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OpenShift Security: How to Protect Your Kubernetes Environment

OpenShift Security How to Protect Your Kubernetes Environment

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Kubernetes and its enterprise-level cousin, Red Hat OpenShift, have secured their spot as the platforms of choice when it comes to managing containerized applications at a large scale. However, these complex environments require maintaining top-level security. According to a recent survey, 80% of companies faced at least one cloud security incident in the past year. As OpenShift clusters grow more complex, the potential for vulnerabilities also increases, increasing the risk of exploitation. Neglecting stringent OpenShift security measures can lead to expensive data breaches, system downtime, and compliance violations.

This blog covers the key things you need to know about OpenShift security and practical steps you can take to protect your applications and data. It will help you form a solid understanding of how to make your OpenShift environment more secure, helping your business run smoothly and stay compliant with regulations.

Understanding Key OpenShift Security Components

OpenShift leverages several powerful security mechanisms to protect resources and enforce proper access control. Understanding these essential components is the foundation for establishing effective OpenShift security.

Role-Based Access Control (RBAC)

OpenShift’s RBAC system utilizes Roles and ClusterRoles to define sets of permissions. Roles are namespace-specific, while ClusterRoles apply across the entire cluster. These roles are then bound to users, groups, or service accounts through RoleBindings or ClusterRoleBindings. It is important to use specific Roles and limit permissions based on specific job functions.

Network Policies

Network Policies use labels and selectors to enforce rules regarding which pods can communicate with each other, as well as external entities. By default, all pods within a namespace can communicate freely. Network Policies allow teams to isolate components, limit attack vectors, and implement a zero-trust networking model for the cluster.

Security Context Constraints (SCCs)

SCCs enforce strict rules over aspects of pod and container execution. They can, for example, prevent containers from running as root, manage Linux capabilities, control SELinux contexts, and restrict volumes mountable within pods. Correct use of SCCs minimizes the attack surface if a container is exploited.

Image Security

Container image security is a core priority of any OpenShift security guide. Integrated and third-party scanners can actively identify known vulnerabilities (CVEs) in images. You should adopt policies to prevent images with critical vulnerabilities from being deployed. Using trusted registries, digitally signing images, and keeping your container runtimes updated further harden this critical part of your stack.

These foundational components can help you build a secure OpenShift environment. However, prioritizing the following best practices is essential for maximizing the effectiveness of these tools. Let’s dive in.

OpenShift Security Best Practices

Establishing strict security controls within your OpenShift environment is essential. The following best practices lay the groundwork for achieving enhanced security and mitigating potential risks.

Principle of Least Privilege

A cornerstone of OpenShift security, the principle of least privilege states that every user, service account, and process should possess only the absolute minimum permissions needed to function. Here’s how to enforce this principle in your environment:

RBAC Granularity

Never use broad, cluster-wide administrator roles. Carefully define Roles and ClusterRoles that align with specific responsibilities. For example, create separate roles for developers needing ‘edit’ access in their namespaces vs. operations staff who may require ‘view’ permissions across multiple namespaces.

Limited SCC Usage

Avoid assigning the default ‘privileged’ SCC unless absolutely necessary for a workload. Restricting privileged container operations helps contain the impact of potential breaches.

Service Account Separation

Isolate workloads using distinct service accounts, each bound to Roles containing relevant permissions. Avoid attaching sensitive permissions directly to user accounts, as access keys used in pods could then present a wider attack surface.

Audit and Reassess Regularly

Proactive oversight is vital. Regularly audit Roles, ClusterRoles, RoleBindings, and SCC usage to ensure they remain aligned with the principle of least privilege and the current needs of users and teams.

Note: The practical implementation of this principle often requires iterative refinement, with initial setups tending towards being too permissive. Regular reviews and analysis will help tighten up permissions.

Secure the Control Plane

The Kubernetes API server, etcd (the distributed configuration data store), and other control plane components act as the heart of OpenShift clusters. Protect them diligently using the following techniques. 

Robust Authentication and Authorization

Adopt strong identity providers (like OpenID Connect, LDAP, etc.). Set up Role-Based Access Controls to carefully define which users and workloads can interact with different API resources and perform specific actions (e.g., create pods, view secrets).

Network Restrictions

Configure firewalls to allow only necessary traffic to the API server. Enforce TLS encryption for all control plane communication and consider mutual TLS (mTLS) for advanced node identity validation.

Auditing and Logging

Record requests to the API server, as well as changes to critical Kubernetes resources. Integrate logs with a SIEM (Security Incident and Event Management) solution for real-time analysis and alert generation.

etcd Encryption

Prevent unauthorized data access by configuring encryption at rest for the etcd datastore (etcd encryption is not enabled by default in OpenShift), which holds sensitive cluster configuration and secret information. When etcd is encrypted, only the values are encrypted, not the keys. Resources types, namespaces and objects are not encrypted. Keep in mind that once the encryption is enabled, memory usage may increase.

Harden Worker Nodes

Worker nodes host the workloads themselves, making them a prime target.  Reduce risk through the following. 

Operating System Hardening

Adopt a security-focused baseline configuration for your worker node OS (using benchmarks like CIS). Disable unused services, manage user accounts strictly, update OS software and security patches promptly.

Resource Isolation

Consider namespaces and cgroups for workload separation, and use pod SecurityContexts and SCCs to limit which file paths a container can mount, the capabilities it can access, and what level of root privilege it can assume.

Minimize Attack Surface

Limit the software installed on your worker nodes to only what is absolutely required for operating your workloads. This reduces the number of potential entry points for attackers.

Secure Application Workloads

Protecting workloads inside your containers requires diligent and multi-layered approaches.

