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Production Setup

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You need to pay attention to certain aspects and parts of the system that you’d need to harden for a production VMware Secrets Manager setup. This article will overview them.

Version Compatibility

We test VMware Secrets Manager with the recent stable version of Kubernetes and Minikube.

As long as there isn’t a change in the major version number your Kubernetes client and server you use, things will likely work just fine.

Resource Requirements

VMware Secrets Manager is designed from the ground up to work in environments with limited resources, such as edge computing and IoT.

That being said, VMware Secrets Manager, by design, is a memory-intensive application. However, even when you throw all your secrets at it, VSecM Safe’s peak memory consumption will be in the order or 10-20 megabytes of RAM. The CPU consumption will be within reasonable limits too.

However, it’s crucial to understand that every system and user profile is unique. Factors such as the number and size of secrets, concurrent processes, and system specifications can influence these averages. Therefore, it is always advisable to benchmark VMware Secrets Manager and SPIRE on your own system under your specific usage conditions to accurately gauge the resource requirements to ensure optimal performance.

Benchmark your system usage and set CPU and Memory limits to the VSecM Safe pod.

We recommend you to:

  • Set a memory request and limit for VSecM Safe,
  • Set a CPU request; but not set a CPU limit for VSecM Safe (i.e., the VSecM Safe pod will ask for a baseline CPU; yet burst for more upon need).

As in any secrets management solution, your compute and memory requirements will depend on several factors, such as:

  • The number of workloads in the cluster
  • The number of secrets Safe (VMware Secrets Manager’ Secrets Store) has to manage (see architecture details for more context)
  • The number of workloads interacting with Safe (see architecture details for more context)
  • Sidecar poll frequency (see architecture details for more context)
  • etc.

We recommend you benchmark with a realistic production-like cluster and allocate your resources accordingly.

That being said, here are the resource allocation reported by kubectl top for a demo setup on a single-node minikube cluster to give an idea:

NAMESPACE     WORKLOAD            CPU(cores) MEMORY(bytes)
vsecm-system  vsecm-safe          1m         9Mi
vsecm-system  vsecm-sentinel      1m         3Mi
default       example 2m         7Mi
spire-system  spire-agent         4m         35Mi
spire-system  spire-server        6m         41Mi

Note that 1000m is 1 full CPU core.

Based on these findings, the following resource and limit allocations can be a starting point for VMware Secrets Manager-managed containers:

  # Resource allocation will highly depend on the system.
  # Benchmark your deployment, monitor your resource utilization,
  # and adjust these values accordingly.
      memory: "128Mi"
      cpu: "250m"
      memory: "128Mi"
      # We recommend “NOT” setting a CPU limit.
      # As long as you have configured your CPU “requests”
      # correctly, everything would work fine.

Back Up Your Cluster Regularly

VMware Secrets Manager is designed to be resilient; however, losing access to your sensitive data is possible by inadvertently deleting a Kubernetes Secret that you are not supposed to delete. Or, your backing store that contains the secrets can get corrupted for any reason.

Cloud Native or not, you rely on hardware which—intrinsically—is unreliable.

Things happen. Make sure you back up your cluster using a tool like Velero, so that when things do happen, you can revert your cluster’s last known good state.

Make Sure You Back Up vsecm-safe-age-key

The Kubernetes Secret names vsecm-safe-age-key that resides in the vsecm-system namespace is especially important, and needs to be securely backed up.

The reason is; if you lose this secret, you will lose access to all the encrypted secret backups, and you will not be able to restore your secrets.

Set up your backups from day zero.

Restrict Access To vsecm-safe-age-key

The vsecm-safe-age-key secret that VSecM Safe stores in the vsecm-system namespace contains the keys to encrypt and decrypt secret data on the data volume of VSecM Safe.

While reading the secret alone is not enough to plant an attack on the secrets (because the attacker also needs to access the VSecM Safe Pod or the /data volume in that Pod), it is still crucial to follow the principle of least privilege guideline and do not allow anyone on the cluster read or write to the vsecm-safe-age-key secret.

The only entity allowed to have read/write (but not delete) access to vsecm-safe-age-key should be the VSecM Safe Pod inside the vsecm-system namespace with an vsecm-safe service account.

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

It is worth noting that a Cluster Administrator due to their elevated privileges can read/write to any Kubernetes Secret in the cluster.

This includes access to the vsecm-safe-age-key secret. Therefore, it is highly recommended that you grant the cluster-admin role to a very small group of trusted individuals only.

Although, access to vsecm-safe-age-key does not give the attacker direct access to the secrets, due to their sheer power, a determined Cluster Administrator can still read the secrets by accessing the /data volume.

