Kubernetes Workload Identity with AKS

When you run a workload, no matter how simple or complex, you often need to access protected resources in both a secure and manageable way. Often, a resource’s security is integrated with an identity store. Azure resources, for instance, can be secured with roles assigned to Azure Active Directory (AAD) users, groups, or service principals.

Although it is tempting to simply store a credential with your code, it makes your code less secure and makes tasks such as credential rotation or updates a burden. In Azure, the solution to these issues is straightforward: just use managed identity if the service that runs your code supports it. Most do! That’s also the case for Azure Kubernetes Service (AKS). It supports a feature called pod-managed identities that associates a pod with such a managed identity. From the containers running in the pod, a developer can easily request a token to access Azure resources securely. I have written about pod-managed identities before so take a look at that post to understand the concepts. The post contains some sample code for illustration purposes.

The pod-managed identity feature has been in preview forever. The current version, v1, actually will not leave the preview phase. It will be replaced by v2, which uses workload identity federation. It is important to realize that AAD workload identity federation is not limited to Kubernetes. It also works with other workloads, like GitHub workflows or even Google cloud. This also means that workload identity for Kubernetes works on other distributions, both in the cloud and on-premises. It’s not just for AKS.

Although pod-managed identities and workload identity federation achieve the same goals, they work entirely differently. Pod-managed identity is somewhat more complex because it uses Kubernetes custom resource definitions (CRDs) and requires pods that intercept IMDS traffic. Intercepting that traffic can cause issues for other pods, which means you have extra configuration work to exclude those pods.

At the time of this writing, January 2022, workload identity federation is in preview!

How does it work?

As mentioned above, workload identity federation on AKS is very different from pod-managed identity. At a basic level, all it does is token exchange. Your pod will have access to a token that your code will present to AAD. In turn, AAD, which is configured to trust that token, will issue an AAD token to access the resource protected by AAD. These tokens are JWT tokens (JSON Web Tokens).

A couple of things need to be done for this to work:

  • AKS must be configured with an OIDC issuer URL. That public URL will present information that allows AAD to verify the JWT token it receives from your app. You will need to register the feature on your subscription and add or update the aks-preview extension for Azure CLI.
  • You need to create an app registration in AAD for your service principal. We will use the Azure Portal for this. The portal has been updated to add federated credentials that work with Kubernetes. Currently, workload identity federation does not work with managed identities. Managed identities are basically a wrapper around app registrations so that you do not have to create and maintain these registrations. Managed identity support is on the roadmap.
  • You install the workload-identity-webhook chart on AKS. This is a mutating webhook that makes it easy for the developer to associate a pod with the service principal and automate the token creation.
  • You create a Kubernetes service account and configure your pod(s) to use it. The mutating webhook will spot this and configure the containers in your pod with environment variables and the federation token.

Let’s go through the steps to make this a bit clearer.

Configuring the app registration

Create an app registration and navigate to Certificates and Secrets. Click Add credential in the Federated credentials section:

Adding a federated credential

At the time of this writing, there were three supported scenarios: GitHub Actions, Kubernetes, and other. Select Kubernetes and specify the three required properties:

  • Cluster issuer URL: in the form of https://oidc.prod-aks.azure.com/SOMEGUID. Use az aks show -n CLUSTERNAME -g RESOURCEGROUP and look for issuerURL in the output
  • Namespace: the namespace that contains the service account; we will create it below
  • Service account name: the name of the Kubernetes service account

The namespace and service account name are used to create the subject identifier. The token your code presents to AAD will need that in the sub filed.

In the example below, I use the default namespace and a service account with called fed-sa:

The federated credential’s properties

Azure Active Directory, in particular this application, is now configured to trust tokens coming from our Kubernetes app. The token will need to contain the subject identifier in the sub field. The token will be signed and AAD can verify the signature from the information presented by the AKS OIDC issuer URL.

When you configure the app registration, a service principal is created with the same name. You can use it with Azure role-based access control. I gave this service principal (or app) Contributor access on my subscription (temporarily 😉):

Service principal with access to the subscription

App, service principal, …? It’s confusing, I know. Never mind though and read on! 😉

Installing the webhook

On your AKS cluster with the configured issuer URL, install the workload identity mutating webhook with Helm:


helm repo add azure-workload-identity https://azure.github.io/azure-workload-identity/charts

helm repo update

helm install workload-identity-webhook azure-workload-identity/workload-identity-webhook \
   --namespace azure-workload-identity-system \
   --create-namespace \
   --set azureTenantID="${AZURE_TENANT_ID}"

Above, replace YOURTENANTID with the id of your Azure Active Directory tenant:

