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Fernet – Frequently Asked Questions

The following questions have been asked periodically since the
initial release of the fernet token format in Kilo.

What is a fernet token?

A fernet token is a bearer token that represents user authentication.
Fernet tokens contain a limited amount of identity and authorization
data in a MessagePacked payload. The
payload is then wrapped as a Fernet message for transport,
where Fernet provides the required web safe characteristics for use in
URLs and headers. The data inside a fernet token is protected using
symmetric encryption keys, or fernet keys.

What is a fernet key?

A fernet key is used to encrypt and decrypt fernet tokens. Each key
is actually composed of two smaller keys: a 128-bit AES encryption key
and a 128-bit SHA256 HMAC signing key. The keys are held in a key
repository that keystone passes to a library that handles the encryption
and decryption of tokens.

What are the different
types of keys?

A key repository is required by keystone in order to create fernet
tokens. These keys are used to encrypt and decrypt the information that
makes up the payload of the token. Each key in the repository can have
one of three states. The state of the key determines how keystone uses a
key with fernet tokens. The different types are as follows:

Primary key:

There is only ever one primary key in a key repository. The primary
key is allowed to encrypt and decrypt tokens. This key is always named
as the highest index in the repository.

Secondary key:

A secondary key was at one point a primary key, but has been demoted
in place of another primary key. It is only allowed to decrypt tokens.
Since it was the primary at some point in time, its existence in the key
repository is justified. Keystone needs to be able to decrypt tokens
that were created with old primary keys.

Staged key:

The staged key is a special key that shares some similarities with
secondary keys. There can only ever be one staged key in a repository
and it must exist. Just like secondary keys, staged keys have the
ability to decrypt tokens. Unlike secondary keys, staged keys have never
been a primary key. In fact, they are opposites since the staged key
will always be the next primary key. This helps clarify the name because
they are the next key staged to be the primary key. This key is always
named as 0 in the key repository.

how does a staged key help me and why do I care about it?

The fernet keys have a natural lifecycle. Each key starts as a staged
key, is promoted to be the primary key, and then demoted to be a
secondary key. New tokens can only be encrypted with a primary key.
Secondary and staged keys are never used to encrypt token. The staged
key is a special key given the order of events and the attributes of
each type of key. The staged key is the only key in the repository that
has not had a chance to encrypt any tokens yet, but it is still allowed
to decrypt tokens. As an operator, this gives you the chance to perform
a key rotation on one keystone node, and distribute the new key set over
a span of time. This does not require the distribution to take place in
an ultra short period of time. Tokens encrypted with a primary key can
be decrypted, and validated, on other nodes where that key is still

Where do I put my key

The key repository is specified using the key_repository
option in the keystone configuration file. The keystone process should
be able to read and write to this location but it should be kept secret
otherwise. Currently, keystone only supports file-backed key

key_repository = /etc/keystone/fernet-keys/

is the recommended way to rotate and distribute keys?

The keystone-manage command line utility includes a
key rotation mechanism. This mechanism will initialize and rotate keys
but does not make an effort to distribute keys across keystone nodes.
The distribution of keys across a keystone deployment is best handled
through configuration management tooling, however ensure that the new
primary key is distributed first. Use keystone-manage fernet_rotate to rotate the key

Do fernet tokens still

Yes, fernet tokens can expire just like any other keystone token

Why should I
choose fernet tokens over UUID tokens?

Even though fernet tokens operate very similarly to UUID tokens, they
do not require persistence or leverage the configured token persistence
driver in any way. The keystone token database no longer suffers bloat
as a side effect of authentication. Pruning expired tokens from the
token database is no longer required when using fernet tokens. Because
fernet tokens do not require persistence, they do not have to be
replicated. As long as each keystone node shares the same key
repository, fernet tokens can be created and validated instantly across

should I choose fernet tokens over PKI or PKIZ tokens?

The arguments for using fernet over PKI and PKIZ remain the same as
UUID, in addition to the fact that fernet tokens are much smaller than
PKI and PKIZ tokens. PKI and PKIZ tokens still require persistent
storage and can sometimes cause issues due to their size. This issue is
mitigated when switching to fernet because fernet tokens are kept under
a 250 byte limit. PKI and PKIZ tokens typically exceed 1600 bytes in
length. The length of a PKI or PKIZ token is dependent on the size of
the deployment. Bigger service catalogs will result in longer token
lengths. This pattern does not exist with fernet tokens because the
contents of the encrypted payload is kept to a minimum.

I rotate and distribute keys from the same keystone node every

No, but the relationship between rotation and distribution should be
lock-step. Once you rotate keys on one keystone node, the key repository
from that node should be distributed to the rest of the cluster. Once
you confirm that each node has the same key repository state, you could
rotate and distribute from any other node in the cluster.