Their actions will be recorded in the audit logs, so they can, and will be held responsible; however, it is still a bad idea to have more than an absolute minimum number of Cluster Administrators in your cluster.

Kubernetes Secrets are, by default, stored unencrypted in the API server’s underlying data store (etcd). Anyone with API access and sufficient RBAC credentials can retrieve or modify a Secret, as can anyone with access to etcd.

Secretless VSecM

For an additional layer of security, you can opt out of using Kubernetes Secrets altogether and use VMware Secrets Manager without any Kubernetes secrets to protect the master keys. In this mode, you’ll have to manually provide the master keys to VSecM Safe; and you’ll need to re-provide the master keys every time you restart the VSecM Safe Pod or the pod is evicted, crashed, or rescheduled.

This added layer of security comes with a cost of added complexity and operational overhead. You will need to manually intervene when VSemM Safe crashes or restarts.

That said, VSecM Safe is designed to be resilient, and it rarely crashes.

If you let VMware Secrets Manager generate the root token for you, you will not have to worry about this, and when the system crashes, it will automatically unlock itself, so you can #sleepmore.

Our honest recommendation is to let VMware Secrets Manager manage your keys unless you have special conformance or compliance requirements that necessitate you to do otherwise.

Check ou the Configuration Reference for more information.

If you are only using VMware Secrets Manager for your configuration and secret storage needs, and your workloads do not bind any Kubernetes Secret (i.e., instead of using Kubernetes Secret objects, you use tools like VSecM SDK or VSecM Sidecar to securely dispatch secrets to your workloads) then as long as you secure access to the secret vsecm-safe-age-key inside the vsecm-system namespace, you should be good to go.

With the help of VSecM SDK, VSecM Sidecar, and VSecM Init Container, and with some custom coding/shaping of your data, you should be able to use it.

However, VMware Secrets Manager also has the option topersist the secrets stored in VSecM Safe as Kubernetes Secret objects. This approach can help support legacy systems where you want to start using VMware Secrets Manager without introducing much code and infrastructure change to the existing cluster—at least initially.

If you are using VMware Secrets Manager to generate Kubernetes Secrets for the workloads to consume, then take regular precautions around those secrets, such as implementing restrictive RBACs, and even considering using a KMS to encrypt etcd at rest if your security posture requires it.

Do I Really Need to Encrypt etcd?


Using plain Kubernetes Secrets is good enough, and it is not the end of the world if you keep your etcd unencrypted.

VMware Secrets Manager Keeps Your Secrets Safe

If you use VMware Secrets Manager to store your sensitive data, your secrets will be securely stored in VSecM Safe (instead of etcd), so you will have even fewer reasons to encrypt etcd 😉.


This is an excellent question. And as in any profound answer to good questions, the answer is: “it depends” 🙂.

Secrets are, by default, stored unencrypted in etcd. So if an adversary can read etcd in any way, it’s game over.

Threat Analysis

Here are some ways this could happen:

  1. Root access to a control plane node.
  2. Root access to a worker node.
  3. Access to the actual physical server (i.e., physically removing the disk).
  4. Possible zero day attacks.

For 1, and 2, server hardening, running secure Linux instances, patching, and preventing privileged pods from running in the cluster are the usual ways to mitigate the threat. Unfortunately, it is a relatively complex attack vector to guard against. Yet, once your node is compromised, you have a lot of things to worry about. In that case, etcd exposure will be just one of many, many, many concerns that you’ll have to worry about.

For 3, assuming your servers are in a data center, there should already be physical security to secure your servers. So the attack is unlikely to happen. In addition, your disks are likely encrypted, so unless the attacker can shell into the operating system, your data is already safe: Encrypting etcd once more will not provide any additional advantage in this particular case, given the disk is encrypted, and root login is improbable.

For 4., the simpler your setup is, the lesser moving parts you have, and the lesser the likelihood of bumping into a zero-day. And Kubernetes Secrets are as simple as it gets.

Even when you encrypt etcd at rest using a KMS (which is the most robust method proposed in the Kubernetes guides), an attacker can still impersonate etcd and decrypt the secrets: As long as you provide the correct encrypted DEK to KMS, the KMS will be more than happy to decrypt that DEK with its KEK and provide a plain text secret to the attacker.

Secure Your House Before Securing Your Jewelry

So, yes, securing etcd will marginally increase your security posture. Yet, it does not make too much of a difference unless you have already secured your virtual infrastructure and physical data center. And if you haven’t secured your virtual and physical assets, then you are in big trouble at day zero, even before you set up your cluster, so encrypting etcd will not save you the slightest from losing other valuable data elsewhere anyway.

