Overview of Secret injection solutions

Secrets management in a cloud/Kubernetes and CI/CD context is crucial and should covers various aspect like

  • how to maintain secrets in a secured way and avoid persistence in insecure repositories like git
  • administrate access using a RBAC and enable segregation of duties
  • life cycle management of secrets
  • inject secrets automatically into application runtime

Existing solutions provides features to some of the mentioned aspects. One of the most widespread solution is HashiCorp Vault. HashiCorp Vault provides a solution to manage and protect secrets. Additional extensions and open source solutions interacts with HashiCorp Vault to inject secrets into an application context running in a Kubernetes/OpenShift runtime. This article explains some of the options and ends with a comparison.


Secret is an object in Kubernetes holding sensitive data. However this data is by default not encrypted and any user with appropriate permissions (view Secret) can retrieve the details. Depending on how the Secret object is used, an update of the Secret data is not visible to the deployment, this is the case for environment variables. If the Secret is mounted to the container is any change to the container visible.

Tip: Consider always to use a Kubernetes cluster with encrypted etcd and restrict the access to the cluster and namespaces with RBAC!

Info: The entire article, scripts and examples are available in the GitHub repo kubernetes-secrets-101

IBM Cloud Secrets Manager & kubernetes-external-secrets

IBM Cloud Secrets Manager built on top of the open source HashiCorp Vault solution and provides a managed offering to maintain centralized secrets, secured and protected.

Due the fact, that internally HashiCorp Vault is integrated, most of the existing plugins/agents could use. The simplest way is to use the Vault cli to interact with IBM Cloud Secrets Manager. In this option however the existing kubernetes-external-secrets plugin will be used to interact with the service. With the CRD ExternalSecret a relation to a stored secret in IBM Cloud Secrets Manager instance is established. The result is a generated Kubernetes Secret with the sensitive data. In addition kubernetes-external-secrets observe the registered secret and updates the Secret if any changes occur.

The scenario show cases the following

  • create a secret in the Secrets Manager
  • deploy ExternalSecret which retrieves the secret and
  • ...automatically creates a Secret object holding the secret (here: credentials / username and password)
  • updating the secret in the Secrets Manager
  • will trigger automatically an update of the Secret object


Beforehand a short summary how to install and configure kubernetes-external-secrets with IBM Cloud Secrets Manager. For details consult the docu.

Tasks to install and configure:

  • Create a service ID
  • ...assign permmissions to the new service ID to interact with the Secrets Manager instance
  • ...create an API Key for the service ID
  • Prepare Kubernetes-External-Secrets installation

    • get the user-specific Secrets Manager instance endpoint
    • create a secret group (here sg-demo) and probably also some secrets
    • create Kubernetes Secret with the generated API Key
    • Install Kubernetes-External-Secrets via Helm3 and setting correct parameters

Execute the script or check the detailed listing in the GitHub repo of this article to prepare and setup kubernetes-external-secrets.


After the installation of kubernetes-external-secrets are we ready to walk through the scenario.

The ExternalSecret establish a reference to a secret in the Secrets Manager (via the UUID). This results into a created Secret with the same name (here: externalsecret-demo-creds-01)

$ kubectl apply -f scripts/external-secret.yaml

$ kubectl get secret externalsecret-demo-creds-01 -o yaml | grep -A2 -e '^data'
  password: bWVnYS1pbXBvcnRhbnQtMjAyMS0wOS0xOV8xNDo1MDo1MA==
  username: YVVzZXIwMw==

An update of the secret in the Secrets Manager triggers automatically an update of the Secrets object. The existing scripts/ibm-cloud-sm-update-secret.sh supports the update and adds current timestamp to the password.

$ ./scripts/ibm-cloud-sm-update-secret.sh crn:1ef....

$ kubectl get secret externalsecret-demo-creds-01 -o json | jq -r .data.password | base64 --decode

The examples/externalsecret-base.yaml resource file contains a deployment with some containers printing out frequently the values of the env and mounted variables.

$ kubectl apply -f examples/externalsecret-base.yaml

$ kubectl logs -f -l app=showcase
021-09-19 15:30:16: [From Main container] ...waiting...
[Main container] ...waiting...

As visible in the output, the values in the env variables are still the old one, while the values have changed. As it can be seen for the mounted variables/volumes.


With IBM Cloud Secrets Manager exists an offering base on HashiCorp Vault. The kubernetes-external-secrets extension allows a very simple integration in Kubernetes. Also updates will be automatically applied. The extensions supports various providers and configuration parameters.

