres superuser password

  • Generate at install time or on cold start of the framework.
  • Cache in Vault and inject into Kong using environment variable injection.

  • MongoDB service account passwords

  • No changes required.

  • Redis(v5) authentication password

  • All: Implement process-to-process injection: start Redis unauthenticated, with a post-start hook to read the secret out of Vault and set the Redis password. (Short race condition between Redis starting, password being set, and dependent services starting.)
  • No changes on client side.

  • Redis(v6) passwords (v6 adds multiple user support)

  • Interim solution: handle like MongoDB service account passwords. Future ADR to propose use of a Vault database secrets engine.
  • No changes on client side (each service accesses its own credential)

  • Kong authentication tokens

  • All: Implement in-transit authentication with TLS-protected Postgres interface. (Subject to change if it is decided not to enable a Postgres backend out of the box.)
  • Additional research needed as PostgreSQL does not support transparent data encryption.