Getting Started

Secrets Engines

Previously, we saw how to read and write arbitrary secrets to Vault. You may have noticed all requests started with secret/. Try the following command which will result an error:

$ vault write foo/bar a=b

Error writing data to foo/bar: Error making API request.

Code: 404. Errors:

* no handler for route 'foo/bar'

Similarly, vault kv put foo/bar a=b will return an error.

The path prefix tells Vault which secrets engine to which it should route traffic. When a request comes to Vault, it matches the initial path part using a longest prefix match and then passes the request to the corresponding secrets engine enabled at that path.

By default, Vault enables a secrets engine called kv at the path secret/. The kv secrets engine reads and writes raw data to the backend storage.

Vault supports many other secrets engines besides kv, and this feature makes Vault flexible and unique. For example, the aws secrets engine generates AWS IAM access keys on demand. The database secrets engine generates on-demand, time-limited database credentials. These are just a few examples of the many available secrets engines.

For simplicity and familiarity, Vault presents these secrets engines similar to a filesystem. A secrets engine is enabled at a path. Vault itself performs prefix routing on incoming requests and routes the request to the correct secrets engine based on the path at which they were enabled.

This page discusses secrets engines and the operations they support. This information is important to both operators who will configure Vault and users who will interact with Vault.

Enable a Secrets Engine

To get started, enable another instance of the kv secrets engine at a different path. Just like a filesystem, Vault can enable a secrets engine at many different paths. Each path is completely isolated and cannot talk to other paths. For example, a kv secrets engine enabled at foo has no ability to communicate with a kv secrets engine enabled at bar.

$ vault secrets enable -path=kv kv

Success! Enabled the kv secrets engine at: kv/

The path where the secrets engine is enabled defaults to the name of the secrets engine. Thus, the following commands are actually equivalent:

$ vault secrets enable -path=kv kv

$ vault secrets enable kv

To verify our success and get more information about the secrets engine, use the vault secrets list command:

$ vault secrets list

Path          Type         Accessor              Description
----          ----         --------              -----------
cubbyhole/    cubbyhole    cubbyhole_78189996    per-token private secret storage
identity/     identity     identity_ac07951e     identity store
kv/           kv           kv_15087625           n/a
secret/       kv           kv_4b990c45           key/value secret storage
sys/          system       system_adff0898       system endpoints used for control, policy and debugging

This shows there are 5 enabled secrets engines on this Vault server. You can see the type of the secrets engine, the corresponding path, and an optional description (or "n/a" if none was given).

Take a few moments to read and write some data to the new kv secrets engine enabled at kv/. Here are a few ideas to get started:

$ vault write kv/my-secret value="s3c(eT"

$ vault write kv/hello target=world

$ vault write kv/airplane type=boeing class=787

$ vault list kv

Disable a Secrets Engine

When a secrets engine is no longer needed, it can be disabled. When a secrets engine is disabled, all secrets are revoked and the corresponding Vault data and configuration is removed. Any requests to route data to the original path would result in an error, but another secrets engine could now be enabled at that path.

If, for some reason, Vault is unable to delete the data or revoke the leases, the disabling operation will fail. If this happens, the secrets engine will remain enabled and available, but the request will return an error.

$ vault secrets disable kv/

Success! Disabled the secrets engine (if it existed) at: kv/

Note that this command takes a PATH to the secrets engine as an argument, not the TYPE of the secrets engine.

In addition to disabling a secrets engine, it is also possible to "move" a secrets engine to a new path. This is still a disruptive command. All configuration data is retained, but any secrets are revoked, since secrets are closely tied to their engine's paths.

What is a Secrets Engine?

Now that you've successfully enabled and disabled a secrets engine... what is it? What is the point of a secrets engine?

As mentioned above, Vault behaves similarly to a virtual filesystem. The read/write/delete/list operations are forwarded to the corresponding secrets engine, and the secrets engine decides how to react to those operations.

This abstraction is incredibly powerful. It enables Vault to interface directly with physical systems, databases, HSMs, etc. But in addition to these physical systems, Vault can interact with more unique environments like AWS IAM, dynamic SQL user creation, etc. all while using the same read/write interface.


You now know about secrets engines and how to operate on them. This is important knowledge to move forward and learn about other secrets engines.