The drawback - from the security perspective - are

  • the secrets are in Secret object and could be retrieved if the user has enough permissions to view Secrets in Kubernetes. This circumstance is not new and a strict RBAC should always be part of the solution.
  • Changes in existing Secret object are not automatically visible to the container if bound as environment variable. A restart is needed.


HashiCorp Vault & Vault agent

In this section we will use the vault agent to inject secrets from a HashiCorp Vault instance. In case you have to install a self-managed HashiCorp Vault instance consider the next sub chanter for a brief overview. The subsequent chapter will handle the secrets injection mechanism.

HashiCorp Vault installation

HashiCorp Vault provides a Helm Chart for the installation.

Briefly an overview of the main steps for the installation and configuration. All namespaces with the label vaultinjection=enabled will be observed from the Agent Injector.

$ git clone https://github.com/hashicorp/vault-helm -b v0.17.1 --single-branch

$ cd vault-helm

$ oc new-project vault-backend

$ helm3 upgrade --install hashicorp-vault . \
 --set "global.openshift=true" \
 --set "server.dev.enabled=true" \
 --set "server.logLevel=trace" \
 --set "injector.metrics.enabled=true" \
 --set "injector.namespaceSelector.matchLabels.vaultinjection=enabled" \
 --set "injector.logLevel=trace" \
 --namespace vault-backend

$ oc label namespace vault-backend vaultinjection=enabled
namespace/vault-backend labeled

$ oc label namespace vault-test1 vaultinjection=enabled
namespace/vault-test1 labeled

$ oc label namespace vault-test2 vaultinjection=enabled
namespace/vault-test2 labeled

or use the scripts/vault.values.openshift.yaml

$ helm3 upgrade --install hashicorp-vault . -f ../../scripts/vault.values.openshift.yaml

Attention:: server.dev.enabled=true installs Vault in dev mode, with memory storage - never use this for production. Use Raft or Consul!

Wait for the completion of the deployment and afterwards initialize and unseal Vault (not necessary for dev mode)

$ oc exec -ti hashicorp-vault-0 -- vault operator init

$ oc exec -ti hashicorp-vault-0 -- vault operator unseal

To access the Vault UI expose the UI

$ oc expose svc hashicorp-vault
route.route.openshift.io/hashicorp-vault exposed

$ oc get routes
NAME              HOST/PORT                                    PATH     SERVICES          PORT   TERMINATION   WILDCARD
hashicorp-vault   hashicorp-vault-test......appdomain.cloud             hashicorp-vault   http                 None

After calling the route and use e.g. the root token to access the UI one have the possibility to set secrets.

Note:: The root token in Vault dev mode is printed out in the hashicorp-vault-0 pod.


HashiCorp Vault Agent Sidecar

By default the Vault Agent injector will be also installed, otherwise use the docu. Vault Agent injector retrieves secrets from Vault and stores them on a shared volume as file using a custom or default template.

To enable the communication between the agent and Vault instance is it necessary to configure the auth method, like Kubernetes Auth method

Enable and configure Kubernetes Auth method and first roles

$ oc exec -ti hashicorp-vault-0 -- /bin/sh

$ vault auth enable kubernetes
Success! Enabled kubernetes auth method at: kubernetes/

$ vault write auth/kubernetes/config \
  token_reviewer_jwt="$(cat /var/run/secrets/kubernetes.io/serviceaccount/token)" \
  kubernetes_host="https://$KUBERNETES_PORT_443_TCP_ADDR:443" \
Success! Data written to: auth/kubernetes/config

$ vault write auth/kubernetes/role/role-system-a-dev \
    bound_service_account_names=sa-system-a-dev \
    bound_service_account_namespaces=vault-test1,test,vault-test3 \
    policies=system-a-dev \
Success! Data written to: auth/kubernetes/role/role-system-a-dev

$ vault write auth/kubernetes/role/role-system-b-dev \
    bound_service_account_names=sa-system-b-dev \
    bound_service_account_namespaces=vault-test2,test \
    policies=system-b-dev \
Success! Data written to: auth/kubernetes/role/role-system-b-dev

Now k8s auth method is enabled and the first roles with the following configuration

Role Namespace Service Account
role-system-a-dev vault-test1, vault-test3, test sa-system-a-dev
role-system-b-dev vault-test2, test sa-system-b-dev

Create the policy via the UI (Policies > Create ACL policies)

system-a-dev policy

path "secret/data/dev/system-a" {  
  capabilities = ["list", "read"]

system-b-dev policy

path "secret/data/dev/system-b" {  
  capabilities = ["list", "read"]

The following diagrams visualize the made configuration in the Vault UI

Vault Access: Kubernetes auth method and available roles

Vault Access: Kubernetes auth method and one role details


After the previous installation and configuration of the agent injector, let's see this in action.