If the rotation and distribution are not lock-step, a single keystone
node in the deployment will create tokens with a primary key that no
other node has as a staged key. This will cause tokens generated from
one keystone node to fail validation on other keystone nodes.

How do I add
new keystone nodes to a deployment?

The keys used to create fernet tokens should be treated like super
secret configuration files, similar to an SSL secret key. Before a node
is allowed to join an existing cluster, issuing and validating tokens,
it should have the same key repository as the rest of the nodes in the

How should I approach
key distribution?

Remember that key distribution is only required in multi-node
keystone deployments. If you only have one keystone node serving
requests in your deployment, key distribution is unnecessary.

Key distribution is a problem best approached from the deployment’s
current configuration management system. Since not all deployments use
the same configuration management systems, it makes sense to explore
options around what is already available for managing keys, while
keeping the secrecy of the keys in mind. Many configuration management
tools can leverage something like rsync to manage key

Key rotation is a single operation that promotes the current staged
key to primary, creates a new staged key, and prunes old secondary keys.
It is easiest to do this on a single node and verify the rotation took
place properly before distributing the key repository to the rest of the
cluster. The concept behind the staged key breaks the expectation that
key rotation and key distribution have to be done in a single step. With
the staged key, we have time to inspect the new key repository before
syncing state with the rest of the cluster. Key distribution should be
an operation that can run in succession until it succeeds. The following
might help illustrate the isolation between key rotation and key

  1. Ensure all keystone nodes in the deployment have the same key
  2. Pick a keystone node in the cluster to rotate from.
  3. Rotate keys.
    1. Was it successful?
      1. If no, investigate issues with the particular keystone node you
        rotated keys on. Fernet keys are small and the operation for rotation is
        trivial. There should not be much room for error in key rotation. It is
        possible that the user does not have the ability to write new keys to
        the key repository. Log output from
        keystone-manage fernet_rotate should give more information
        into specific failures.
      2. If yes, you should see a new staged key. The old staged key should
        be the new primary. Depending on the max_active_keys limit
        you might have secondary keys that were pruned. At this point, the node
        that you rotated on will be creating fernet tokens with a primary key
        that all other nodes should have as the staged key. This is why we
        checked the state of all key repositories in Step one. All other nodes
        in the cluster should be able to decrypt tokens created with the new
        primary key. At this point, we are ready to distribute the new key
  4. Distribute the new key repository.
    1. Was it successful?
      1. If yes, you should be able to confirm that all nodes in the cluster
        have the same key repository that was introduced in Step 3. All nodes in
        the cluster will be creating tokens with the primary key that was
        promoted in Step 3. No further action is required until the next
        schedule key rotation.
      2. If no, try distributing again. Remember that we already rotated the
        repository and performing another rotation at this point will result in
        tokens that cannot be validated across certain hosts. Specifically, the
        hosts that did not get the latest key set. You should be able to
        distribute keys until it is successful. If certain nodes have issues
        syncing, it could be permission or network issues and those should be
        resolved before subsequent rotations.

How long should I keep my
keys around?

The fernet tokens that keystone creates are only secure as the keys
creating them. With staged keys the penalty of key rotation is low,
allowing you to err on the side of security and rotate weekly, daily, or
even hourly. Ultimately, this should be less time than it takes an
attacker to break a AES256 key and a

Is a fernet token still
a bearer token?

Yes, and they follow exactly the same validation path as UUID tokens,
with the exception of being written to, and read from, a back end. If
someone compromises your fernet token, they have the power to do all the
operations you are allowed to do.

What if I need to revoke
all my tokens?

To invalidate every token issued from keystone and start fresh,
remove the current key repository, create a new key set, and
redistribute it to all nodes in the cluster. This will render every
token issued from keystone as invalid regardless if the token has
actually expired. When a client goes to re-authenticate, the new token
will have been created with a new fernet key.

can an attacker do if they compromise a fernet key in my

If any key used in the key repository is compromised, an attacker
will be able to build their own tokens. If they know the ID of an
administrator on a project, they could generate administrator tokens for
the project. They will be able to generate their own tokens until the
compromised key has been removed from the repository.

rotated keys and now tokens are invalidating early, what did I do?

Using fernet tokens requires some awareness around token expiration
and the key lifecycle. You do not want to rotate so often that secondary
keys are removed that might still be needed to decrypt unexpired tokens.
If this happens, you will not be able to decrypt the token because the
key the was used to encrypt it is now gone. Only remove keys that you
know are not being used to encrypt or decrypt tokens.

For example, your token is valid for 24 hours and we want to rotate
keys every six hours. We will need to make sure tokens that were created
at 08:00 AM on Monday are still valid at 07:00 AM on Tuesday, assuming
they were not prematurely revoked. To accomplish this, we will want to
make sure we set max_active_keys=6 in our keystone
configuration file. This will allow us to hold all keys that might still
be required to validate a previous token, but keeps the key repository
limited to only the keys that are needed.