Azure AD Tenant ID in the portal

Creating a service account

In a later step, to test the setup, we will run the Azure CLI in a Kubernetes pod. To associate that pod with the AAD application and service principal, we need to create a service account and provide specific labels and annotations:

apiVersion: v1
kind: ServiceAccount
  name: fed-sa
  namespace: default
    azure.workload.identity/client-id: APPID
    azure.workload.identity/tenant-id: YOURTENANTID
    azure.workload.identity/use: "true"

Above, replace APPID with the ID of the application registration you created earlier:

Application ID of the app registration in which you configured the federated token trust

The labels and annotations for the service account and for pods are discussed here. The label on the service account is required for the webhook to know that this is a service account used with federated tokens. The annotations are optional. The tenant-id annotation defaults to the tenant id passed to the webhook Helm chart. I left it in to be explicit and to have all the environment variables I need for the Azure CLI login test.

If your pod has multiple containers, and you do not want to configure all containers with federated tokens, use the annotation azure.workload.identity/skip-containers at the pod level.

Configure a container in a pod with a federated token

We can now run a container to verify if the configuration works. The deployment below deploys an Azure CLI container. I use the latest tag which, at the time of this writing, resulted in Azure CLI version 2.32.0. Make sure you use 2.30.0 or higher. That version integrates the Microsoft Authentication Library (MSAL) as the underlying authentication library and supports logging in with a federated token.

Here is the deployment:

apiVersion: apps/v1
kind: Deployment
  name: azcli-deployment
    app: azcli
  replicas: 1
      app: azcli
        app: azcli
      serviceAccount: fed-sa
        - name: azcli
          image: mcr.microsoft.com/azure-cli:latest
            - "/bin/bash"
            - "-c"
            - "sleep infinity"

There is nothing special about this deployment. Instead of using the service account default, this pod is configured with the fed-sa service account. This is a normal Kubernetes service account. Because the service account has the label azure.workload.identity/use: “true”, the containers in the pod are modified by the webhook for token federation. The webhook adds several environment variables and mounts a volume based on a secret that contains the federation token. This is similar and in addition to the mounted token to access the Kubernetes API from the pod.

Here are the environment variables:

  • AZURE_AUTHORITY_HOST=https://login.microsoftonline.com/
  • AZURE_CLIENT_ID=client-id from service account annotation
  • AZURE_TENANT_ID=tenant-id from service account annotation or default from webhook
  • AZURE_FEDERATED_TOKEN_FILE=/var/run/secrets/tokens/azure-identity-token

The AZURE_FEDERATED_TOKEN_FILE contains the path to the file that contains the token (JWT) that will be presented to AAD by your application. In our case, we will configure the Azure CLI to use this token. You can get a shell to the container and cat the token:

The token (a JWT) in the token file

You can paste this token into the https://jwt.io debugger and see its content:

Token in jwt.io debugger

The token contains the issuer URL and the sub field contains a reference to the namespace and service account that we configured in the AAD app registration. Make sure there is a match!

Now we can use the Azure CLI (version >= 2.30.0) to log in using this token. Get a shell to the container and use the following command (–debug will give a lot of output):

az login --federated-token "$(cat $AZURE_FEDERATED_TOKEN_FILE)" --debug \
--service-principal -u $AZURE_CLIENT_ID -t $AZURE_TENANT_ID

We do not need to specify a password or certificate because the federated token will be used. Near the end of the output, you will see something like:

    "cloudName": "AzureCloud",
    "homeTenantId": "YOURTENANTID",
    "id": "...",
    "isDefault": true,
    "managedByTenants": [],
    "name": "subscription id",
    "state": "Enabled",
    "tenantId": "...",
    "user": {
      "name": "AADAPPID",
      "type": "servicePrincipal"

The above output shows that the user you are logged on with is the service principal associated with the app id. Let’s see if I can list AKS clusters:

Yep, I can list AKS clusters (and even create new ones 😉)

If you are interested in developer-oriented examples, check out the Azure AD Workload Identity documentation.


Workload Identity Overview

Azure AD workload identity for Kubernetes is relatively easy to configure. The diagram above summarizes all the bits and pieces you need: AKS OIDC config, the webhook (to configure containers in pods), and the AAD app.

An operator can easily use the Azure CLI to verify the configuration is correct. At the time of this writing, you have to create and manage an application registration. That will change once managed identities are supported.

Compared to pod-managed identities for AKS, the architecture is cleaner. On top of that, this feature works with other Kubernetes distributions as well, giving you the same technique to access AAD-protected resources. I am looking forward to seeing this evolve and becoming GA so customers can deploy this with confidence.

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