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CloudNativePG Recipe 3 - What!?! No superuser access?

Explore the secure defaults of a PostgreSQL cluster in this CloudNativePG recipe, aligning with the principle of least authority (PoLA). Our commitment to security and operational simplicity shines through default configurations, balancing robust protection with user-friendly settings. Advanced users can customize as needed. The article navigates default intricacies, PostgreSQL Host-Based Authentication, and the scenarios for enabling superuser access. We also touch on the careful use of the ALTER SYSTEM command, emphasizing our dedication to secure and simple operations.

If you’ve explored my latest recipe, you may have noticed the absence of mention about the postgres user, specifically its password. The reason is straightforward – by default, this user has no network access, and its password is set to NULL within the database server.

Security by default is a cornerstone principle guiding CloudNativePG. Our commitment revolves around crafting a system that, in its default configuration, deploys a PostgreSQL server with the utmost security, aligning with our current standards. This commitment includes implementing PoLA, the principle of least authority, ensuring that default access privileges are minimal. Defaults hold significant weight, especially in setups where simplicity is preferred and the easiest path is often taken.

For those well-versed in PostgreSQL and Kubernetes, desiring more control over their Postgres cluster, CloudNativePG offers the freedom to customize any default value without constraints. No strings attached!

In my initial recipe, we delved into convention over configuration using the cluster-example example. Now, let’s examine the resulting resource after the mutating webhook has applied some default values:

kubectl get cluster -o yaml cluster-example \
  | grep -i superuser

Resulting in:

  enableSuperuserAccess: false

Upon inspection, it’s evident that the default setting for enableSuperuserAccess is false, a primary security measure adopted by CloudNativePG in line with the PoLA philosophy. This default configuration essentially restricts network connections via the postgres user, a user crucial for the operator to coordinate and manage a PostgreSQL server through the instance manager.

To gain insight into the configuration of PostgreSQL Host-Based Authentication, we can execute the following query:

kubectl exec -ti -c postgres cluster-example-1 \
  -- psql -c 'SELECT type, database, user_name, address,
              auth_method, options FROM pg_hba_file_rules
              ORDER BY rule_number'

The result provides a snapshot of the authentication rules:

  type   |   database    |        user_name        | address |  auth_method  |         options
 local   | {all}         | {all}                   |         | peer          | {map=local}
 hostssl | {postgres}    | {streaming_replica}     | all     | cert          | {clientcert=verify-full}
 hostssl | {replication} | {streaming_replica}     | all     | cert          | {clientcert=verify-full}
 hostssl | {all}         | {cnpg_pooler_pgbouncer} | all     | cert          | {clientcert=verify-full}
 host    | {all}         | {all}                   | all     | scram-sha-256 |
(5 rows)

The demonstrated access assumes sufficient permissions to reach the PostgreSQL containers, leveraging the peer authentication method. In this context, as the container operates under the postgres user, the connection is established using the postgres database user. By default, this is the sole access granted as postgres, strictly governed by Kubernetes RBACs.

The final default rule stipulates that, with a password in place, you can connect with any user from anywhere to any database, using both TLS and non-TLS connections. If this default configuration isn’t suitable, you have the flexibility to enhance security by adding a more rigorous rule in the pg_hba file. For additional details, refer to “The pg_hba section”.

An added security benefit is that the postgres user within the database has a password set to NULL, effectively thwarting any unauthorized authentication attempts. This precautionary measure aligns with CloudNativePG’s commitment to robust security practices by default.

kubectl exec -ti -c postgres cluster-example-1 \
  -- psql -c 'SELECT usename FROM pg_shadow
                WHERE passwd IS NULL'

The absence of default passwords for both the postgres and streaming_replica users is noteworthy:

(2 rows)

This holds significant security implications. By not assigning default passwords, CloudNativePG enhances the overall security posture of the system. This practice reduces potential vulnerabilities, aligning with the platform’s dedication to robust security measures.

Enabling superuser access #

Surprisingly ( for me ;)! ), there are cases where the postgres user becomes indispensable. This need commonly arises from either of the following:

  • Lift-and-Shift Transition: venturing into the unfamiliar territory of the microservice database approach is slowed down by the traditional monolitich database approach, originated when creating and managing a new instance was a complex task
  • Current CloudNativePG Limitations: Particularly due to the absence of declarative management for resources within a database, such as foreign servers or certain extensions.

To address these situations, all you need to do is set enableSuperuserAccess to true. The immediate effects are:

  1. The appearance of a new secret named cluster-example-superuser.
  2. Upon repeating the previous query on pg_shadow, only the streaming_replica user is returned.

The structure of the cluster-example-superuser secret closely mirrors that of the cluster-example-app. For a detailed examination of the superuser secret and the process of uncovering the actual password, refer back to the previous recipe.

It’s worth noting that superuser access can be enabled temporarily. If you later set enableSuperuserAccess back to false, the system reverts to its initial state—no secret, and the password remains set to NULL.

The ALTER SYSTEM command #

For those well-versed in PostgreSQL, the dynamic adjustment of settings is a familiar concept achieved through the ALTER SYSTEM command.

However, exercising ALTER SYSTEM within a CloudNativePG managed cluster is discouraged, and here’s why:

  • Potential Operator Interference: it might disrupt the operator’s role in managing the CLUSTER (not just a single instance!).
  • Infrastructure as Code Concerns: it poses a risk of breaking GitOps, change management policies and broader Infrastructure as Code practices.

The first concern is particularly crucial. Unlike PostgreSQL, which lacks a built-in understanding of High Availability (HA) Clusters, Kubernetes demands a self-healing approach. Consequently, we must conceptualize our setup as a cluster composed of a primary instance and an arbitrary number of replicas, instead of confining ourselves to a single instance. That’s what CloudNativePG is about.

This default safeguard is reflected in the inhibition of ALTER SYSTEM within all PostgreSQL clusters created by CloudNativePG. Demonstrated below:

kubectl exec -ti -c postgres cluster-example-1 \
  -- psql -c 'ALTER SYSTEM SET archive_mode TO off'

Resulting in:

ERROR:  could not open file "": Permission denied
command terminated with exit code 1

(Note: there’s actually a patch I have proposed to disable this directly in PostgreSQL to improve the usability)

However, if the need arises, you can enable it by configuring .spec.postgresql.enableAlterSystem to true.

Conclusions #

In conclusion, the CloudNativePG recipe thoroughly examines the default security practices embedded within the framework. The emphasis on securing the postgres user and implementing the principle of least authority (PoLA) underscores CloudNativePG’s commitment to default configurations that prioritize high-level security.

The inspection of the enableSuperuserAccess setting sheds light on its default value of false, aligning seamlessly with the PoLA philosophy. This default configuration serves as a protective measure, restricting network access for the postgres user—a crucial element employed by the operator for seamless server coordination through the instance manager.

The exploration of PostgreSQL Host-Based Authentication configuration provides valuable insights, highlighting the prevalence of the peer authentication method and the default rule facilitating broad database connections through TLS and non-TLS connections. The deliberate choice of a NULL password for the postgres user adds an extra layer of security.

In essence, CloudNativePG steadfastly upholds a default stance that prioritizes security and simplicity. Advanced users, however, are granted the flexibility to fine-tune configurations such as enableSuperuserAccess. This nuanced approach allows users to strike a delicate balance between stringent security measures and operational necessities within PostgreSQL clusters.

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