Security Is a Layered Cake

That being said, we are humans, and $#!% does happen: If a node is compromised due to a misconfiguration, it would be nice to make the job harder for the attacker.

Restrict Access to VSecM Sentinel

All VMware Secrets Manager images are based on distroless containers for an additional layer of security. Thus, an operator cannot execute a shell on the Pod to try a privilege escalation or container escape attack. However, this does not mean you can leave the vsecm-system namespace like an open buffet.

Always take a principle of least privilege stance. For example, do not let anyone who does not need to fiddle with the vsecm-system namespace see and use the resources there.

This stance is especially important for the VSecM Sentinel Pod since an attacker with access to that pod can override (but not read) secrets on workloads.

VMware Secrets Manager leverages Kubernetes security primitives and modern cryptography to secure access to secrets. And VSecM Sentinel is the only system part that has direct write access to the VSecM Safe secrets store. Therefore, once you secure access to VSecM Sentinel with proper RBAC and policies, you secure access to your secrets.

Volume Selection for VSecM Safe Backing Store

VSecM Safe default deployment descriptor uses HostPath to store encrypted backups for secrets.

It is highly recommended to ensure that the backing store VSecM Safe uses is durable, performant, and reliable.

It is a best practice to avoid HostPath volumes for production deployments. You are strongly encouraged to choose a PersistentVolume that suits your needs for production setups.

High Availability of VSecM Safe


VSecM Safe may not emphasize high-availability, but its robustness is so outstanding that the need for high-availability becomes almost negligible.

Since VSecM Safe keeps all of it state in memory, using a pod with enough memory and compute resources is the most effective way to leverage it. Although, with some effort, it might be possible to make it highly available, the effort will likely bring unnecessary complexity without much added benefit.

VSecM Safe is, by design, a single pod; so technically-speaking, it is not highly-available. So in the rare case when VSecM Safe crashes, or gets evicted due to a resource contention, there will be minimal disruption until it restarts. However, VSecM Safe restarts fairly quickly, so the time window where it is unreachable will hardly be an issue.

Moreover VSecM Safe employs “lazy learning” and does not load everything into memory all at once, allowing very fast restarts. In addition, its lightweight and focused code ensures that crashes are infrequent, making VSecM Safe practically highly available.

While it is possible to modify the current architecture to include more than one VSecM Safe pod and place it behind a service to ensure high-availability, this would be a significant undertaking, with not much benefit to merit it:

First of all, for that case to happen, the state would need to be moved away from the memory, and centralized into a common in-memory store (such as Redis, or etcd). This will introduce another moving part to manage. Or alternatively all VSecM Safe pods could be set up to broadcast their operations and reach a quorum. A quorum-based solution would be more complex than using a share store, besides reaching a quorum means a performance it (both in terms of decision time and also compute required).

On top of all these bootstrapping coordination would be necessary to prevent two pods from creating different bootstrap secrets simultaneously.

Also, for a backing store like Redis, the data would need to be encrypted (and Redis, for example, does not support encryption at rest by default).

When considering all these, VSecM Safe has not been created highly-available by design; however, it is so robust, and it restarts from crashes so fast that it’s “as good as” highly-available.

Update VMware Secrets Manager’s Log Levels

VSecM Safe and VSecM Sidecar are configured to log at TRACE level by default. This is to help you debug issues with VMware Secrets Manager. However, this can cause a lot of noise in your logs. Once you are confident that VMware Secrets Manager works as expected, you can reduce the log level to INFO or WARN.

For this, you will need to modify the VSECM_LOG_LEVEL environment variable in the VSecM Safe and VSecM Sidecar Deployment manifests.

See Configuring VMware Secrets Manager for details.


Since VMware Secrets Manager is a Kubernetes-native framework, its security is strongly related to how you secure your cluster. You should be safe if you keep your cluster and the vsecm-system namespace secure and follow “the principle of least privilege” as a guideline.

VMware Secrets Manager is a lightweight secrets manager; however, that does not mean it runs on water: It needs CPU and Memory resources. The amount of resources you need will depend on the criteria outlined in the former sections. You can either benchmark your system and set your resources accordingly. Or set generous-enough limits and adjust your settings as time goes by.

Also, you are strongly encouraged not to set a limit on VMware Secrets Manager Pods’ CPU usage. Instead, it is recommended to let VSecM Safe burst the CPU when it needs.

On the same topic, you are encouraged to set a request for VSecM Safe to guarantee a baseline compute allocation.

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