Use Keycloak to issue user certificates with step-ca

Keycloak, the open-source identity provider, provides an OAuth flow that can be used with open source step-ca to authenticate requests for certificates.

In this tutorial, we'll configure Keycloak and step-ca to take advantage of this flow, which is especially useful for issuing X.509 client authentication certificates or SSH user certificates.

About this tutorial

  • Estimated effort: Reading time ~5 mins, Lab time ~10 to 60 mins.


  • Open source - This tutorial assumes you have initialized a step-ca instance using the steps in Getting Started.
  • Smallstep Certificate Manager - Please visit the OIDC documentation instead of using this tutorial to connect keycloak to Certificate Manager.
  • You'll need a Docker environment, and Docker Compose version 3+.
  • You'll need a hostname and TLS certificate files for your Keycloak instance.

Install and run Keycloak + MySQL using Docker Compose

First let's get Keycloak running. The OIDC provisioner in step-ca requires that our Keycloak instance run with TLS, so that the OIDC well-known configuration endpoint is secured.

Start by creating this docker-compose.yml file inside a new directory:

version: '3' volumes: mysql_data: driver: local services: mysql: image: mysql:5.7 volumes: - mysql_data:/var/lib/mysql environment: MYSQL_ROOT_PASSWORD: root MYSQL_DATABASE: keycloak MYSQL_USER: keycloak MYSQL_PASSWORD: password keycloak: image: environment: DB_VENDOR: MYSQL DB_ADDR: mysql DB_DATABASE: keycloak DB_USER: keycloak DB_PASSWORD: password KEYCLOAK_USER: admin KEYCLOAK_PASSWORD: admin KEYCLOAK_HTTPS_PORT: 8443 KEYCLOAK_HOSTNAME: keycloak.internal volumes: - ./certs:/etc/x509/https ports: - 8080:8080 - 8443:8443 depends_on: - mysql
  • Change the administrative and database credentials in the environment section.
  • Set the KEYCLOAK_HOSTNAME hostname keycloak.internal to the hostname you'll use for Keycloak.

Now you'll need to make a certs directory and place the TLS certificate and unencrypted private key PEM files for your Keycloak instance into this directory.

Following the Keycloak documentation, these your certificate PEM file should be certs/tls.crt and your private key file should be certs/tls.key.

Now start up your Docker containers:

$ docker-compose up

Go to https://keycloak.internal:8443 and open up the admin panel.

Once you've signed in, setup is easy:

  1. Create a new Realm and give it a name.
  2. In your new Realm, create a Client.
  3. To configure the client, you can import this JSON file
  4. In your new client, go to the Credentials tab and copy the Secret, which will have been auto-generated.

Now configure step-ca to accept your client:

$ step ca provisioner add keycloak --type OIDC \ --client-id step-ca --client-secret 91e078a4-2c29-4dc8-81e9-c03cd36db632 \ --configuration-endpoint https://keycloak.internal:8443/auth/realms/myRealm/.well-known/openid-configuration \ --listen-address :10000 Success! Your `step-ca` config has been updated. To pick up the new configuration SIGHUP (kill -1 <pid>) or restart the step-ca process.

Replace keycloak.internal with your KEYCLOAK_HOSTNAME in the configuration-endpoint, replace client-secret with the secret you just copied from Keycloak.

Finally, it's time to sign in via Keycloak.

Create a User in Keycloak that you'll use to test your integration. Your user will need to have a username, email, and password. (You can set the user's password under the Credentials tab after you create it.)

Now start (or restart) your step-ca instance and run the following:

$ step ssh login

Use the same email address as you used for your Keycloak user.

If all goes well, you will be sent to the browser to sign in, and an SSH certificate will be issued and added to your SSH agent, with your username and email address as principals.

Further Reading

Our tutorial DIY Single Sign-On for SSH puts this tutorial into a larger context, detailing how to set up an SSH CA for your users and hosts.


OIDC token issues

If step-ca raises an OIDC token validation error, you can examine the token you receive from Keycloak using the step oauth command. For example:

$ step oauth --oidc --bare --provider https://keycloak.internal:8443/auth/realms/myRealm/.well-known/openid-configuration \ --client-id step-ca --client-secret 91e078a4-2c29-4dc8-81e9-c03cd36db632 \ --listen :10000 | step crypto jwt inspect --insecure

This will take you through the OAuth login flow, and output the OIDC token at the end:

{ "header": { "alg": "RS256", "kid": "kT-3LAwid2pN0OYusTJF7WMPBGCZkFtVFtmBxV4_F7Q", "typ": "JWT" }, "payload": { "exp": 1611699908, "iat": 1611699608, "auth_time": 1611698343, "jti": "4fc72ea3-7a1d-46aa-ac1e-6a138a08f18d", "iss": "https://keycloak.internal:8443/auth/realms/myRealm", "aud": "step-ca", "sub": "81cb924e-4cf9-4a55-97f8-32aa7eeb49af", "typ": "ID", "azp": "step-ca", "nonce": "b2057570bbfe577128a68bdc74a1906cffdfa48b6c7f2093e0238c322f9bcdcb", "session_state": "7d974efe-3169-4fc1-a47c-d7ec7a0baf2e", "at_hash": "KbEqSdwBhsG2F10sk60mFw", "acr": "0", "email_verified": true, "name": "Carl Tashian", "preferred_username": "carl", "given_name": "Carl", "family_name": "Tashian", "email": "" }, "signature": "Dy3htn_..." }

Common issues are:

  • The email field in the token is empty; step-ca requires email to be populated.
  • The email address used with step ssh login doesn't match the email address of the Keycloak user.
  • There is a domains list in the OIDC provisioner configuration, and the email domain in the token isn't listed in domains.

Keycloak TLS certificate issues

There is a known issue in Keycloak where the TLS certificate and key files are never reloaded by the Docker container after they are renewed, even if you restart the container. For now, you'll have to delete the Keycloak container and recreate it once you've renewed your certificate.