KISS Secrets

Following the strategy of Simplest, But No Simpler, I strive to start off with a secrets management solution that scales well without having any unnecessary overhead.

A few properties here help with that:

  • A solution that has a lot of preexisting integration with other services helps a lot
  • Likewise, try to find one that doesn’t require the application or program to change its code when upgrading/modifying said solution

So, here’s my strategy so far, based on the concept that environment variables have a ton of integration with every CI, code-hosting, dev environment, etc., platform out there.

The most important thing for me, when implementing a secrets management strategy, is developer ergonomics. I will sacrifice a very large amount of security to make sure that the final solution is ergonomic enough to actually be used (correctly); given that the alternative is often worse than plain-text open secrets (being plain-text + false confidence that their “secrets” are “secure”), it’s a compromise I find good enough for now.

What that usually ends up looking like:

  • Have an example.envrc file that gives an example of secrets, and a .envrc file that’s gitignored.
  • In CI, inject variables using gitlab or github’s mechanism for doing so. Use those to build the final application or product (if necessary) which is then deployed in a virtualized context (usually in containers) with the absolute minimum set of said secrets baked in.

The first upgrades I try to go for are: env variables -> secret files, encryption of secrets at rest (the .envrc file), and finally some secret management tool if I can. I’ve only ever worked on one project that had enough motivation to progress to the point of using a secret management tool. RBAC, secret-zero, secret rotation, auditing, and dynamic secrets have all been far too advanced and cost-ineffective.

It’s always been cheaper to be hacked and compromised than spend the developer hours required to implement something more advanced than an encrypted env file.