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Production Setup

Link Introduction

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.

Link 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.

Link 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.

Link Ensure Your Clusters Up-to-Date

Although not directly related to VSecM, keeping your clusters updated is a fundamental aspect of maintaining a secure and robust production environment. By implementing a proactive update strategy, you not only protect your infrastructure from known threats but also maintain compliance with industry standards and regulations.

Timely updates ensure that the cluster is safeguarded against known vulnerabilities, which can prevent potential security leaks.

Regularly updating your cluster components ensures that you benefit from the latest security patches and performance improvements. These updates often include fixes for security flaws that, if exploited, could lead to unauthorized access, data breaches, or loss of service. Failing to apply updates can leave your cluster vulnerable to attacks that exploit outdated software vulnerabilities.

Link 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-root-key

The Kubernetes Secret names vsecm-root-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. {: .block-warning }

Set up your backups from day zero.

Link Restrict Access To vsecm-root-key

The vsecm-root-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-root-key secret.

The only entity allowed to have read/write (but not delete) access to vsecm-root-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-root-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-root-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 *root keys. In this mode, you’ll have to manually provide the root keys to VSecM Safe; and you’ll need to re-provide the root 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-root-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.

Link Do I Really Need to Encrypt etcd?

Link tl;dr:

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 😉.

Link Details

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.

Link 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.

Link 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.

Link 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.

Link Restrict Access to vsecm-system and spire-system Namespaces

Rigorously define and enforce access policies for the vsecm-system and spire-system namespaces. These namespaces contain the VSecM Safe and SPIRE components, respectively, and are critical to the security of VMware Secrets Manager. Only a Cluster Administrator should have access to these namespaces.

In addition, make sure you implement continuous monitoring and auditing mechanisms to ensure that the access policies are not violated.

Link 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.

You Can Delete vsecm-sentinel When You No Longer Need It

For an added layer of security and to reduce the attack surface, you can delete the vsecm-sentinel Pod after registering your secrets to VSecM Safe.

Link Scaling SPIRE

SPIRE is designed to scale horizontally. This means that you can add more SPIRE Server and SPIRE Agent instances to your cluster to increase the capacity of your SPIRE deployment.

Although VMware Secrets Manager comes with a default SPIRE configuration, depending on your deployment needs, you may need to scale SPIRE to meet your specific requirements.

SPIRE supports:

  • Horizontal scaling with multiple SPIRE server,
  • Nested topologies to have separate failure domains,
  • Federated deployments with multiple trust roots,
  • And more.

Check out Scaling SPIRE and Extending SPIRE sections in the official SPIRE documentation for more information.

Link Use of Attestation

In VSecM, the security of your secrets depends on the ClusterSPIFFEIDs that you assign to your workloads. Therefore, it is crucial to ensure that you specify proper attestors in your ClusterSPIFFEIDs.

You can check the SPIRE Documentation and also VSecM Usage Examples for examples on how to create ClusterSPIFFEIDs with proper attestors.

Link SPIRE Configuration

VMware Secrets Manager uses SPIRE as its underlying identity control plane. The default SPIRE configuration bundled with VMware Secrets Manager is secure enough for most use cases.

While VSecM uses sane defaults for SPIRE installation, it can be further hardened according to specific deployment needs, providing a more robust and secure environment.

Here are some suggestions to consider; as always, you should consult the SPIRE documentation for more details.

Link Enabling Kubelet Verification

For ease of installation the SPIRE Agent is configured to trust all kubelets by setting skip_kubelet_verification to true in the agent.conf file.

The skip_kubelet_verification flag is used when SPIRE is validating the identity of workloads running in Kubernetes.

Normally, SPIRE interacts with the kubelet API to verify the identity of a workload. This includes validating the serving certificate of the kubelet. When skip_kubelet_verification is set to true, SPIRE does not validate the kubelet’s serving certificate. This can be useful in environments where the kubelet’s serving certificate is not properly configured or cannot be trusted for some reason.

That being said, skipping kubelet verification reduces security. It should be used cautiously and only in environments where the risks are understood and deemed acceptable.

