Managed service identities (MSIs) are a great feature of Azure that are being gradually enabled on a number of different resource types. But when I’m talking to developers, operations engineers, and other Azure customers, I often find that there is some confusion and uncertainty about what they do. In this post I will explain what MSIs are and are not, where they make sense to use, and give some general advice on how to work with them.
What Do Managed Service Identities Do?
A managed service identity allows an Azure resource to identify itself to Azure Active Directory without needing to present any explicit credentials. Let’s explain that a little more.
In many situations, you may have Azure resources that need to securely communicate with other resources. For example, you may have an application running on Azure App Service that needs to retrieve some secrets from a Key Vault. Before MSIs existed, you would need to create an identity for the application in Azure AD, set up credentials for that application (also known as creating a service principal), configure the application to know these credentials, and then communicate with Azure AD to exchange the credentials for a short-lived token that Key Vault will accept. This requires quite a lot of upfront setup, and can be difficult to achieve within a fully automated deployment pipeline. Additionally, to maintain a high level of security, the credentials should be changed (rotated) regularly, and this requires even more manual effort.
With an MSI, in contrast, the App Service automatically gets its own identity in Azure AD, and there is a built-in way that the app can use its identity to retrieve a token. We don’t need to maintain any AD applications, create any credentials, or handle the rotation of these credentials ourselves. Azure takes care of it for us.
It can do this because Azure can identify the resource – it already knows where a given App Service or virtual machine ‘lives’ inside the Azure environment, so it can use this information to allow the application to identify itself to Azure AD without the need for exchanging credentials.
What Do Managed Service Identities Not Do?
Inbound requests: One of the biggest points of confusion about MSIs is whether they are used for inbound requests to the resource or for outbound requests from the resource. MSIs are for the latter – when a resource needs to make an outbound request, it can identify itself with an MSI and pass its identity along to the resource it’s requesting access to.
MSIs pair nicely with other features of Azure resources that allow for Azure AD tokens to be used for their own inbound requests. For example, Azure Key Vault accepts requests with an Azure AD token attached, and it evaluates which parts of Key Vault can be accessed based on the identity of the caller. An MSI can be used in conjunction with this feature to allow an Azure resource to directly access a Key Vault-managed secret.
Authorization: Another important point is that MSIs are only directly involved in authentication, and not in authorization. In other words, an MSI allows Azure AD to determine what the resource or application is, but that by itself says nothing about what the resource can do. For some Azure resources this is Azure’s own Identity and Access Management system (IAM). Key Vault is one exception – it maintains its own access control system, and is managed outside of Azure’s IAM. For non-Azure resources, we could communicate with any authorisation system that understands Azure AD tokens; an MSI will then just be another way of getting a valid token that an authorisation system can accept.
Another important point to be aware of is that the target resource doesn’t need to run within the same Azure subscription, or even within Azure at all. Any service that understands Azure Active Directory tokens should work with tokens for MSIs.
How to Use MSIs
Now that we know what MSIs can do, let’s have a look at how to use them. Generally there will be three main parts to working with an MSI: enabling the MSI; granting it rights to a target resource; and using it.
Enabling an MSI on a resource. Before a resource can identify itself to Azure AD,it needs to be configured to expose an MSI. The way that you do this will depend on the specific resource type you’re enabling the MSI on. In App Services, an MSI can be enabled through the Azure Portal, through an ARM template, or through the Azure CLI, as documented here. For virtual machines, an MSI can be enabled through the Azure Portal or through an ARM template. Other MSI-enabled services have their own ways of doing this.
Granting rights to the target resource. Once the resource has an MSI enabled, we can grant it rights to do something. The way that we do this is different depending on the type of target resource. For example, Key Vault requires that you configure its
Access Policies, while to use the Event Hubs or the Azure Resource Manager APIs you need to use Azure’s IAM system. Other target resource types will have their own way of handling access control.
Using the MSI to issue tokens. Finally, now that the resource’s MSI is enabled and has been granted rights to a target resource, it can be used to actually issue tokens so that a target resource request can be issued. Once again, the approach will be different depending on the resource type. For App Services, there is an HTTP endpoint within the App Service’s private environment that can be used to get a token, and there is also a .NET library that will handle the API calls if you’re using a supported platform. For virtual machines, there is also an HTTP endpoint that can similarly be used to obtain a token. Of course, you don’t need to specify any credentials when you call these endpoints – they’re only available within that App Service or virtual machine, and Azure handles all of the credentials for you.
Finding an MSI’s Details and Listing MSIs
There may be situations where we need to find our MSI’s details, such as the principal ID used to represent the application in Azure AD. For example, we may need to manually configure an external service to authorise our application to access it. As of April 2018, the Azure Portal shows MSIs when adding role assignments, but the Azure AD blade doesn’t seem to provide any way to view a list of MSIs. They are effectively hidden from the list of Azure AD applications. However, there are a couple of other ways we can find an MSI.