The number of max_active_keys for a deployment can be
determined by dividing the token lifetime, in hours, by the frequency of
rotation in hours and adding two. Better illustrated as:

token_expiration = 24
rotation_frequency = 6
max_active_keys = (token_expiration / rotation_frequency) + 2

The reason for adding two additional keys to the count is to include
the staged key and a buffer key.


If validating expired tokens is needed (for example when services are
configured to use ServiceToken auth), the value of
allow_expired_window option from the [token]
config section should also be taken into account, so that the formula to
calculate the max_active_keys is

max_active_keys = ((token_expiration + allow_expired_window) /
rotation_frequency) + 2

This can be shown based on the previous example. We initially setup
the key repository at 6:00 AM on Monday, and the initial state looks

$ ls -la /etc/keystone/fernet-keys/
drwx------ 2 keystone keystone 4096 .
drwxr-xr-x 3 keystone keystone 4096 ..
-rw------- 1 keystone keystone   44 0    (staged key)
-rw------- 1 keystone keystone   44 1    (primary key)

All tokens created after 6:00 AM are encrypted with key
1. At 12:00 PM we will rotate keys again, resulting in,

$ ls -la /etc/keystone/fernet-keys/
drwx------ 2 keystone keystone 4096 .
drwxr-xr-x 3 keystone keystone 4096 ..
-rw------- 1 keystone keystone   44 0    (staged key)
-rw------- 1 keystone keystone   44 1    (secondary key)
-rw------- 1 keystone keystone   44 2    (primary key)

We are still able to validate tokens created between 6:00 – 11:59 AM
because the 1 key still exists as a secondary key. All
tokens issued after 12:00 PM will be encrypted with key 2.
At 6:00 PM we do our next rotation, resulting in:

$ ls -la /etc/keystone/fernet-keys/
drwx------ 2 keystone keystone 4096 .
drwxr-xr-x 3 keystone keystone 4096 ..
-rw------- 1 keystone keystone   44 0    (staged key)
-rw------- 1 keystone keystone   44 1    (secondary key)
-rw------- 1 keystone keystone   44 2    (secondary key)
-rw------- 1 keystone keystone   44 3    (primary key)

It is still possible to validate tokens issued from 6:00 AM – 5:59 PM
because keys 1 and 2 exist as secondary keys.
Every token issued until 11:59 PM will be encrypted with key
3, and at 12:00 AM we do our next rotation:

$ ls -la /etc/keystone/fernet-keys/
drwx------ 2 keystone keystone 4096 .
drwxr-xr-x 3 keystone keystone 4096 ..
-rw------- 1 keystone keystone   44 0    (staged key)
-rw------- 1 keystone keystone   44 1    (secondary key)
-rw------- 1 keystone keystone   44 2    (secondary key)
-rw------- 1 keystone keystone   44 3    (secondary key)
-rw------- 1 keystone keystone   44 4    (primary key)

Just like before, we can still validate tokens issued from 6:00 AM
the previous day until 5:59 AM today because keys 1
4 are present. At 6:00 AM, tokens issued from the previous
day will start to expire and we do our next scheduled rotation:

$ ls -la /etc/keystone/fernet-keys/
drwx------ 2 keystone keystone 4096 .
drwxr-xr-x 3 keystone keystone 4096 ..
-rw------- 1 keystone keystone   44 0    (staged key)
-rw------- 1 keystone keystone   44 1    (secondary key)
-rw------- 1 keystone keystone   44 2    (secondary key)
-rw------- 1 keystone keystone   44 3    (secondary key)
-rw------- 1 keystone keystone   44 4    (secondary key)
-rw------- 1 keystone keystone   44 5    (primary key)

Tokens will naturally expire after 6:00 AM, but we will not be able
to remove key 1 until the next rotation because it
encrypted all tokens from 6:00 AM to 12:00 PM the day before. Once we do
our next rotation, which is at 12:00 PM, the 1 key will be
pruned from the repository:

$ ls -la /etc/keystone/fernet-keys/
drwx------ 2 keystone keystone 4096 .
drwxr-xr-x 3 keystone keystone 4096 ..
-rw------- 1 keystone keystone   44 0    (staged key)
-rw------- 1 keystone keystone   44 2    (secondary key)
-rw------- 1 keystone keystone   44 3    (secondary key)
-rw------- 1 keystone keystone   44 4    (secondary key)
-rw------- 1 keystone keystone   44 5    (secondary key)
-rw------- 1 keystone keystone   44 6    (primary key)

If keystone were to receive a token that was created between 6:00 AM
and 12:00 PM the day before, encrypted with the 1 key, it
would not be valid because it was already expired. This makes it
possible for us to remove the 1 key from the repository
without negative validation side-effects.


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