The examples/vault-agent-base.yaml contains some resources for the example.

  • Deployment with annotation to retrieve secrets from Vault
  • Vault Agent injector use this meta information to interact with Vault
  • retrieves the secrets and stores them on a shared volume, mounted into the container/POD
  • the application uses the file with the secret on the shared volume to set env variables (via source) and prints them out in a loop

Beforehand some secrets are needed. To match the Vault policies e.g. the following secrets are created in secret/dev/system-a (respective secret/dev/system-b)

  "db_password": "SystemA.DB-Password.Dev",
  "db_userid": "SystemA.DB-User.Dev"

Deploy app and all relevant resources

$ oc project vault-test1

$ oc apply -f examples/vault-agent-init.yaml
serviceaccount/sa-system-a-dev created
serviceaccount/sa-system-b-dev created

$ oc apply -f examples/vault-agent-base.yaml

secret/vault-demo-creds-01 created
configmap/showcase-scripts created
deployment.apps/showcase-vault-deployment created

Verify the logs and created files with secrets from Vault

$ oc logs -f -l app=showcase-vault --all-containers

[Main container] ...waiting...
...sourcing env-file with content from Vault...

$ oc exec -ti showcase-vault-deployment-6f4bccd8dd-z9phr -- /bin/sh
ls -l /vault/secrets/
total 8
-rw-r--r--    1 10008800 10008800        92 Oct 11 09:30 db-env
-rw-r--r--    1 10008800 10008800        24 Oct 11 09:30 db.cfg

cat /vault/secrets/db.cfg

Vault Agent renews the secrets regularly (by default all 5mins). This means, changes of a secret in Vault will be visible in the container - correctly in the file on the shared volume - after a short period, without the need to restart the container.

The role in the annotation vault.hashicorp.com/role has to match the correct role which is linked to the policy which allows the access of the desired secrets. E.g. if the secrets dev/system-b are not under the policy and corresponding role, any access will not be successful and a deployment will fail. Use for this example the configuration in examples/vault-agent-fail.yaml

Another example examples/vault-agent-systemb.yaml contains the deployment and configuration to access the dev/system-b secrets, but needs to be deployed in the namespace vault-test2.


This chapters covered the direct secret injection with the HashiCorp Vault Agent injector. This is, after the mandatory configuration very straight forward in the usage, with the Kubernetes annotations to define and configure which secrets are wanted. One of the main draw-back is that the secrets are stored as file on a shared volume. A direct provisioning as environment variable is not possible. Also the creation of Kubernetes Secret is not possible.

With this is the HashiCorp Vault Agent injector a good, but lightweight solution to inject secrets. Other injection solutions provides more advanced features.


HashiCorp Vault & Banzai Cloud bank-vault Mutating Webhook

This scenario use the Mutating Webhook from the vault tool suite bank-vault from Banzai Cloud. The difference of this solution is that it never stores the sensitive data and keeps everything in memory. Additionally it supports the injection of secrets into ConfigMap and Secret resources.

HashiCorp Vault installation

see the previous section how to install HashiCorp Vault.

Mutating Webhook installation

The installation use a Helm Chart and explained in the deployment page. The main steps are summarized here

Commands to install the webhook

$ oc new-project vault-webhook

$ git clone https://github.com/banzaicloud/bank-vaults.git -b v1.14.2 --single-branch

$ cd bank-vaults/charts/vault-secrets-webhook

$ helm3 upgrade --install banzai-vault-webhook . \
 -f scripts/webhook.values.openshift.yaml

Commands to prepare the test namespace

$ oc new-project vault-test3
$ oc label namespace vault-test3 webhookinjection=enabled
namespace/vault-test3 labeled

In case the runtime is OpenShift consider the following security adjustments for the service account banzai-vault-webhook-vault-secrets-webhook:

$ oc adm policy add-scc-to-user anyuid -z banzai-vault-webhook-vault-secrets-webhook
$ oc adm policy add-scc-to-user privileged -z banzai-vault-webhook-vault-secrets-webhook

Check if the 2 pods are up and running

$ oc get pods -n vault-webhook
NAME                                                          READY   STATUS    RESTARTS   AGE
banzai-vault-webhook-vault-secrets-webhook-7d4d7bbdc5-jh5qz   1/1     Running   0          26s
banzai-vault-webhook-vault-secrets-webhook-7d4d7bbdc5-w74rk   1/1     Running   0          26s

Now you have the webhook installed.