Vulnerability Scanning

Integrate image scanning tools into your deployment, enabling the capability to scan running containers for identified CVEs (Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures). Implement policy-based controls to prevent or alert on deployments of containers with unacceptable vulnerabilities.


Utilize robust logging and monitoring solutions (often included in enterprise-grade tools like Trilio) to gain visibility into container behavior, network flows, and resource utilization. Set up alerts for abnormalities like unusually high memory or CPU usage that could indicate compromise.

While these core concepts form the backbone of your security strategy, they only reach their maximum effectiveness with the use of specialized data protection solutions. Safeguarding persistent data in OpenShift is absolutely essential to ensuring complete protection, let’s look at how Trilio can help you with that.

Securing OpenShift Data with Trilio

While the mentioned OpenShift security best practices safeguard your cluster configuration and resources, OpenShift applications often rely on persistent data. This data represents an additional and highly sensitive attack surface, ranging from intellectual property to business-critical customer information. Trilio is a purpose-built backup and recovery solution specifically designed to seamlessly handle the dynamic nature of Kubernetes and Red Hat OpenShift environments. Here’s how:

  • Comprehensive Protection of Applications and Data: Trilio backs up not just persistent volumes but the entire state of your Kubernetes applications, including configuration, metadata, and associated dependencies. This ensures full restorability even across clusters.
  • Enhanced Red Hat OpenShift Security: Trilio integrates deeply with OpenShift RBAC and leverages built-in security constructs for seamless authorization and access management. It adds an additional layer that complements existing OpenShift security protocols.
  • Resilience Through Backups: Trilio provides application-level point-in-time encrypted backups with flexible scheduling and retention policies. This strengthens your defenses against ransomware attacks and other data loss scenarios. Immutable backups and the ability to store backups in isolated environments further safeguard your data in the event of a breach.
  • Granular Restore Options: Trilio allows for restoration of individual files, objects, or entire applications. This minimizes downtime and enables you to recover rapidly when security incidents occur.

The addition of Trilio to your OpenShift security toolbox greatly enhances your ability to defend against data loss, recover quickly from attacks, and safeguard the integrity of your mission-critical workloads.

Get a personalized assessment and learn how to maximize security with customized backup and recovery capabilities


Implementing and upholding proactive OpenShift security practices is a complex, ongoing effort, but it’s crucial for reliable enterprise operations. By adhering to the best practices outlined and integrating a specialized data protection solution like Trilio, you can achieve multi-layered protection for your OpenShift workloads. This strategy delivers valuable benefits: reducing your attack surface through rigorous security protocols, mitigating the risk and impact of breaches, ensuring business continuity with robust backup and recovery capabilities, and making compliance more manageable with relevant regulations.

Reach out to Trilio today for a personalized demo to learn how we can help achieve the highest levels of OpenShift security and safeguard your vital data assets.


How does OpenShift's RBAC system compare to Kubernetes' native RBAC in terms of performance and scalability?

OpenShift’s Role-Based Access Control (RBAC) system is built on top of Kubernetes’ native RBAC, providing an additional layer of sophistication and integration with enterprise environments. While Kubernetes offers a robust RBAC framework, OpenShift extends this by integrating more deeply with enterprise authentication systems such as LDAP and Active Directory, and providing a more user-friendly interface for managing roles and permissions. In terms of performance and scalability, OpenShift’s RBAC does not significantly differ from Kubernetes’ native RBAC, as both systems are designed to handle large-scale, complex environments efficiently. However, OpenShift’s additional management features and integrations may offer better scalability and ease of use in enterprise settings, where complex access control policies are common.

What specific third-party container image scanners are recommended or most compatible with OpenShift for identifying vulnerabilities?

Regarding container image scanners, OpenShift is compatible with a wide range of third-party tools, but it specifically integrates well with tools like Clair, Anchore Engine, and Quay by Red Hat. These scanners are known for their effective vulnerability detection capabilities within container images. Clair and Anchore Engine, for example, are open-source projects that can be integrated into the CI/CD pipeline to scan images for known vulnerabilities automatically. Quay, a container registry by Red Hat, includes built-in scanning capabilities using Clair, providing a seamless security experience for OpenShift users. These tools are recommended for their comprehensive vulnerability databases, integration capabilities, and support for automating the scanning process within OpenShift’s environment.

What are the performance implications of enabling etcd encryption in OpenShift, and how can they be mitigated?

Enabling encryption for etcd, the distributed key-value store for Kubernetes, can have performance implications, primarily due to the overhead associated with encrypting and decrypting data on the fly. This overhead might manifest as increased latency or higher CPU usage, which can impact the overall performance of the OpenShift cluster. To mitigate these effects, it is essential to ensure that the cluster’s hardware is capable of handling the additional load. Additionally, optimizing the configuration of etcd encryption, such as choosing efficient encryption algorithms and properly managing encryption keys, can help minimize the performance impact. Regular monitoring and performance tuning of the etcd cluster are also advisable to ensure optimal performance.

How does OpenShift ensure the security of the control plane in a multi-tenant environment?

In a multi-tenant OpenShift environment, security of the control plane is ensured through a combination of RBAC, Network Policies, Security Context Constraints (SCCs), and namespace isolation. RBAC prevents unauthorized access to Kubernetes resources, allowing administrators to define precisely what actions each user, service account, or group can perform. Network Policies restrict the flow of traffic between pods and namespaces, helping to isolate tenants’ workloads from each other. SCCs provide a powerful mechanism to control the actions that pods can perform, such as preventing pods from running as root, which is crucial in a multi-tenant setup. Additionally, OpenShift employs namespace isolation to ensure that tenants’ resources are segregated and cannot be accessed by users from other tenants, unless explicitly allowed. Together, these mechanisms form a comprehensive security model that protects the control plane and tenant resources in a multi-tenant OpenShift environment.