Use the AWS, GCP, or Azure metadata API to issue X.509 cloud VM certificates to workloads

With step-ca, you can use our provisioners to automate certificate enrollment for almost anything in your production network. To create a cloud VM certificate, we recommend you use the cloud provider metadata API and our IID provisioner. This short tutorial will show how to use Instance Identity Documents (IID) to authorize and retrieve an X.509 Certificate from step-ca.

IIDs are simply credentials that identify an instance's name and owner. By presenting an IID in a request, a workload can prove that it is running on a cloud VM instance that you own.

About this tutorial

  • Learn how to automate enrollment of cloud VM certificates using the AWS, Azure, or GCP metadata API.
  • Examples include copy/paste code blocks and specific commands for cloud providers.
  • you will have a fully functioning ACME configuration using a private certificate authority.
  • Estimated effort: Reading time ~5 mins, Lab time ~10 to 60 mins.


IID-based authentication overview

The major clouds have different names for IIDs: AWS calls them instance identity documents, GCP calls them instance identity tokens, and Azure calls them access tokens. The metadata included in an IID also differs between clouds, along with many other implementation details. In general, they're all the same: signed bearer tokens that identify at least the name and owner of a VM.

Metadata API's expose IIDs via a non-roundtable IP address (the link-local address This magic is orchestrated by the hypervisor, which identifies the requesting VM and services IID requests locally.

IIDs are very easy to get from within a VM via one unauthenticated HTTP request. Barring any security issues, they're impossible to get from anywhere else.

As an example, let's fetch an IID on GCP. Since GCP encodes IIDs as JWTs and makes their public keys available at a well-known endpoint, we can easily verify and decode a GCP IID on the command line using step:

$ curl -s -H "Metadata-Flavor: Google" 'http://metadata/computeMetadata/v1/instance/service-accounts/default/identity?audience=step-cli&format=full' | step crypto jwt verify --jwks --aud step-cli --iss { "header": { "alg": "RS256", "kid": "afde80eb1edf9f3bf4486dd877c34ba46afbba1f", "typ": "JWT" }, "payload": { "aud": "step-cli", "azp": "117354011164720418655", "email": "", "email_verified": true, "exp": 1562780090, "google": { "compute_engine": {; "instance_creation_timestamp": 1557864897, "instance_id": "5404647754959331152", "instance_name": "foo", "project_id": "step-instance-identity-test", "project_number": 259112794408, "zone": "us-west1-b" { {, "iat": 1562776490, "iss": "", "sub": "117354011164720418655" }, "signature": "AV8vZiNjOJNkWhWp5oy9R_WgGu3-tePyM4pKyHoela2SMVyWfpq4fPlSUxSPdzmfCT_akrUXrw-mDq7eLByqDOp3A4sGEZn9bY4Vmt5h9QYMVIo_60LRtC7c7QoBFZp2u3tNrPaI8ZhoINgHCsTdbfGEUDnCA8aH1mygd8b3kUEXcMCHrgUayPEVSMih8OYfmHUdecyTt0qOw6Ima16lX1jmM6lSoj8VNFmee36qFn58qULchB89lqviv-E0VzS5NthlqaM2_ukYNtKac-MdQdIlE86a-2YtgyXo4OVCpb87Svf2Rw9VaFsCKt4wFlRsnz4B3rx3I2bM2mXsQZY38Q" }

Your cloud provider signs IIDs. Therefore, additional API requests are not required. In addition to being easy for clients, IID-based authentication is scalable, performant, and highly available.

By fetching an IID from the metadata API and presenting it in an HTTPS request header a workload can prove that it's running on a VM under your control. That’s how step and step-ca use IIDs.

Getting a certificate from step-ca using IID-based authentication

Here's a diagram of the basic architecture of the step-ca IID-based authentication:

Diagram of the basic architecture of step-ca’s IID-based authentication

To get a certificate from step-ca using an IID we need to:

  • Generate a key pair and a certificate signing request (CSR) with the workload's name
  • Obtain an IID from the metadata API to authenticate to step-ca
  • Submit the CSR and IID to step-ca via HTTPS POST to obtain a certificate
  • Store the certificate and private key somewhere our workload can find it

While this is all standards-based and simple in theory, in practice, there’s a lot of implementation detail to get right. Luckily, the step utility works seamlessly with step-ca to do all of this for us.

To demonstrate, assume we have step-ca running on AWS with hostname ca.local.

To enable IID-based authentication we’ll configure step-ca, adding an AWS-type provisioner.

Find your AWS account ID to restrict access to our VMs:

AWS account ID

On the host running step-ca add an AWS provisioner to your configuration by running:

$ step ca provisioner add "AWS IID Provisioner" --type AWS --aws-account 123456789042

Start or restart step-ca to pick up this new configuration:

$ step-ca $(step path)/config/ca.json

With the step-ca server configured and running, let's use the step ca bootstrap command to configure a new VM instance to trust and connect to it:

$ step ca bootstrap --ca-url https://ca.local --fingerprint f501ed49263c1369bd490a85660ddd4388d4175e0337100a11d4e82eae496499 The root certificate has been saved in ~/.step/certs/root_ca.crt. Your configuration has been saved in ~/.step/config/defaults.json.

The --fingerprint is for the root certificate used by step-ca. Find it by running the following command on your CA:

$ step certificate fingerprint $(step path)/certs/root_ca.crt

After bootstrapping, we're ready to get a certificate. If we pass our AWS IID provisioner name to step ca certificate with the --provisioner attribute, step will automatically use IID-based authentication to get a certificate:

$ step ca certificate foo.local foo.crt foo.key --provisioner "AWS IID Provisioner" ✔ Key ID: AWS IID Provisioner (AWS) ✔ CA: https://ca.local ✔ Certificate: foo.crt ✔ Private Key: foo.key

The first positional argument to step ca certificate specifies our workload's name, the certificate subject. In this case, it's foo.local. The next two positional arguments specify which files to write the certificate and private key, respectively.

We can use step certificate inspect to check our work:

$ step certificate inspect --short foo.crt X.509v3 TLS Certificate (ECDSA P-256) [Serial: 4555...1939] Subject: foo.local Issuer: My Intermediate CA Provisioner: AWS IID Provisioner [ID: 8074...3263] Valid from: 2019-07-08T21:39:40Z to: 2019-07-09T21:39:40Z

Congratulations, that's it. Tell your workload to use foo.crt and foo.key, configure clients to trust X.509 certificates signed by $(step path)/certs/root_ca.crt, and you're good to go. You now have a strong standards-based mechanism to authenticate workloads and encrypt traffic using TLS.

Next steps

Example configurations for GCP and Azure are available in the step-ca configuration docs. Instead of account IDs, the GCP IID implementation restricts access by project and/or service account. Azure restricts access by tenant. The step CLI abstracts away the remaining differences.

Depending on your situation and tech stack, you might put these commands in a startup script, put them in an AMI, or use configuration management for the last piece of automation. If you’re using kubernetes, then IID-based authentication isn’t right for you. Use autocert or cert-manager integration instead.


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