Dex for Kubernetes: How Does it Work?

Damaso Sanoja
Feb 23, 2022
6 Minute Read

Despite being the most widely used open source container orchestration platform today, Kubernetes does not have the means to create and manage users—at least not natively. Far from being a disadvantage, however, this allows administrators to integrate the most appropriate identity service provider for their organization. For that reason, Dex has become one of the best authentication solutions available for Kubernetes.

In this article, you’ll learn more about Dex for Kubernetes. We’ll explore some of the problems it can solve, walk through a high-level overview of setting it up with a third-party identity provider, and consider some problems that still need to be solved that Dex doesn’t cover.

#What is Dex?

Dex is an open source CNCF sandbox project and authentication service released by CoreOS, Inc. that uses OpenID Connect (OIDC) to link Kubernetes and other OIDC-compatible services with a myriad of identity providers. Put another way, you can think of Dex as an intermediary between kubectl and widely used identity providers like Okta, GitHub, Google, Microsoft, and Linkedin, among others.

Dex’s ability to serve as a bridge between Kubernetes and other identity providers allows administrators to implement centralized user and group management, which is essential in organizations with multiple teams. Moreover, as you will learn in the following sections, Dex also makes it possible to enforce better security and bring a modern and convenient login experience to Kubernetes.

#How Does Dex for Kubernetes Work?

Before getting into the details of how Dex works, it’s important to understand how the Kubernetes authentication process works.

When communicating with a Kubernetes cluster, what kubectl is actually doing is interacting with the API server. With each HTTP request to the API server, the authentication plug-in looks for the username, UID, and group(s). Such attributes can be provided by client certificates, an authenticating proxy, or bearer tokens. This is where Dex comes in, functioning as a bridge between identity providers and the kubectl client.

Because Dex uses OIDC, it can access user information stored in a third-party identity provider using what it calls “connectors.” This allows Dex to forward user information in the form of bearer tokens to Kubernetes to complete the authentication process. All of this is transparent to the user, as it is done through a Single Sign-On (SSO) process. Moreover, as we will discuss in the next section, the ID token sent by Dex includes information that can be used for user authorization.

The process described above is a simplification of how authentication works in Kubernetes. For more detailed information about the authentication process, check the official Kubernetes documentation.

#What Problems Does Dex Solve?

We’ve already mentioned that Dex extends the functionality of Kubernetes by allowing administrators to manage users and groups using the organization’s identity service provider. However, this is not the only problem that Dex solves. Let’s take a look at some of the other benefits it offers.

#Increased Security

Dex improves the security of your Kubernetes cluster in multiple ways:

  • It provides a secure way to log users into the cluster via identity providers.
  • It eliminates the security risk associated with using the same kubeconfig files for multiple users.
  • It enables efficient detection of actions performed by each user via Audit Logs.
  • It eliminates the practice of creating bearer tokens without time limits.
  • It helps enforce authentication and authorization policies thanks to efficient user and group management using RBAC rules (zero-trust RBAC access).

#Flexibility

Every organization has unique requirements, and Dex is flexible enough to allow the use of almost any identity provider. Proof of this is the connectors available for Okta, GitHub, GitLab, Microsoft, Linkedin, and services that use OpenID Connect, OAuth 2.0, LDAP, and SAML 2.0 protocols, among others. Here’s a complete list of the connectors supported by Dex.

#Provides a Centralized Authentication System

Implementing Dex may not be the best solution for small teams. However, for organizations with dozens of users distributed among different teams, Dex is a very powerful tool. The mere fact of not having to create, manage, and distribute kubeconfig files manually is a huge advantage in both time savings and security.

Furthermore, Dex complements Kubernetes by enabling more granular access control. As you will see in the next section, Dex controls the issuance of ID tokens, allowing you to specify their duration, which is handy for cases involving temporary user access. Additionally, you can revoke all ID tokens if necessary. You can even revoke access for a particular user or group.

All in all, Dex allows you to add an efficient and easy-to-use centralized authentication system to Kubernetes.

#Setting up Authentication on Kubernetes Using Dex

As we’ve established, Dex acts as a portal that uses connectors to link Kubernetes with multiple identity providers. The following image provides a high-level overview of the Single Sign-On process:

Diagram of the Dex flow

During the authentication process, the following steps are performed:

  1. The end-user initiates a request to log in to Dex. This is usually done through a web application or portal where users initiate Single Sign-On.
  2. Dex forwards this request to a third-party identity provider (e.g., Active Directory, Google, GitHub, or Okta). For this purpose, Dex uses “connectors,” which have a series of protocols for querying other user management systems.
  3. Thanks to these connectors, Dex can then access relevant user information from the identity provider such as name, email, unique identifiers, group, access token, etc. In the case of Okta, this data comes as an ID token. According to Dex documentation, “ID Tokens are JSON Web Tokens (JWTs)… returned as part of the OAuth2 response that attest to the end user’s identity.”
  4. Once Dex obtains the user information from the third-party upstream identity provider, it assumes the role of identity provider and issues a signed ID token that it sends to the kubectl client, which forwards the JWT to the API server.
  5. The API server consumes the ID token using the Kubernetes OpenID Connect token authenticator plug-in. The result at this point can be either to validate or to reject the user. If the user is successfully authenticated, the API server uses the ID token information to apply the RBAC rules.
  6. The response from the API server is sent back to the kubectl client.
  7. The kubectl client displays the result to the end-user.

For information about authentication through LDAP, read the documentation here. For additional information on how to authenticate through an OpenID Connect provider such as Okta, see the documentation here.

#What Problems Are Not Addressed by Dex?

While Dex offers an excellent solution for organizations seeking a Single Sign-On experience for Kubernetes, it is not exempt from the limitations associated with certain identity providers.

As the Dex documentation indicates, not all identity providers support requests for refresh tokens. This means that depending on the identity provider, the user will have to repeat the authentication process described in the previous section from time to time. Moreover, not all Dex connectors are stable. The status of the connectors for Google, Bitbucket Cloud, and OAuth 2.0 is still alpha.

Another point to keep in mind is that Dex is only intended to be an authentication solution. The management of environmental variables, kube-contexts, and costs will have to be done manually or completed through the use of other tools.

#Conclusion

In this article, you learned that Dex is a viable solution for achieving a better login experience with Kubernetes. Being an OIDC provider, Dex allows your organization to leverage the identity provider in use to connect to Kubernetes. This is a huge advantage because without adding additional infrastructure, your organization can implement centralized identity management for Kubernetes, which saves time and helps improve security policies.

Photo by Nikola Knezevic on Unsplash

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