Using Ansible vault for sensitive data

We like using ansible for our automation because it has minimum requirements for the target machines and all around infrastructure. You need nothing more than ssh and python with some libraries. In contrast to alternatives like puppet and chef you do not need special server and client programs running all the time and communicating with each other.

The problem

When setting up remote machines and deploying software systems for your customers you will often have to use sensitive data like private keys, passwords and maybe machine or account names. On the one hand you want to put your automation scripts and their data under version control and use them from your continuous integration infrastructure. On the other hand you do not want to spread the secrets of your customers all around your infrastructure and definately never ever in your source code repository.

The solution

Ansible supports encrypting sensitive data and using them in playbooks with the concept of vaults and the accompanying commands. Setting it up requires some work but then usage is straight forward and works seamlessly.

The high-level conversion process is the following:

  1. create a directory for the data to substitute on a host or group basis
  2. extract all sensitive variables into vars.yml
  3. copy vars.yml to vault.yml
  4. prefix variables in vault.yml with vault_
  5. use vault variables in vars.yml

Then you can encrypt vault.yml using the ansible-vault command providing a password.

All you have to do subsequently is to provide the vault password along with your usual playbook commands. Decryption for playbook execution is done transparently on-the-fly for you, so you do not need to care about decryption and encryption of your vault unless you need to update the data in there.

The step-by-step guide

Suppose we want work on a target machine run by your customer but providing you access via ssh. You do not want to store your ssh user name and password in your repository but want to be able to run the automation scripts unattended, e.g. from a jenkins job. Let us call the target machine ceres.

So first you setup the directory structure by creating a directory for the target machine called $ansible_script_root$/host_vars/ceres.

To log into the machine we need two sensitive variables: ansible_user and ansible_ssh_pass. We put them into a file called $ansible_script_root$/host_vars/ceres/vars.yml:

ansible_user: our_customer_ssh_account
ansible_ssh_pass: our_target_machine_pwd

Then we copy vars.yml to vault.yml and prefix the variables with vault_ resulting in $ansible_script_root$/host_vars/ceres/vault.yml with content of:

vault_ansible_user: our_customer_ssh_account
vault_ansible_ssh_pass: our_target_machine_pwd

Now we use these new variables in our vars.xml like this:

ansible_user: "{{ vault_ansible_user }}"
ansible_ssh_pass: "{{ vault_ansible_ssh_pass }}"

Now it is time to encrypt the vault using the command

ANSIBLE_VAULT_PASS="ourpwd" ansible-vault encrypt host_vars/ceres/vault.yml

resulting a encrypted vault that can be put in source control. It looks something like


Using your playbook looks similar to before, you just need to provide the vault password using one of several options like specifying a password file, environment variable or interactive input. In our example we just use the environment variable inline:

ANSIBLE_VAULT_PASS="ourpwd" ansible-playbook -i inventory work-on-customer-machines.yml

After setting up your environment appropriately with a password file and the ANSIBLE_VAULT_PASSWORD_FILE environment variable your playbook commands are exactly the same like without using a vault.


The ansible vault feature allows you to safely store and use sensitive data in your infrastructure without changing too much using your automation scripts.

Using passwords with Jenkins CI server

For many of our projects the Jenkins continuous integration (CI) server is one important cornerstone. The well known “works on my machine” means nothing in our company. Only code in repositories and built, tested and packaged by our CI servers counts. In addition to building, testing, analyzing and packaging our projects we use CI jobs for deployment and supervision, too. In such jobs you often need some sort of credentials like username/password or public/private keys.

If you are using username/password they do not only appear in the job configuration but also in the console build logs. In most cases this is undesirable but luckily there is an easy way around it: using the Environment Injector Plugin.

In the plugin you can “inject passwords to the build as environment variables” for use in your commands and scripts.inject-passwords-configuration

The nice thing about this is that the passwords are not only masked in the job configuration (like above) but also in the console logs of the builds!inject-passwords-console-log

Another alternative doing mostly the same is the Credentials Binding Plugin.