To ensure kubelet verification is enabled:

  • Flag Setup: Ensure the skip_kubelet_verification flag is either set to false or omitted. By default, if the flag is not specified, kubelet verification is enabled.
  • Kubelet Certificate: Make sure the kubelet’s serving certificate is properly configured and trusted within your Kubernetes cluster. This may involve configuring the Kubernetes cluster to issue valid serving certificates for kubelets.
  • Restart SPIRE Agent: After making changes to the configuration, restart the SPIRE Agent to apply the new settings.

Plan Carefully

Remember, enabling kubelet verification might require updates to your cluster’s configuration and careful planning to avoid disruption to existing workloads.

Link Configuration Files

SPIRE Server and SPIRE Agent are configured using server.conf and agent.conf files, respectively. For Kubernetes deployments, these can be stored in ConfigMaps and mounted into containers. This ensures configuration consistency and ease of updating.

To secure these configuration files, you can:

  • Use a Secret instead of a ConfigMap to store the configuration files.
  • Encrypt etcd at rest using a KMS (which is the most robust method proposed in the Kubernetes guides).
  • Audit Logs: Enable and monitor audit logs to track access and changes to ConfigMaps. This helps in identifying unauthorized access or modifications.
  • Regular Reviews and Updates: Periodically review and update the access policies and configurations to ensure they remain secure and relevant.
  • Minimize Configuration: Only include necessary configuration settings in server.conf and agent.conf. Avoid any sensitive data unless absolutely necessary.

Link Trust Domain Configuration

Set the trust_domain parameter in both server and agent ConfigMaps. This parameter is crucial for ensuring that all workloads in the trust domain are issued identity documents that can be verified against the trust domain’s root keys.

Link Port Configuration

The bind_port parameter in the server ConfigMap sets the port on which the SPIRE Server listens for SPIRE Agent connections. Ensure this port is securely configured and matches the setting on the agents.

Link Node Attestation

Choose and configure appropriate Node Attestor plugins for both SPIRE Server and SPIRE Agent. This is critical for securely identifying and attesting agents.

Link Data Storage

For SPIRE runtime data, set the data_dir in both server and agent ConfigMaps. Use absolute paths in production for stability and security.

Consider the choice of database for storing SPIRE Server data, especially in high-availability configurations.

By default, SPIRE uses SQLite, but for production, an alternative SQL-compatible storage like MySQL can be a better fit.

Link Key Management

SPIRE supports in-memory and on-disk storage strategies for keys and certificates.

For production, the on-disk strategy may offer advantages in terms of persistence across restarts but requires additional security measures to protect the stored keys.

Link Trust Root/Upstream Authority Configuration

Configure the UpstreamAuthority section in the server ConfigMap.

This is pivotal for maintaining the integrity of the SPIRE Server’s root signing key, which is central to establishing trust and generating identities.

Link SPIRE Needs hostPath Access for SPIRE Agent DaemonSets

SPIRE Agent primarily uses hostPath for managing Unix domain sockets on Linux systems. This specific usage is focused on facilitating communication between the SPIRE Agent and workloads running on the same host.

The Unix domain socket used by the SPIRE Agent is typically configured to be read-only for workloads. This read-only configuration is an important security feature for several reasons:

  • Principle of Least Privilege: Setting the Unix domain socket to read-only for workloads adheres to the principle of least privilege. Workloads generally only need to read data from the socket (such as fetching SVIDs) and do not require write permissions. Limiting these permissions reduces the risk of unauthorized actions.
  • Mitigating Risks of Tampering: By making the socket read-only for workloads, the risk of these workloads tampering with the socket’s data or behavior is minimized. This is crucial as SPIRE Agents deal with sensitive identity credentials.
  • Reducing Attack Surface: A read-only configuration limits the potential actions an attacker can perform if they compromise a workload.
  • Ensuring Data Integrity: Read-only access helps ensure the integrity of the data being transmitted through the socket. Workloads receive the data as intended by the SPIRE Agent without the risk of accidental or malicious alteration.
  • Compliance with Security Best Practices: This configuration aligns with broader security best practices in systems design, where components are given only the permissions necessary for their function, reducing potential vulnerabilities.

