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Device authentication

Device admission requires explicit consent by the user to grant authentication to a given device (identified by a set of identity attributes) when it requests access to the Mender server.

This section describes in detail the components and workflows relevant to admission and authentication, and provides practical tips on navigating our APIs to successfully admit devices, monitor admission status, and troubleshoot related issues.

Admission & Authentication Components

The two services implementing admission and authentication are:

Although they work closely together, they have distinct responsibilities.

Device Authentication for the most part interfaces with devices, accepts their authentication requests, and issues and keeps track of authentication tokens (JSON Web Token).

Whether authentication will in fact be granted is driven by the user-facing Device Admission service. The user indicates via its API which devices should be accepted by the system, and the service syncs with Device Authentication which will in turn authenticate the device successfully.

This can happen in either of two modes, or workflows, which will be described in full in the following section:

  • preauthorization, where a user adds the device a priori, before it ever submits an authentication request
  • admit-on-request, where a device unknown to the system presents its authentication data set, and the user can inspect it and manually grant it authentication

Both admission scenarios can be automated via integration with Mender server APIs, e.g. through a 3rd party script.

Terminology: Device, Identity Attributes, Authentication Set

It is important to clear up some terminology used throughout this documentation and various APIs.

A device represents, intuitively, a particular piece of hardware. It is uniquely identified by a set of identity attributes (MAC addresses, user-defined UIDs, etc.); think of it as an extension of a unique identifier into a multi-attribute structure (see Identity).

To obtain an auth token, the device sends an authentication request containing the identity attributes and its current public key. The request is signed with the respective private key (kept secret on the device), and the server uses the public key to verify the signature.

The combination of identity attributes and public key is termed an authentication set, or 'auth set' in short. The concept was introduced when considering device key rotation - a single device may over time present different keys, and it's important to track those, and allow the user to admit or reject a particular identity/key combination.

Mender keeps tracks both of a device, as a single real-world entity, and its multiple authentication sets. In context of backend APIs, both of these concepts are resources, identified by a unique IDs assigned by the server.

It is important to note that service APIs, during their evolution, became slightly inconsistent and are not exactly true to these concepts. The issue lies with URL conventions used in Device Authentication vs Device Admission, which might be confusing; sometimes the term device is used to actually mean an authentication set. These inconsistencies will be resolved in upcoming releases of Mender, but for now need to be kept in mind.

Admission Flows

There are two possible admission flows - both involve a user's explicit consent to accept a device into the system via the Device Admission API, but they differ in the order of events and intended use cases. Below is a detailed breakdown of each of them.

Preauthorization Flow

Preauthorization is the idea of admitting a device before it ever connects to the server for the first time. This is the intuitive model analogous to creating an account before logging in to an online service.

Preauthorization can be performed before a particular device is even released - or in fact, assembled - just yet. It is enough for the user to submit a pre-assigned authentication set to Device Admission, which will in turn propagate it to Device Authentication. At some point in the future, a device with corresponding identity attributes and public key will request authentication and be granted it immediately, without further user intervention.

This flow is therefore best suited to a typical production use case, where a release of a potentially large batch of devices is planned:

  • device identity attributes/keys are pre-assigned and tracked outside of Mender
  • the preauthorization API of Device Admission is used to admit the devices a priori (possibly via a script)
  • during the release process, identities and keys are transferred to physical devices
  • upon the first authentication request, each device is authenticated and gains access to all Mender APIs

The sequence diagram below describes the API interactions between the user, Device Admission and Device Authentication within this flow:

  1. The user first submits a preauthorized auth set to Device Admission
  2. The auth set is automatically propagated to Device Authentication
  3. The user makes sure the physical device contains the corresponding identity attributes and public key
  4. The device, when activated, submits an authentication request containing the identity attributes and key
  5. Device Authentication returns a valid authentication token
Preauthorization flow
Preauthorization flow

It is important to note that the Device Authentication API used here, although exposed as a management API, is not meant to be called directly by the user at any time. It is strictly internal and will be hidden in upcoming releases of Mender.

For details of API calls please consult the API documentation:

Admit-on-request Flow

An alternate flow, suitable mostly for quick prototyping and testing, is the admit-on-request flow.

It is not required for the user to preauthorize a device - instead, when the device first submits an auth request, it will be recorded for future inspection by the user. The auth set can then be accepted via the Device Admission API whenever the user sees fit; a subsequent auth request from the device will be successful and a valid auth token will be returned.

The admit-on-request flow therefore requires the user to accept authentication sets one-by-one, as devices connect to the server. As such it is not ideal for scenarios where a large number of devices is being managed; it is recommended for smaller or non-production installations instead.

The sequence diagram below describes the API interactions between the user, Device Admission and Device Authentication within this flow:

  1. The user provides the device the device with some identity attributes and a public key
  2. The device tries to authenticate, retries in a loop according to the Mender client's configured interval
  3. The auth set is unknown to the system, so it's recorded for future user inspection via Device Admission
  4. For the time being, authentication attempt fails
  5. The user inspects pending authentication sets
  6. The user accepts the submitted auth request

    API URL uses the devices naming convention, but both APIs actually deal with authentication sets!

  7. Device Admission automatically propagates auth set status update to Device Authentication
  8. The device applies for an auth token again
  9. Device Authentication returns a valid authentication token
Admit-on-request flow
Admit-on-request flow

For details of API calls please consult the API documentation:

Authentication Token

After a device is successfully admitted, its next authentication request to Device Authentication results in obtaining an authentication token. The Mender client will record it and attach it to every API call under the HTTP Authorization header.

The token does have an expiry date (one week period), but the Mender client will obtain a fresh token automatically; the process is transparent to the user. The only prerequisite is that the device's authentication set has not been explicitly rejected in the meantime via the Device Admission API.

For details on the token format please see the relevant documentation on submitting an authentication request

Viewing devices and auth sets

Two APIs can be used to review the admission status of your devices.

The more convenient one is Device Authentication's GET /api/management/v1/devauth/devices. It is device-oriented, and returns a list of all known devices; each device structure contains a nested list of its recorded authentication sets and their statuses.

The other API is Device Admissions GET /api/management/v1/admission/devices. Contrary to what the URL convention suggests, it returns a flat list of all recorded authentication sets. This means a single device can actually have several entries in this list; each has a device_id attribute which ties it to an actual physical device (note that the id attribute identifies the authentication set itself).

This API is important when working with authentication sets - accepting or rejecting is done via the Device Admission's PUT /api/management/v1/admission/devices/{id}/status, where the id identifies the auth set obtained via the GET request.