There is a lot more to explore when it comes to authentication and credential management in Jenkins as you can define credentials at the global level, use public/private key pairs and ssh agents, connect to a LDAP database and much more. Just do not sit back and provide security related stuff plaintext in job configurations or your deployments scripts!

Web apps: Security is more than you think

Security in web apps is an ever increasing important topic besides securing the machine or your web/application containers on which your apps run you need to deal with some security related issues in your own apps. In this article we take a look at the number one (according to OWASP)risk in web apps:

Injection attacks

Every web app takes some kind of user input (usually through web forms) and works with it. If the web app does not properly handle the user input malicious entries can lead to severe problems like stealing or losing of data. But how do you identify problems in your code? Take a look at a naive but not uncommon implementation of a SQL query:

query("select * from user_data where username='" + username + "'")

Using the input of the user directly in a query like this is devastating, examples include dropping tables or changing data. Even if your library prevents you from using more than one statement in a query you can change this query to return other users’ data.
Blacklisting special characters is not a solution since you need some of them in your input or there are methods to circumvent your blacklists.
The solution here is to proper escape your input using your libraries mechanisms (e.g. with Groovy SpringJDBC):

query("select * from user_data where username=:username", [username: username])

But even when you escape everything you need to take care what you inject in your query. In this example all data is stored with a key of

query("select * from user_data where key like :username '.%' ", [username: username])

In this case everything will be escaped correctly but what happens when your user names himself % ? He gets the data of all users.

Is SQL the only vulnerable part of your app? No, every part which interprets your input and executes it is vulnerable. Examples include shell commands or JavaScript which we will look at in a future blog post.

As the last query showed: besides using proper escaping, setting your mind for security problems is the first and foremost step to a secure app.

Grails Web Application Security: XSS prevention

XSS (Cross Site Scripting) became a favored attack method in the last years. Several things are possible using an XSS vulnerability ranging from small annoyances to a complete desaster.
The XSS prevention cheat sheet states 6 rules to prevent XSS attacks. For a complete solution output encoding is needed in addition to input validation.
Here I take a further look on how to use the built in encoding methods in grails applications to prevent XSS.

Take 1: The global option

There exists a global option that specifies how all output is encoded when using ${}. See grails-app/conf/Config.groovy:

// The default codec used to encode data with ${}
grails.views.default.codec="html" // none, html, base64

So every input inside ${} is encoded but beware of the standard scaffolds where fieldValue is used inside ${}. Since fieldValue uses encoding you get a double escaped output – not a security problem, but the output is garbage.
This leaves the tags from the tag libraries to be reviewed for XSS vulnerability. The standard grails tags use all HTML encoding. If you use older versions than grails 1.1: beware of a bug in the renderErrors tag. Default encoding ${} does not help you when you use your custom tags. In this case you should nevertheless encode the output!
But problems arise with other tags like radioGroup like others found out.
So the global option does not result in much protection (only ${}), double escaping and problems with grails tags.

Take 2: Tainted strings

Other languages/frameworks (like Perl, Ruby, PHP,…) use a taint mode. There are some research works for Java.
Generally speaking in gsps three different outputs have to be escaped: ${}, <%%> and the ones from tags/taglibs. If a tainted String appears you can issue a warning and disallow or escape it. The problem in Java/Groovy is that Strings are value objects and since get copied in every operation so the tainted flag needs to be transferred, too. The same tainted flag must also be introduced for GStrings.
Since there isn’t any implementation or plugin for groovy/grails yet, right now you have to take the classic route:

Take 3: Test suites and reviews

Having a decent test suite in e.g. Selenium and reviewing your code for XSS vulnerabilities is still the best option in your grails apps. Maybe the tainted flags can help you in the future to spot places which you didn’t catch in a review.

P.S. A short overview for Java frameworks and their handling of XSS can be found here