Let's see the secret mutating webhook in action.

Apply the examples/vault-webhook-base.yaml which deploys the same base application with the relevant annotations in the namespace vault-test3.

        # the address of the Vault service, default values is https://vault:8200
        vault.security.banzaicloud.io/vault-addr: "http://hashicorp-vault.test:8200"
        # the default value is the name of the ServiceAccount the Pod runs in, in case of Secrets and ConfigMaps it is "default"
        vault.security.banzaicloud.io/vault-role: "role-system-a-dev"
        vault.security.banzaicloud.io/vault-skip-verify: "true" 
      # Specific sa, relevant for Vault interaction
      serviceAccountName: sa-system-a-dev
      - name: showcase-vault
        image: busybox:1.28
        command: ['sh', '-c', '/scripts/secrets-output.sh']
        - name: DB_USERID
          value: vault:secret/data/dev/system-a#db_userid
        - name: DB_PASSWORD
          value: vault:secret/data/dev/system-a#db_password

The reference of a secret path is defined as follows vault:secret/data/dev/system-a#db_userid. The mutating webhook will handle this annotation, determine the secrets and holds them in the memory. Only the original process has the possibility to see the values. Due the fact, that the base applications prints out the env variables on STDOUT is the value visible

$ oc apply -f examples/vault-webhook-base.yaml -n vault-test3
serviceaccount/sa-system-a-dev created
serviceaccount/sa-system-b-dev created
clusterrolebinding.rbac.authorization.k8s.io/sa-system-a-dev-test-vault-role-tokenreview-binding created
secret/vault-demo-creds-01 created
configmap/showcase-vault-scripts created
deployment.apps/showcase-vault-deployment created

$ oc logs -f -l app=showcase-vault --all-containers -n vault-test3
time="2021-10-12T19:01:04Z" level=info msg="received new Vault token" addr= app=vault-env path=kubernetes role=role-system-a-dev
time="2021-10-12T19:01:04Z" level=info msg="initial Vault token arrived" app=vault-env
time="2021-10-12T19:01:04Z" level=info msg="spawning process: [sh -c /scripts/secrets-output.sh]" app=vault-env
add.sh script
[Main container] ...waiting...
[Main container] ...waiting...

But entering the container and trying to print out the env variables results only the in the meta information

oc exec -ti showcase-vault-deployment-854d8c6d48-8wq7h -- env | grep -i db


The Banzai secret webhook based on mutating webhooks provides here a more secured solution to retrieve and inject secrets. Due the fact, that the secrets kept in memory and only the new spawned process has the possibility to retrieve the secrets is an additional security barrier. Also the capabilities to inject secrets into ConfigMap and Secret are advantages for this solution.



Secrets and their handling is a serious topics in any cloud environment. Luckily various solutions options exists to integrate managed secrets into applications running in a Kubernetes environment. Not all here shown options fulfill all requirements and use cases. Thereby the appropriate option must be used for the own context and solution. Below is a comparison of the most important features.

Requirement kubernetes-external-secrets Vault Agent Injector Banzai Webhook
Supports various secrets manager Yes, Hashi Corp Vault, AWS Secrets Manager, IBM Cloud Secrets Manager No No
Supports IAM auth method Yes No No
Supports k8s auth method Yes Yes Yes
Supports Vault role Yes Yes Yes
Supports Vault AppRole No Yes Unclear
Supports injection in k8s volume (as mount) Yes Yes No
Supports injection in k8s ConfigMap No No Yes
Supports injection in k8s Secret Yes No Yes
Supports exposing environment variable Not directly, only via envFrom.secretRef Not directly, only via template & source Yes
Secrets visibility limited No, any process and user can see content No, any process and user can see content Yes, only visible to spawned process
Secrets accessibility limited by k8s service account Yes Yes Yes
Secrets accessibility limited by k8s namespace Yes Yes Yes
Supports recognition of secret changes Yes Yes No

All the scripts and examples are available in the GitHub repo kubernetes-secrets-101.







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