Everything Dev and Ops

Get secrets from Vault into Kubernetes pods

January 27, 2020

  1. Motivation:

We would like to use Vault to manage the application secrets like API token, DB credentials. Also we don’t want to change the application to tight couple with Vault API. This article will discuss a solution that get secrets from Vault in Kubernetes without changing a line of application code.

  1. Run Vault in Kubernetes

The first thing we need to do is to create a Vault instance. The easiest way to run Vault in Kubernetes is to use the official vault helm chart from Hashicorp.

If you plan to run this for a production environment, it’s better to use counsul as the backend for HA. Hashicorp also has an official consul helm chart

After start the Vault on kubernetes, you need run vault operator init to initialize the vault and vault operator unseal to unseal the vault instance.

Then we can enable the Vault KV secret engine at /secret path and create some secrets.

vault secrets enable -version=2 -path=secret kv
vault kv put secret/my-secret name="Max Cai" email=zhiyuan.cai@gmail.com
  1. Authorize Kubernetes to access Vault

Vault supports multiple auth methods including GitHub, LDAP, JWT/OIDC. Here we will use kubernetes auth method as all clients will be run inside the kubernetes cluster.

To make things simple, I’m using Terraform Vault provider and Kubernetes provider to create the policy and service account in Vault and Kubernetes.

  • use Kubernetes in Terraform

    provider "kubernetes" {
      config_context = "vault-test.kubernetes"
  • create service account and role binding

    resource "kubernetes_service_account" "vault_auth" {
        metadata {
            name      = "vault-auth"
            namespace = "default"
    resource "kubernetes_cluster_role_binding" "vault_auth" {
        metadata {
            name = "vault-auth"
        role_ref {
            api_group = "rbac.authorization.k8s.io"
            kind      = "ClusterRole"
            name      = "system:auth-delegator"
        subject {
            kind      = "ServiceAccount"
            name      = "vault-auth"
            namespace = "default"
            api_group = ""
  • Use Vault in Terraform, make sure you have VAULT_ADDR and VAULT_TOKEN in your environment variable.
    provider "vault" {
  • Create policy for Kubernetes to read secrets
    # Read all secret
    # filename: data/secret-all-read.policy
    path "secret/*"
        capabilities = ["read", "list"]
    resource "vault_policy" "secret-all-read" {
        name   = "secret-all-read"
        policy = "${file("${path.module}/data/secret-all-read.policy")}"
  • Get token of Kubernetes service account and config vault auth backend
    data "kubernetes_secret" "vault_auth" {
        metadata {
            name      = "${kubernetes_service_account.vault_auth.default_secret_name}"
            namespace = "default"
    resource "vault_auth_backend" "kubernetes" {
        type        = "kubernetes"
        path        = "kubernetes"
        description = "auth for kubernetes"
    resource "vault_kubernetes_auth_backend_config" "kubernetes" {
        backend            = "${vault_auth_backend.kubernetes.path}"
        kubernetes_host    = "https://api.vault-test.k8s.bonesoul.com"
        kubernetes_ca_cert = "${data.kubernetes_secret.vault_auth.data["ca.crt"]}"
        token_reviewer_jwt = "${data.kubernetes_secret.vault_auth.data["token"]}"
    resource "vault_kubernetes_auth_backend_role" "readonly" {
        backend                          = vault_auth_backend.kubernetes.path
        role_name                        = "readonly"
        bound_service_account_names      = ["vault-user"]
        bound_service_account_namespaces = ["*"]
        token_ttl                        = 3600
        token_policies                   = ["secret-all-read"]
  1. Get secrets from Vault

To get secrets from Vault, we need use authorize with Vault from Kubernetes. First we need create a service account to match the name in vault policy

    apiVersion: v1
    kind: ServiceAccount
        name: vault-user

Then we need use the token of the service account to authorize with Vault, there are 2 ways to do this.

  • the hard way

In this talk and this blog, they descible a method to get the JWT token from /var/run/secrets/kubernetes.io/serviceaccount/token and login to Vault to get the vault token to retrieve the secrets from Vault.

  • the easy way

Vault Agent can manage the authrization with Vault for Kubernetes with a simple configuation file. Also we can use Vault Agent template to render the secrets from Vault into a text file for application to read.

    auto_auth {
        method "kubernetes" {
            mount_path = "auth/kubernetes"
                role = "readonly"
        sink "file" {
            config = {
                path = "/var/vault/out/.token"

    template {
        source      = "/var/vault/config/vault.ctmpl"
        destination = "/var/vault/out/vault.txt"

    exit_after_auth = true
    pid_file = "./pidfile"

    vault {
        address = "http://vault.default"
    # vault.ctmpl
    {{ with secret "secret/stg/demo" }}{{ range $k, $v := .Data.data }}
    {{ $k }}={{ $v }}
    {{ end }}{{ end }}
  1. Update Kubernetes secrets based on the value from Vault

The last step is to run an init container before the application start to retrieve secrets from Vault. However, without changing the application code, we cannot covert the secrets from a text file to environment variable for application to use.

One solution is to add a shell script in the docker image to export the value to environment variable and start the application.

Another solution is to create a new secrets object in Kubernetes to hold the secrets from Vault and add them to environment with envFrom.secretRef. I wrote a small tool with client-go to access the API within a pod covert the text file get from Vault agent to a secrets object in Kubernetes. Source code can be found here.

  1. put all togetger

The full code for this solution can be found at here.

  1. reference:

Zhiyuan(Max) Cai

Written by Zhiyuan(Max) Cai who lives and works in Toronto. github