How Secure is your Postgres? Part 2: Authentication

Dave Page July 15, 2020

How Secure is your Postgres?

This is the second of a series of blog posts that will help you examine the security of your Postgres deployment from end to end. The vast majority of the discussion will focus on features, functionality and techniques that apply equally to both PostgreSQL and EDB Postgres Advanced Server (EPAS), however it will also touch on a couple of features that are only available in EPAS. These will be clearly noted. At the time of writing, the latest version of Postgres available is 12.3.

In the first part, we looked at how the server is connected to and accessed. In this part we will look at how we manage user authentication.

 

pg_hba.conf

The pg_hba.conf file (typically found in the Postgres data directory) defines the access rules and authentication methods for the data server. Lines in the file are processed sequentially when a connection is being established, and the first line that matches the properties of the connection is used to determine the authentication method that will be used.

There are seven different possible formats for lines in the file (as well as comments which start with a #), of which there are three main variants, the rest following the same structure as one of the others, but with a different connection type in the first field. Here are some examples:

local 	my_db 	my_user 	scram-sha-256

In this example, a connection attempt from my_user to the database my_db over a local (UDS) connection using scram-sha-256 will be accepted.

host		my_db 	my_user 	172.16.253.47/32		md5

In this example, a connection attempt from my_user to the database my_db from 172.16.253.47 using md5 as the authentication method will be accepted.

Note that the address shown in the example has /32 on the end to denote that all 32 of the high order bits must be matched. To allow connections to match from anywhere on that subnet we could also write it as 172.16.0.0/16 or 172.16.0.0     255.255.0.0 (the third format variant).

The fields in each line are always the connection type, the database name(s), the user name(s), the client network address/subnet (where needed) and the authentication method and any options that may be applicable. See the documentation for more information.

As a general rule of thumb, any network connections should use either the hostssl or hostgssenc connection types to ensure that connections are encrypted.

In the following subsections we will examine a number of the most commonly used authentication methods. 

 

Trust

The trust authentication method should only be used in exceptional circumstances if at all, as it allows a matching client to connect to the server with no further authentication.

trust is useful for testing and development work on the local machine where connecting via a UDS and when only fully trusted users have access to the machine, and data security is not a concern.

It is also a useful mechanism for resetting passwords in the server if there is no other way to login; temporarily allow trust access to connections from a UDS, connect to the server and reset the password, and then disable the trust access again.

Use trust with extreme care. It can be very dangerous!
 

Peer & Ident

Peer and Ident are both methods of allowing users to be authenticated by the underlying operating system. Many Postgres packages come pre-configured to use peer authentication.

The peer authentication method is only available for local connections. When peer is used, the server gets the username of the client from the operating system and checks that it matches the requested database username.

The ident authentication method is only available for network connections. It works in a similar way to peer authentication, except that it relies on an ident server running on the client to confirm the username. 

Both peer and ident allow the use of connection maps to handle acceptable mis-matches between the username known to the client and that known to the database server.

Note that ident should not be relied upon, as the client running the ident server is unlikely to be guaranteed trustworthy.
 

md5 vs. SCRAM

For many years md5 was the preferred hashing mechanism for use with Postgres, and though still widely used it's strongly recommended that users move to the scram-sha-256 where password authentication is required.

Both md5 and scram-sha-256 use a challenge response mechanism to prevent sniffing, and store hashed passwords on the server, however, scram-sha-256 stores the hashes in what is currently considered to be a cryptographically secure form to avoid issues if an attacker gains access to the hash.

If you need to support password authentication with a standalone Postgres server, you should be using scram-sha-256 as the authentication method. Do not use md5 in new deployments!
 

LDAP vs. Kerberos

LDAP and Kerberos are often utilised in corporate environments when integrated with Single Sign On (SSO) systems. In such systems, the Postgres server is configured to authenticate the user through an LDAP directory or Kerberos infrastructure. 

In LDAP systems, there are various ways that user access can be controlled, for example by only granting access to users that are members of a specific Organizational Unit or group. When setting up your pg_hba.conf file, additional options can be specified on the end of the line, including an LDAP search filter which will only allow users that match the filter to connect to the database.

Kerberos authentication is available through the gssapi authentication method in Postgres. Setting it up can be a little more daunting than LDAP and other authentication methods, but not only is it considered secure but it also offers automatic authentication for client software that supports it. There is a related Windows-specific sspi authentication method that can be used in Windows domains.

Though LDAP authentication is very popular based on user feedback the author has received, Kerberos authentication should always be preferred as, unlike LDAP, the user's password is never sent to the Postgres server.
 

TLS Certificates

TLS (sometimes referred to as SSL) certificates can be used for authentication as well as being required for TLS encryption as discussed in part one of this blog series. Certificate authentication works by trusting a top-level certificate (or one of its children or 'intermediate' certificates) to issue certificates only to trusted clients. Clients in possession of a certificate and key issued by a higher authority that also issued the server certificate and key can be considered trusted.

In a simple example, you would first create a Certificate Authority (CA) certificate and key. This is extremely valuable and sensitive so must be kept completely securely. Then, you create a certificate and key for the Postgres server and sign it using the CA certificate and key.

Both the server certificate and key are then installed in the Postgres server, along with a copy of the CA's certificate (but not the CA's key).

Client certificates and keys can then also be created and signed by the CA as required.

When the client connects to Postgres and the cert authentication method is used, the Postgres server will check that the certificate presented by the client is trusted and that the Common Name (CN) field of the certificate matches the username for the client. Username mapping can also be done as with peer and ident.

The client can also specify a number of options when connecting to the server, including whether or not (and to what extent) to verify the trustworthiness of the server's certificate. This gives protection against spoofing.

Both the client and the server can use certificate revocation lists to keep track of any certificates that should no longer be trusted.

Certificates are an ideal way to authenticate automated systems that need to connect across the network to a Postgres server.
 

Additional Configuration

There are two additional configuration options that are worth considering:

authentication_timeout is a parameter that can be set in postgresql.conf. Its purpose is to set the maximum amount of time in which authentication must be completed before the server closes the connection. This is to ensure that incomplete connection attempts don't occupy a connection slot indefinitely.

auth_delay is a contrib module for Postgres that can be loaded through the shared_preload_libraries configuration option in postgresql.conf. Its purpose is to pause briefly when an authentication attempt fails before failure is reported to make brute force attacks much more difficult.

 

Conclusion

In this part of the blog series we looked at how we determine the user authentication mechanism used to authenticate different connection attempts, and how and why we might use some of the more popular authentication methods available in Postgres. There are a number of other authentication methods available, however these are typically less widely used and have more specialised applications.

Stay tuned for the third part of the blog series, where we will look at roles in Postgres!

 

Dave Page

Dave has been actively involved in the PostgreSQL Project since 1998, as the lead developer of pgAdmin, maintainer of the PostgreSQL installers and one of the projects resident Windows hackers. He also serves on the project's web and sysadmin teams and is a member of the PostgreSQL Core Team. Dave is employed by EnterpriseDB where he works as a software architect and developer on EnterpriseDB products in addition to his community PostgreSQL work.