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course: Confluent Cloud Security

Authenticating Users and Applications

9 min

Dan Weston

Senior Curriculum Developer

When using Confluent Cloud, two distinct interactions will need authentication:

  • You must authenticate your users, and
  • You must authenticate your applications or services.

For users, the simplest way to access Confluent Cloud is via email address. While this method works great for a small set of users, most organizations will want to use single sign-on (SSO).

SSO provides a single entry point for users to log into any of the applications they have access to.



You are probably already familiar with SSO and have used identity providers (IPs) such as Okta, Active Directory, or Google accounts for authentication. The benefit of SSO is that it enables a central and consistent policy layer for multi-factor authentication (MFA), password enforcement, and terminating user access. The only requirement for this method is that your IP must use Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML).

For authenticating applications or services, there are two options: API keys or connecting your applications via OAuth.

You can get an API key through the Confluent CLI or the web interface. Each API key consists of a key and secret. There are two types of API keys you can use:

  • Resource-specific keys
  • Cloud API keys

Resource-specific API keys give access to individual resources in a particular environment. An environment is a collection of Kafka clusters and deployed components such as Connect, ksqlDB, and Schema Registry. An organization can contain multiple environments. You may have different environments for different departments or teams, for example, all belonging to the same organization.

The second type of API keys, Cloud API keys, grant management access to the entire organization's Confluent Cloud instance, including all environments.

If you plan on using API keys, keep in mind:

  1. You should only use service accounts in production.
    API keys for Confluent Cloud can be created with user accounts or service accounts. A service account provides an identity for an application or service that needs to perform programmatic operations within Confluent Cloud. When moving to production, ensure that only service account API keys are used. Avoid user account API keys, except for development and testing. If a user leaves, changes departments, or their account is deleted, all API keys created with that user account are deleted and your applications will stop working. For this reason, we recommend creating a policy of only using service accounts for your applications and services, even in development and testing stages.
  1. You should manage and delete unneeded keys and service accounts.
    As a standard practice of your security strategy, you should regularly review and clean up your existing API keys and service accounts. To better understand which API keys are being used, you can review and monitor authorization and authentication events in your audit logs. To list the API keys that you currently have, run the confluent api-key list command. Use the --service-account option to list only the API keys associated with the specific service account.
  1. You should rotate your API keys regularly.
    Access to your Confluent Cloud resources is controlled by API keys associated with service accounts, which have controls that determine what the service account has access to. API keys can be created and destroyed without affecting the service account ACLs and RBAC role bindings. Rotating API keys is a good security practice that limits the potential impact of an API key that is leaked.

When you rotate API keys, it is recommended you perform the steps in the following order:

  1. Create a new API key.
  2. Update the resource or application to use your newly created API key.
  3. Verify the connection via your audit logs.
  4. Delete the old API key.

Always make sure to use audit logs to track the usage of API keys.

As previously mentioned, OAuth is the other way to provide access to your applications and services.

OAuth allows you to access your resources and data without having to share or store user credentials. It’s built off cryptographically signed access tokens that allow your application or service to authenticate.

There are a few advantages to using OAuth for authentication:

  • OAuth is a cloud-native authentication solution. Most companies already employ an OAuth solution for other cloud resources they use for authentication/identity management.

  • OAuth provides centralized identity management. This is advantageous because system administrators have only one place to manage authentication for all their systems rather than having to create and manage credentials, or set up a sync system, for each independent service in their organization.

OAuth is an industry standard for providing authentication. If your organization provides a large number of service accounts, or there are a large number of applications accessing Confluent Cloud, you may run out of API keys. OAuth allows you to scale to thousands of identities and credentials, making sure that your applications only have the access they are supposed to have.

OAuth uses identity pools to map groups of identities to your role-based access control or access control list (ACL) policies. For example, let’s say you have a group of applications that all need access to the same cluster or Kafka topic. Rather than giving each application individual access, or controlling access on a per-application basis, you can create an identity pool, and use an identity pool filter to map each application identity to this identity pool. Then, using RBAC or ACL policies you can control permissions for the pool.

There are a few things to keep in mind if you plan to use OAuth:

  • You can use OAuth with Apache 3.2.1, Confluent Platform 7.2.1 and 7.1.3 and later, and librdkafka 1.9.2 or later.
  • You will need to upgrade any older or legacy clients that don’t support OAuth. While most applications or services have support built in, you may have some legacy systems that will need to be upgraded, or which may require you to use API keys.
  • You should group clients into identity pools when possible. If you come from using API keys, your first inclination might be to create identity pools for each service account. While this is possible, take some time to really look at your clients and see if there are groups that you can combine and control with one RBAC or ACL policy.

Whether you use API keys or OAuth, we highly recommend using RBAC for authorization, something that we’ll look at in the next module.

Use the promo code SECURITY101 to get $25 of free Confluent Cloud Usage

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