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Get started with Azure key vault

Azure key vault is a service to store and manage keys, secrects and certificates that you can use for your applications. In this blog post I want to quickly show how to create a key vault and how to use it.
Key vault is a secure key management service that allows to manage keys, application secrets and certificates. The keys are stored in hardware security modules (FIPS 140-2 Level 2) and even Microsoft does not see them. Pretty cool stuff, so why should someone use Azure Key Vault?
A common problem is how to manage keys and secrets for your applications? Where to store them? And how to ensure that they have a defined lifetime? Azure key vault allows to achieve all these things. A few features are:

  • Save keys in Azure in a safe place
  • Keep encryption keys in hardware security modules (FIPS140-2 Level 2+)
  • Control keys from a single place
  • Control lifetime and renewal of keys
  • Let other AD users/groups manage access to secrets
  • Access keys from your applications
  • Automatically rotate keys

It especially helps you to solve the issue of storing keys/secrets for your applications. If you develop an application – where do you put e.g. storage keys or other secrets? Sometimes developers hardcode them into the code. Other developers store them in the configuration (e.g. app.config) and just a few use something like azure key vault.

Ok, but what is a key vault? A key vault is a container for keys and secrets that are managed together. If you develop an application, then it makes sense to create one key vault per application because the access control and also the billing is per key vault. If you have all keys/secrets stored in one key vault, then each user that has access to that key vault can read all keys/secrets that in the key vault. So you should definitely create one key vault per application. As a key vault itself is for free, this shouldn’t be a problem and helps you to secure your stuff. The pricing for key vault is pay per usage of keys (see: Key Vault Pricing Details).

The key vault allows you store:

  • Key: A cryptographic key (RSA 2048) that you can use to decrypt/sign with the key
  • Secret: A secret is a sequence of bytes unter 25KB – for example a connection string, PFX file, AES encryption key.

So, enough introduction, let’s start to create key vault and use it:

Create a key vault

…by searching for “key vault” and add:

Create a secret

Let’s directly create a new secret. This can be a password, a connection string (SQL, Storage Account, …), a certificate or whatever you need. You can do this via Azure portal:

or you can do it via powershell:

Get-AzureRmKeyVault # shows all available key vaults

# create a new secret
$testkey = ConvertTo-SecureString -String "MyTestKey" -AsPlainText -Force
Set-AzureKeyVaultSecret -VaultName codehollow-keyvault -Name "TestKey" -SecretValue $testkey

Read a secret

if the secret was successfully created, you can already read it via powershell:

# get value of existing secret
$secret = Get-AzureKeyVaultSecret -VaultName codehollow-keyvault -name "TestKey"
$secret .SecretValueText

Read a secret from a c# application

Reading a secret from a c# application requires a bit more steps, because we will not authenticate as our user but as application. Therefore we need to create an application in Azure AD and add few packages and stuff to our application:

1. step: Add Azure application
Open Azure Active Directory in the portal – “App registrations” – “New application registration”:

give it a name and a (non-relevant) sign-on url – e.g.:
Name: keyvaultapp
Sign-on URL: http://localhost/mykeyvaultapp

Save it – open the application and copy the application id (=clientId). Create a new key and copy the value of the key (=clientSecret)

2. step: Permissions for the new application
Jump back to the key vault – open the principals and add a new principal (the application we created in the previous step):
Leave the template empty, select the application from the previous step as principal and set “Secret permissions” to “Get”:

3. step: Use it in your C# application

Create a new application and add the NuGet packages “Microsoft.Azure.KeyVault” and “Microsoft.IdentityModel.Clients.ActiveDirectory”:

Now you can access the secret via the following code:

using Microsoft.Azure.KeyVault;
using Microsoft.IdentityModel.Clients.ActiveDirectory;
using System;
using System.Threading.Tasks;

namespace ConsoleAppDotnetCore
{
    class Program
    {
        const string CLIENTID = "[ENTER CLIENT ID]";              // move this to app.config
        const string CLIENTSECRET = "[ENTER CLIENT SECRET]";      // move this to app.config
        const string SECRETURI = "https://yourname.vault.azure.net/secrets/SecretKey";  // move this to app.config

        static void Main(string[] args)
        {
            KeyVaultClient kvc = new KeyVaultClient(new KeyVaultClient.AuthenticationCallback(GetToken));
            var secret = kvc.GetSecretAsync(SECRETURI);
            Console.WriteLine(secret.Result.Value);
        }
        
        // thanks to_ https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/azure/key-vault/key-vault-use-from-web-application
        public static async Task<string> GetToken(string authority, string resource, string scope)
        {
            var authContext = new AuthenticationContext(authority);
            ClientCredential clientCred = new ClientCredential(CLIENTID, CLIENTSECRET);
            AuthenticationResult result = await authContext.AcquireTokenAsync(resource, clientCred);

            if (result == null)
                throw new InvalidOperationException("Failed to obtain the JWT token");

            return result.AccessToken;
        }
    }
}

CLIENTID, CLIENTSECRET and SECRETURI should be stored in the application config file. The values for clientid and clientsecret can be found at the Azure Active Directory app registration (see step 1). The secret uri is the uri that you can find at the key vault when you open the secret (Key vault – Secrets – your secret – current version):

So far so good – we can already read a secret from a c# application and also from powershell. This is already useful for many use cases, but there are still a few things to discover. How to authenticate an application with a certificate? How to use key vault from an azure function? How to use keys to encrypt/decrypt?
I will write a few more blog posts about azure key vault – so stay tuned!

Additional information

Get started with Azure Key Vault: https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/azure/key-vault/key-vault-get-started
Use Azure Key Vault from a Web Application: https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/azure/key-vault/key-vault-use-from-web-application
Azure Key Vault libraries for .NET: https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/dotnet/api/overview/azure/key-vault

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