OpenShift Support

For Kubernetes deployments such as OpenShift where enabling hostPath requires additional permissions you can follow SPIRE’s official documentation

To make the hostPath binding extra secure, you can:

  • Use Pod Security Admission and custom Admission Controllers to restrict the use of hostPath to certain paths and ensure that only authorized pods have access to those paths.
  • Node-Level Security: Ensure that the nodes themselves are secure. This includes regular updates, patch management, and following best practices for host security. Secure nodes reduce the risk of compromising the directories accessed through hostPath.
  • Network Policies: Configure network policies to control the traffic to and from the SPIRE Agent pods. This can limit the potential for network-based attacks against the agents.
  • Regular Security Reviews: Regularly review and update your security configurations. This includes checking for updates in Kubernetes security recommendations and ensuring your configurations align with the latest best practices.

Link Further Security and Configuration Considerations

As in any distributed system, regularly monitor and audit SPIRE and VSecM operations to detect any unusual or suspicious activity. This includes monitoring the issuance and use of SVIDs, as well as the performance and status of the SPIRE Server and *SPIRE Agent(s.

Regularly conduct security audits of your SPIRE deployment to identify and address any vulnerabilities.

To reduce the blast radius in unlikely breaches, if needed, use a nested topology and federated deployments to segment failure domains and provide multiple roots of trust.

Link Keep the SPIRE Server Alive

This is more of a stability than a security concern; however, it is important.

If SPIRE Server if offline for a long time then its root certificate will expire. The expiry time of the root certificate is configurable, but by default it’s CA TTL is 24 hours.

SPIRE Is Designed to Be Resilient

Occasional disruptions, evictions, and restarts of SPIRE Server are not a problem. SPIRE Server is designed to be resilient and it will automatically recover from such disruptions.

However, if the SPIRE Server is offline for more than its TTL, then it will not be able to renew its root certificate, and this will disrupt the trust mechanism within the SPIRE environment. {: .block-info }

Regarding the implications of the SPIRE Server being offline for more than its TTL, it’s important to understand the role of the server’s CA certificate in the SPIRE architecture:

The CA certificate is central to the trust establishment in the SPIRE infrastructure. If the server is offline and unable to renew its CA certificate before expiration, this will disrupt the trust mechanism within the SPIRE environment. Agents and workloads will not be able to validate the authenticity of new SVIDs issued after the CA certificate has expired, leading to trust and authentication issues across the system.

Know Your TTLs

Although SPIRE has sane defaults, it is still important to know your tolerance and set TTLs (both CA TTLs, and agent SVID TTLs) accordingly. {: .block-warning }

From the VMware Secrets Manager perspective, this will result in workloads not being able to receive secrets from the VSecM Safe, and the VSecM Safe failing to respond to the requests made by the VSecM Sentinel.

Therefore, it’s important to ensure that the SPIRE Server is online and able to renew its CA certificate before it expires. Otherwise, manual intervention will be required to fix the trust issue.

Link 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.

Link 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.


VSecM Safe uses CPU resources only when it needs it. It is designed to be lightweight and it does not consume CPU resources unless it needs to. So unless you have a very specific reason to limit CPU on VSecM Safe pods, it is recommended to let it burst when it needs.

Moreover, VSecM Safe is a go-based application. Limiting CPU on Go-based workloads can be problematic due to the nature of Go’s garbage collector (GC) and concurrency management.

In Go, a significant portion of CPU usage can be attributed to the garbage collector (GC). It’s designed to be fast and optimized, so altering its behavior is generally not recommended.

Limiting CPU directly for Go-based workloads might not be the best approach due to the intricacies of Go’s garbage collection and concurrency model. And VSecM Safe is no exception to this.

Instead, profiling it to understand its specific needs in your cluster and adjusting the relevant environment variables (like GOGC and GOMAXPROCS) can lead to better overall performance.

Having said that, please note that each cluster has its own characteristics and this is not a one-size-fits-all recommendation. Kubernetes is a complex machine and there are many factors that can influence the performance of VSecM Safe including, but not limited to Node Capacity, Node Utilization, CPU Throttling and Overcommitment, QoS Classes, and so on.

Link 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.

Link Conclusion

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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