If we want to find a specific resource’s MSI details then we can go to the Azure Resource Explorer and find our resource. The JSON details for the resource will generally include an
identity property, which in turn includes a
principalId is the client ID of the service principal, and can be used for role assignments.
Another way to find and list MSIs is to use the Azure AD PowerShell cmdlets. The
Get-AzureRmADServicePrincipal cmdlet will return back a complete list of service principals in your Azure AD directory, including any MSIs. MSIs have service principal names starting with
https://identity.azure.net, and the
ApplicationId is the client ID of the service principal:
Now that we’ve seen how to work with an MSI, let’s look at which Azure resources actually support creating and using them.
Resource Types with MSI and AAD Support
As of April 2018, there are only a small number of Azure services with support for creating MSIs, and of these, currently all of them are in preview. Additionally, while it’s not yet listed on that page, Azure API Management also supports MSIs – this is primarily for handling Key Vault integration for SSL certificates.
One important note is that for App Services, MSIs are currently incompatible with deployment slots – only the production slot gets assigned an MSI. Hopefully this will be resolved before MSIs become fully available and supported.
As I mentioned above, MSIs are really just a feature that allows a resource to assume an identity that Azure AD will accept. However, in order to actually use MSIs within Azure, it’s also helpful to look at which resource types support receiving requests with Azure AD authentication, and therefore support receiving MSIs on incoming requests. Microsoft maintain a list of these resource types here.
Now that we understand what MSIs are and how they can be used with AAD-enabled services, let’s look at a few example real-world scenarios where they can be used.
Virtual Machines and Key Vault
Azure Key Vault is a secure data store for secrets, keys, and certificates. Key Vault requires that every request is authenticated with Azure AD. As an example of how this might be used with an MSI, imagine we have an application running on a virtual machine that needs to retrieve a database connection string from Key Vault. Once the VM is configured with an MSI and the MSI is granted Key Vault access rights, the application can request a token and can then get the connection string without needing to maintain any credentials to access Key Vault.
API Management and Key Vault
Another great example of an MSI being used with Key Vault is Azure API Management. API Management creates a public domain name for the API gateway, to which we can assign a custom domain name and SSL certificate. We can store the SSL certificate inside Key Vault, and then give Azure API Management an MSI and access to that Key Vault secret. Once it has this, API Management can automatically retrieve the SSL certificate for the custom domain name straight from Key Vault, simplifying the certificate installation process and improving security by ensuring that the certificate is not directly passed around.
Azure Functions and Azure Resource Manager
Azure Resource Manager (ARM) is the deployment and resource management system used by Azure. ARM itself supports AAD authentication. Imagine we have an Azure Function that needs to scan our Azure subscription to find resources that have recently been created. In order to do this, the function needs to log into ARM and get a list of resources. Our Azure Functions app can expose an MSI, and so once that MSI has been granted reader rights on the resource group, the function can get a token to make ARM requests and get the list without needing to maintain any credentials.
App Services and Event Hubs/Service Bus
Event Hubs is a managed event stream. Communication to both publish onto, and subscribe to events from, the stream can be secured using Azure AD. An example scenario where MSIs would help here is when an application running on Azure App Service needs to publish events to an Event Hub. Once the App Service has been configured with an MSI, and Event Hubs has been configured to grant that MSI publishing permissions, the application can retrieve an Azure AD token and use it to post messages without having to maintain keys.
Service Bus provides a number of features related to messaging and queuing, including queues and topics (similar to queues but with multiple subscribers). As with Event Hubs, an application could use its MSI to post messages to a queue or to read messages from a topic subscription, without having to maintain keys.
App Services and Azure SQL
Azure SQL is a managed relational database, and it supports Azure AD authentication for incoming connections. A database can be configured to allow Azure AD users and applications to read or write specific types of data, to execute stored procedures, and to manage the database itself. When coupled with an App Service with an MSI, Azure SQL’s AAD support is very powerful – it reduces the need to provision and manage database credentials, and ensures that only a given application can log into a database with a given user account. Tomas Restrepo has written a great blog post explaining how to use Azure SQL with App Services and MSIs.
In this post we’ve looked into the details of managed service identities (MSIs) in Azure. MSIs provide some great security and management benefits for applications and systems hosted on Azure, and enable high levels of automation in our deployments. While they aren’t particularly complicated to understand, there are a few subtleties to be aware of. As long as you understand that MSIs are for authentication of a resource making an outbound request, and that authorisation is a separate thing that needs to be managed independently, you will be able to take advantage of MSIs with the services that already support them, as well as the services that may soon get MSI and AAD support.