Introduction to Apache Kafka Security 🔒

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In this blog, I will try my best to explain Kafka Security in terms everyone can understand. We will go over SSL, SASL and ACL.

References :

Apache Kafka and the need for security

Apache Kafka is an internal middle layer enabling your back-end systems to share real-time data feeds with each other through Kafka topics. With a standard Kafka setup, any user or application can write any messages to any topic, as well as read data from any topics. As your company moves towards a shared tenancy model where multiple teams and applications use the same Kafka Cluster, or your Kafka Cluster starts on boarding some critical and confidential information, you need to implement security.

Problems Security is solving

Kafka Security has three components:

  • Encryption of data in-flight using SSL / TLS: This is a very common pattern everyone has used when going on the web. That’s the “S” of HTTPS (that beautiful green lock you see everywhere on the web).
  • Authentication using SSL or SASL: This allows your producers and your consumers to authenticate to your Kafka cluster, which verifies their identity. It’s also a secure way to enable your clients to endorse an identity. Why would you want that? Well, for authorization!
  • Authorization using ACLs: After Authentication we can access resources.

Encryption (SSL)

Encryption solves the problem of the man in the middle (MITM) attack. If your data is PLAINTEXT (by default in Kafka), any of these routers could read the content of the data you’re sending:

SSL encryption for dummies

All these concepts are carefully taught and practiced in my Udemy Course on Kafka Security, but in this blog we’ll get a good introduction to how security work.

Authentication (SSL & SASL)

Authentication for Dummies

There are two ways to authenticate your Kafka clients to your brokers: SSL and SASL. Let’s go over both

SSL Authentication

SSL Auth is basically leveraging a capability from SSL called two ways authentication. The idea is to also issue certificates to your clients, signed by a certificate authority, which will allow your Kafka brokers to verify the identity of the clients.

This is the most common setup I’ve seen when you are leveraging a managed Kafka clusters from a provider such as Heroku, Confluent Cloud or CloudKarafka.

SASL Authentication

SASL stands for Simple Authorization Service Layer and trust me, the name is deceptive, things are not simple. It’s very popular with Big Data systems and most likely your Hadoop setup already leverages that.

  • SASL PLAINTEXT: This is a classic username/password combination. These usernames and passwords have to be stored on the Kafka brokers in advance and each change needs to trigger a rolling restart. It’s very annoying and not the recommended kind of security. If you use SASL/PLAINTEXT, make sure to enable SSL encryption so that credentials aren’t sent as PLAINTEXT on the network
  • SASL SCRAM: This is a username/password combination alongside a challenge (salt), which makes it more secure. On top of this, username and password hashes are stored in Zookeeper, which allows you to scale security without rebooting brokers. If you use SASL/SCRAM, make sure to enable SSL encryption so that credentials aren’t sent as PLAINTEXT on the network
  • SASL GSSAPI (Kerberos): This is based on Kerberos ticket mechanism, a very secure way of providing authentication. Microsoft Active Directory is the most common implementation of Kerberos. SASL/GSSAPI is a great choice for big enterprises as it allows the companies to manage security from within their Kerberos Server. Additionally, communications are encrypted to SSL encryption is optional with SASL/GSSAPI. Needless to say, setting up Kafka with Kerberos is the most difficult option, but worth it in the end.

Authorization (ACL)

ACL for Dummies

This is where Authorization comes in, controlled by Access Control Lists (ACL). ACL are what you expect them to be: User A can(‘t) do Operation B on Resource C from Host D. Please note that currently with the packaged SimpleAclAuthorizer coming with Kafka, ACL are not implemented to have Groups rules or Regex-based rules.

ACL are great because they can help you prevent disasters. For example, you may have a topic that needs to be writeable from only a subset of clients or hosts. You want to prevent your average user from writing anything to these topics, hence preventing any data corruption or deserialization errors. ACLs are also great if you have some sensitive data and you need to prove to regulators that only certain applications or users can access that data.

To add ACLs, you can use the kafka-acls command (documentation here). It also even has some facilities and shortcuts to add producers or consumers.

kafka-acl --topic test --producer --authorizer-properties zookeeper.connect=localhost:2181 --add --allow-principal User:alice

The result being:

Adding ACLs for resource `Topic:test`:
User:alice has Allow permission for operations: Describe from hosts: *
User:alice has Allow permission for operations: Write from hosts: *Adding ACLs for resource `Cluster:kafka-cluster`:
User:alice has Allow permission for operations: Create from hosts: *

Please note that using the default provided SimpleAclAuthorizer, your ACL are stored in Zookeeper. Therefore, it is important to secure Zookeeper and make sure only your Kafka brokers are allowed to write to Zookeeper (zookeeper.set.acl=true). Otherwise any user could come in and edit ACLs, hence defeating the point of security.

Finally, you may find the kafka-acls command hard to use in the long run.