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Thursday, April 6, 2017

RBAC Support in Kubernetes

Editor’s note: this post is part of a series of in-depth articles on what's new in Kubernetes 1.6

One of the highlights of the Kubernetes 1.6 release is the RBAC authorizer feature moving to beta. RBAC, Role-based access control, is an an authorization mechanism for managing permissions around Kubernetes resources. RBAC allows configuration of flexible authorization policies that can be updated without cluster restarts.

The focus of this post is to highlight some of the interesting new capabilities and best practices.


Currently there are several authorization mechanisms available for use with Kubernetes. Authorizers are the mechanisms that decide who is permitted to make what changes to the cluster using the Kubernetes API. This affects things like kubectl, system components, and also certain applications that run in the cluster and manipulate the state of the cluster, like Jenkins with the Kubernetes plugin, or Helm that runs in the cluster and uses the Kubernetes API to install applications in the cluster. Out of the available authorization mechanisms, ABAC and RBAC are the mechanisms local to a Kubernetes cluster that allow configurable permissions policies.

ABAC, Attribute Based Access Control, is a powerful concept. However, as implemented in Kubernetes, ABAC is difficult to manage and understand. It requires ssh and root filesystem access on the master VM of the cluster to make authorization policy changes. For permission changes to take effect the cluster API server must be restarted.

RBAC permission policies are configured using kubectl or the Kubernetes API directly. Users can be authorized to make authorization policy changes using RBAC itself, making it possible to delegate resource management without giving away ssh access to the cluster master. RBAC policies map easily to the resources and operations used in the Kubernetes API.

Based on where the Kubernetes community is focusing their development efforts, going forward RBAC should be preferred over ABAC.

Basic Concepts

The are a few basic ideas behind RBAC that are foundational in understanding it. At its core, RBAC is a way of granting users granular access to Kubernetes API resources.

The connection between user and resources is defined in RBAC using two objects.

A Role is a collection of permissions. For example, a role could be defined to include read permission on pods and list permission for pods. A ClusterRole is just like a Role, but can be used anywhere in the cluster.

Role Bindings
A RoleBinding maps a Role to a user or set of users, granting that Role's permissions to those users for resources in that namespace. A ClusterRoleBinding allows users to be granted a ClusterRole for authorization across the entire cluster.

Additionally there are cluster roles and cluster role bindings to consider. Cluster roles and cluster role bindings function like roles and role bindings except they have wider scope. The exact differences and how cluster roles and cluster role bindings interact with roles and role bindings are covered in the Kubernetes documentation.

RBAC in Kubernetes

RBAC is now deeply integrated into Kubernetes and used by the system components to grant the permissions necessary for them to function. System roles are typically prefixed with system: so they can be easily recognized.

➜  kubectl get clusterroles --namespace=kube-system
NAME                    KIND

The RBAC system roles have been expanded to cover the necessary permissions for running a Kubernetes cluster with RBAC only.

During the permission translation from ABAC to RBAC, some of the permissions that were enabled by default in many deployments of ABAC authorized clusters were identified as unnecessarily broad and were scoped down in RBAC. The area most likely to impact workloads on a cluster is the permissions available to service accounts. With the permissive ABAC configuration, requests from a pod using the pod mounted token to authenticate to the API server have broad authorization. As a concrete example, the curl command at the end of this sequence will return a JSON formatted result when ABAC is enabled and an error when only RBAC is enabled.

➜  kubectl run nginx --image=nginx:latest
➜  kubectl exec -it $(kubectl get pods -o jsonpath='{.items[0]}') bash
➜  apt-get update && apt-get install -y curl
➜  curl -ik \
 -H "Authorization: Bearer $(cat /var/run/secrets/" \

Any applications you run in your Kubernetes cluster that interact with the Kubernetes API have the potential to be affected by the permissions changes when transitioning from ABAC to RBAC.

To smooth the transition from ABAC to RBAC, you can create Kubernetes 1.6 clusters with both ABAC and RBAC authorizers enabled. When both ABAC and RBAC are enabled, authorization for a resource is granted if either authorization policy grants access. However, under that configuration the most permissive authorizer is used and it will not be possible to use RBAC to fully control permissions.

At this point, RBAC is complete enough that ABAC support should be considered deprecated going forward. It will still remain in Kubernetes for the foreseeable future but development attention is focused on RBAC.

Two different talks at the at the Google Cloud Next conference touched on RBAC related changes in Kubernetes 1.6, jump to the relevant parts here and here. For more detailed information about using RBAC in Kubernetes 1.6 read the full RBAC documentation.

Get Involved

If you’d like to contribute or simply help provide feedback and drive the roadmap, join our community. Specifically interested in security and RBAC related conversation, participate through one of these channels:

Thanks for your support and contributions. Read more in-depth posts on what's new in Kubernetes 1.6 here.

-- Jacob Simpson, Greg Castle & CJ Cullen, Software Engineers at Google

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